Monday, May 16, 2011

The Ruby in the Smoke, by Philip Pullman


Very Holmesian--Sherlock, not Oliver Wendell. The setting, the unknown numbered things that cause death to the hearers (in Holmes it was five orange pips; here's it's seven blessings), the time period, the Indian connections, the opium dens, the sailors, the confusion of identity . . . all very reminiscent of Holmes. Which is by no means a bad thing. I love reading Sherlock Holmes.

I think I was expecting more of a fantasy novel (based on Pullman's other writings, specifically His Dark Materials), so I was a little surprised by the lack of talking armored polar bears, and kept expecting magical things to happen. Still, as a mystery, it's quite good. Sally presents a very interesting and unconventional role model for young women (which is consistent with Pullman's anti-traditional stance as expressed in his well-known trilogy). She is of course pretty (Pullman's not that unconventional), but she has no real domestic skills, is ill-at-ease with children, and has a knack for financial affairs, accounting, and managing her stock portfolio. She is also an excellent shot and carries a pistol with her everywhere she goes. Yet this is no hardened heroine of 29 (though we sense she may be one in the not-too-distant future), but a sharp young woman of 16.

Sally possesses the common YA fiction ability to immediately and accurately identify new acquaintances as friends or foes--Frederick Garland and Jim Taylor being the two most obvious examples of this. Her complete and immediate trust in them grates against the otherwise suspicious trust-no-one attitude encouraged in the book (and it transpires that her father's reliance on his own similar ability was perhaps unwise).

All in all, an enjoyable book, and I look forward to reading further, though we'll see if Pullman's personal views and agenda start to interfere with the story (as in His Dark Materials).

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