Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud)

I have a weak spot in my heart for children's fantasy, I really do. I can barely tolerate the adult counterpart (it often takes itself too seriously, gets caught up in having weird character/place names and invented languages while characters go on big, annoying quests to do...whatever it is they must do), but something about the playfulness of children's fantasy draws me back again and again.

One series in particular that I loved at an age where it was appropriate (I mean I was in the age group it was written for) was the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. Those books captured my attention in a way that few series did--that is, I still remember them now as fondly as I enjoyed them then, which is not the case with a good many fantasy series I read back then. So when I saw the release of a new series by the same author, I jumped at the chance. Why wouldn't I?

The premise behind The Screaming Staircase is an alternate-history England in which ghosts are real and are a very serious problem. If a ghost touches you, you swell up, turn blue and die. And they're everywhere. Of course, a ghost-hunting industry pops up to combat the problem. The catch, however, is that children are far more sensitive to spirits than adults--they can see (and sometimes hear) ghosts, while adults can only occasionally sense their presence in the case of a manifestation.

So businesses appear all over England comprised of teenagers who can hunt ghosts, but they're generally controlled by adults. Except Lockwood & Co., a group of three who run themselves. These are our heroes: Anthony Lockwood, Lucy Carlyle (our lovely narrator) and George Cubbins. The story begins with their investigation of a haunting reported by a recently-widowed woman by a spirit she suspects is her husband. The problem turns out to be more complicated and leads to a burnt-down house and a larger mystery of a socialite from 50 years previously who disappeared mysteriously.

But this mystery must be put aside because Lockwood & Co. is being sued by the widow for destruction of property. Strapped for cash, the trio agrees to a job under one the iron baron of England (iron being a substance that weakens and stops ghosts) to investigate his newly-acquired mansion, allegedly one of the most haunted buildings around.

The teen protagonists are actually really well-written. This is one of my biggest problems with today's YA--authors don't know how to write their teens, or (even worse) create characters that allow them to play out their fantasies that they never fulfilled. Stroud has never had this problem, and his excellent characterization skills are readily apparent in this book.

The ghost narrative is really enjoyable, too. I read another British ghost-dystopia novel this year which I really didn't like, so I was hesitant, but this book is everything that The Bone Season wasn't. Sure, there are plenty of new terms, but it's not overwhelming or confusing. We are well-integrated into this alternate world, thank goodness. I get upset when I see reviews that laud a novel for being fast-paced or action-packed because that's not necessarily a good thing; Stroud's latest is both of those things, but in the good way. I was never struggling to catch my (metaphorical) breath

I can't think of a single bad thing to say about this book. The Screaming Staircase is one of the most fun books I've read all year. It is the sort of fantasy that doesn't get too caught up in itself. It's a great beginning of a series I will be following (out of pleasure, not obligation, for once). Seriously. Jonathan Stroud rocks.

My rating: 5/5
The Screaming Staircase on Goodreads
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