Jonathan Stroud is an outstanding comic-adventure writer, deploying a marvellous wit along with a capacity for tight plotting and memorable, affectionate characterisations. Any new novel has always been something to look forward to. But this present title sees him entering into new territory. Gone are the comic footnotes and most of the jokes. Instead we now find ourselves in a dystopian future Britain in the company of two very divergent characters. 13-year-old Scarlett McCain is a lone thief and murderer. Where once sympathetic if violent fictional characters catering for a younger readership would normally tie up or knock unconscious any serious opposition that came along their way, Scarlett when faced by danger kills and kills and kills. Albert Browne meanwhile, the companion initially forced upon her, is an unworldly innocent of the same age whose unfailingly courteous mode of speech whatever the situation is reminiscent of Paddington Bear. He also possesses terrible powers which normally are only just under control. Escaping from his previous cruel captivity, he and Scarlett team up before surviving numerous attempts on their lives from those many out to get them.
All this is conveyed with Stroud’s normal pace and skill. But the incessant violence and last minute escapes eventually become repetitive, and the various ghouls the couple try to escape from are already more or less familiar from the pages of Philip Pullman and J.K Rowling. Scarlett herself has a good line in pointed put-downs, and the couple’s boat journey up the Thames ending in the ruins of a post-nuclear London has memorable if sometimes sickening moments. There is only a partial final resolution, with the door left wide open for a planned series. This could do well but it would still be so nice if Stroud eventually returns to the quirky, exciting and frequently hilarious stories he has always come up with so successfully in the past.