Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Whispering Skull (Jonathan Stroud)

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review!

One of the things I truly, genuinely loathe in this world is "scary stuff." Movies about hauntings, demonic possessions, and the like have always really bothered me, partly because I know these things aren't real, that they don't actually happen, but despite that, I still get freaked out. I avoid the movies as best I can, spent high school avoiding Halloween parties because of everyone's desire to watch them. The year Paranormal Activity came out, I had trouble sleeping for three days after I overheard someone summarizing the movie. I still haven't seen it, but hearing about it was enough to leave me frightened.

So leave it to Jonathan Stroud to dish out exactly this thing I hate so much and make it--not just once, but twice--an engaging, carefully-constructed book that blew me away. Last year's The Screaming Staircase was one of the best books I read in 2013, and the word I used to characterize and define the book was "fun." I had no doubt that Stroud was going to be able to easily and masterfully sink back into this world for a second volume, and my lack of uncertainty was well-founded. It's a winner!

In the Lockwood & Co. books, we are living in a parallel world, one in which ghosts and hauntings are very much real, regular issues that people deal with. Adults aren't particularly sensitive to the phenomena--that is, they can't see or hear the ghosts--but they can be killed by them; only young people have a sixth sense for spectres and phantoms, and as a consequence, greedy adults have capitalized on their talents and formed agencies of youth who work diligently every night to eradicate ghosts. But our protagonist, Lucy Carlyle, doesn't belong to one of these groups; she is a member of the three-person company run by Anthony Lockwood (the other member is George Cubbins).

Six months after their adventures as detailed in book one, the company is called on to be present for an exhumation of the tomb of Edmund Bickerstaff, a doctor from a long time ago who developed a reputation for trying to communicate with the dead. A mysterious mirror that he was buried with--one that ensnares anyone who looks at it, and with dire consequences--disappears not long after they exhume him, so naturally, Lockwood & Co. are on the case hoping, to increase their notoriety.

The good news is, The Whispering Skull without a doubt delivers on all the promise its predecessor carried. Our three main characters are as well-written as ever, and scenes featuring all three of them play like some of the very best sitcoms out there. Stroud makes a fun, lifelike dynamic between the three and unflaggingly maintains it for the entirety of the novel.

The concept of the ghostly alternate reality doesn't wear thin, either. That, for me, is always a concern with books that feature different worlds--will the authors drive details about it into our skulls? Will they not explain enough and leave us unsatisfied and confused? Will it take a backseat to developments of the plot? All of these questions, thank goodness, are answered with a wholehearted "no."

One thing I enjoyed so much about this second volume is the constant interweaving of backstory into the narrative. Lucy fleshes out the history of the Problem on several occasions, including a really great scene at a fancy party--think an Academy Awards after-party for people in the ghost world. It really exemplifies Stroud's command, because it teaches us more about the world in which we find ourselves and simultaneously is a very tense, suspenseful scene.

And there's more good news! This book manages to usurp The Screaming Staircase in terms of frightfulness. While there are plenty of creepy scenes in book one, the sequel actually made me feel uneasy (and maybe a little scared) at times--I'll admit that I glanced over my shoulder more than once, so enraptured in the scene that small noises had me nervous. There is a very sinister air to the book, especially the second half, and I'm stunned by how marvelously evocative Stroud can be.

It's also a stellar example of how potent YA/middle-grade fiction can be (as a big fan of middle-grade, I'm frequently disappointed to hear detractors doubting its legitimacy) because the book asks its readers to consider some truly twisted, dark things, like human sacrifice (no spoilers). I've read my fair share of adult literature that is really nothing more than fluff, but this book doesn't hesitate to expose how truly awful people can be, how driven by greed and fright people can be to do terrible things.

If "fun" was the word for the first book in the Lockwood & Co. series, "evocative" or perhaps "masterful" is the word for the second. It's chock-full of everything you loved about Staircase, and almost always manages to exceed the (high) bar set previously. If you're a fan, waste no time in getting the book. If you haven't read a Stroud book yet...how dare you!

My rating: 5/5
The Whispering Skull on Goodreads
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