One of the wittiest authors in the business and an expert plot-deviser, Jonathan Stroud’s stories have given huge pleasure to thousands for well over twenty years. But this second instalment of his latest trilogy is a disappointment. In place of humour there is a relentless concentration on danger, death and yet more danger. Only once is the doctrine of killing as the only response to evil questioned, and that very hurriedly and to no lasting effect. Describing towns suddenly razed to the ground with their uniformly unpleasant occupants dying in their hundreds would seem more at home in a violent video game than in the pages of an otherwise brilliant writer published by one of Britain’s leading houses.
As before, earnest young Albert Browne and his fiery teenage companion Scarlett McCain find themselves adrift in a decayed, post- industrial Britain. This is ruled over by ruthless Mentors ruling from a chain of Pullmanesque Faith Houses. Regularly looting their hidden wealth, the two children use the proceeds to help finance a weak national opposition. But their exploits put them into a series of almost impossible situations only escaped from at the last moment. Before that they must suffer blows, dismal imprisonment and occasional torture.
Albert remains stoical through all this, with Scarlett ever-sarcastic at his general unworldliness. But the humour here is muted, with both children also haunted by something truly terrible that had happened to them in the past. Stroud as always writes well, occasionally dropping odd unfamiliar words like ‘tektile’, ‘caldera,’ ‘glyphs’ and ‘karst’ to keep readers on their toes. Teeing-up the final instalment still to come in the last few pages, it seems as if it is going to be all very much as before. How nice if he could then return to something altogether lighter and less gruelling.