Review: The Ruby in the Smoke, Philip Pullman [Spoilers]

January 31, 2014 1:33 pm

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke Book Review 

A brief synopsis:

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Sally Lockhart is a sixteen-year-old girl who unwittingly finds herself embroiled in a world of mystery and intrigue. Following the death of her father, who drowned at sea, she receives a cryptic note from an anonymous sender urging her to find out about ‘The Seven Blessings’. She soon finds that The Seven Blessings is more dangerous and sinister than it sounds and she leaves her horrid old aunt in order to start her search for a mysterious Mr Marchbanks. Homeless and penniless in Victorian London, it at first seems unlikely that this puzzle will ever be solved, but her story soon intertwines with the evil old woman Mrs Holland; who seems determined to have Sally dead, the drug addict Mr Bedwell; who seems intent on relaying a story, and Frederick; the photographer who is willing to help Sally whatever it takes. She gradually discovers that everything she ever knew about herself and her own background might not be as it seems. In order to save her own life and those of the friends she makes throughout the story, she has to be one step ahead and willing to do what is necessary for her own survival.

Despite the fact that this novel is aimed at young to mid teenagers, it is a great read for young and old alike (I certainly enjoyed it at the grand old age of 22). It is full of likeable and interesting characters, which made me feel emotionally and personally invested in them enough to keep turning the pages to make sure the good characters were okay and the bad characters got their deserved comeuppance. However, predictable; the book is not. Some good characters do come to a sticky end, and violence, betrayal, and murder are par for the course. Though, this only heightens the reader’s sense of panic and is what makes the book one you cannot put down.

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A fair description of this novel would be that it is slightly ‘Dickens-esque’, owing to its 19th century Victorian London setting and its focus on the conditions of the orphan residents. The story is thick with that ‘old-time’ factor and has you almost feeling the smoky, smoggy environment with which the characters have to contend.

Unlike Dickens, however, the novel is fast-paced and full of action. One gets the sense that Pullman divulges no information or description that is not directly relevant. His writing style is fantastic, and his character development is effective in keeping us engaged with all the main characters. The one thing that prevents the book from emerging from its 2-dimensional feel is that all characters do fall into the stereotypical trap of looks mirroring personalities; for example, the evil old woman is outrageously ugly and repulsive, whilst good protagonist Sally is described as ‘uncommonly pretty’. However, considering the target audience, and the fact that this book is a light yet thrilling read, that is probably a deliberate technique of Pullman’s, and actually, it does work.

If you wanted to investigate the story further, I highly recommend the 2006 television adaptation. Not only was it enacted exactly how I had imagined whilst reading, but it is also excellently cast.

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