Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Ruby in the Smoke'

One more book/movie review!

The Book: The Ruby in the Smoke (The Sally Lockhart Mysteries, Book 1)

The Author: Philip Pullman

How I Found It: Pullman was a favorite of mine when I was younger; I was enthralled by the His Dark Materials trilogy but never got around to these. Once I saw that the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation starred Billie Piper (after her run on Doctor Who), Matt Smith (pre-Doctor Who), JJ Feild (Northanger Abbey), and Julie Walters (Harry Potter's Mrs. Weasley), I just had to sign up!

The Review: In Victorian England, Sally Lockhart has been drawn into circumstances beyond her control. She has received a note telling her to "beware the Seven Blessings," and goes to her late father's office to ask a coworker what he might know about them. He drops dead of fear as soon as she utters the words.

Sally is no ordinary sixteen-year-old girl. Raised solely by her unconventional father, she possesses a great head for figures and the stock market, has a working knowledge of Hindustani, and is a crack shot with a pistol. She's great under pressure, and the perfect person to unravel the mystery of her father's death, the Seven Blessings, and the mythical Ruby of Agrapur, which is supposedly being left to her. That is, it would be left to her if someone else didn't have her eyes on it--the diabolical Mrs. Holland and her murderous henchmen will stop at nothing to get the ruby, and the welfare of Sally and her close friends is being threatened. It's up to a penny dreadful-reading porter named Jim, a photographer named Frederick, his sister Rosa, their worker Trembler, and a young girl named Adelaide to band together and help Sally find the ruby and thwart Mrs. Holland.

As I read this, I could remember exactly why I'd loved Philip Pullman's books back in middle school. Wow, can this guy write heroines. I loved Lyra so much, and now I've come to love Sally just the same. I might not be great at math like she is, but there's so much to admire in her courage and self-reliance that I was taken with her from the first page. From what I've read, Pullman wrote these to try and give potboiler stories modern sensibilities, and it worked perfectly, in my eyes. Sally is a modern woman, and Frederick's clan, the bohemian Garland family, treat everyone with equality. It was marvelous to read about these thoroughly modern characters in such an enchanting time period. I never felt like the characters were too out of step with the times, and the period details were delightful. (I especially loved Jim and his inside-and-out knowledge of penny dreadfuls.)

And the villain! Oh, Mrs. Holland was dastardly and menacing, and while it was a bit of a caricature, it was also extraordinarily effective. She's a complete monster who has absolutely no scruples about harming little Adelaide! It was pretty chilling to read about this woman who has absolutely no morals. Most villains have at least one or two spots of good, but Mrs. Holland didn't, even when it came to children. It reminds me of that bit in The Incredibles when Helen tells Violet and Dash that real villains aren't like the ones on TV, that they wouldn't hesitate to kill children. Mrs. Holland certainly wouldn't, and that was darned scary.

Characterizations aside, the pacing was excellent; I tore through most of this one in a day. There's two mysteries going on here, but they do tie together in the end and it's fairly easy to keep track of which clues are for which, although the cast of characters gets a bit massive. I managed through judicious flipping back, although I could see where less patient readers or readers who dislike large casts of characters could get bogged down. This is far shorter than a Dickens novel, but has about as large a cast of characters.

Normally I would find the potboiler style overwrought and silly, but Pullman must know his stuff, because it kept me turning the pages to see how it all tied together. The man reading the newspaper, Mrs. Holland, the sailor seeking lodgings at Mrs. Holland's place--in one of the opening chapters, we're shown these three characters, told that they fit into the web of mystery Sally has shaken, and what choice do we have but to read on and figure out how they all fit together? The movie adaptation was clever in this regard by interspersing bits of narration from Jim, since he's the enthusiastic penny dreadful reader.

I so loved the movie adaptation, and I'm diving headlong into The Shadow of the North and watching that as well just as soon as I'm done. I was curious to see Billie Piper in a period piece besides Mansfield Park (which wasn't quite the best representation of the book, though it tried to do as much as it could in ninety minutes). I think she was well-matched to her character here. I particularly liked how she handled the scene in the beginning when Mr. Higgs drops dead in front of her--she nails Sally's attitude from the book perfectly. Pullman describes her as being able to cry on command in order to make others think she's weak, the typical simpering woman, while she is steady and in control all the while. Piper got that perfectly, as she went from sobbing into a handkerchief to being dry-eyed and level-headed as soon as she left the room.

JJ Feild, Matt Smith, and Julie Walters were all wonderful to watch. I always loved JJ Feild's Mr. Tilney, and he brings the same kind of knowledge and guidance of the heroine to this role. I really enjoyed Sally and Frederick's interactions on the page, and while they're cut down here (not enough time), Piper and Feild were sweet together and I'd really like to see more of that in Shadow. Matt Smith is just a sweetheart no matter what he's in, and I adored him here as Jim. Reading the book, I thought it seemed perfectly suited to him, and I was pleased to see I was right. One of the things I most loved about the book was how fiercely Jim protected Adelaide, and that was really on display in the last quarter of the movie, as Jim tries to get her to safety. Julie Walters really surprised me--I'm used to her as the kindly Mrs. Weasley, but she couldn't have been more different here! She's just as evil and abusive as the novel's Mrs. Holland, and the makeup department did an outstanding job; she looked almost completely different than usual!

I really recommend this book and the movie to fans of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, as Sally is just as endearing a heroine as Lyra. To others, fans of Victorian-style literature or potboiler-esque mysteries will love this one. One small warning, the book contains several instances of salty language, mainly from Mrs. Holland and Jim, and opium and its usage figures heavily into the plot, something some parents seemed to object to, so I wouldn't recommend this one to anyone below 14 or so. This is a perfect read for young girls who need a heroine to look up to!

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