Sometimes you come across a book completely by chance and for the flimsiest of reasons you decide to give it a go. I had spotted the book before and there was something about it that caught my interest, but I had done nothing about it.The deliberately archaic style of title and the cover design combined to give the book an air of left field interest. Then when the sequel was being heavily pushed I made a snap decision to catch up with the first one and ordered it from the library.
Reader, I married him. After the first chapter, I realised I was dealing with something very good. After 30 pages, just looking at the book gave me a frisson of excitement. After 50 pages, I wanted to have Mr Stroud’s babies. If you know what I mean. The cover carries a quote from Rick Riordan, proclaiming “Jonathan Stroud is a genius”. When I picked it up I dismissed this as publishing froth. By the end, I was of the opinion that Mr Riordan was underselling Stroud a little.
So what was so wonderful about it? First of all, it’s a rollicking read. An exciting adventure, Stroud expertly handles the twists and turns of an adventure narrative. He is a master of the end of chapter cliffhanger, whether it be an entirely unexpected development, or a smooth transition to the next phase of the story, he generates a story with fantastic forward propulsion.
The setting helps immeasurably with this. The story takes place in a future England, many years after some cataclysmic, climate disaster that has plunged England into a mediaeval Mad Max type scenario. Much of the country is under the rising sea, where the higher grounds are controlled by regional warlords and groupings of the church and agricultural producers and trades people. There are uneasy truces between the different regions, each of which has their own set of rules for controlling their people and demonising anyone who is a little different. Throw into the mix some wraith like creatures, The Tainted, and a whole menagerie of strange, dangerous animals.
This catapulting of society backwards gives Stroud the opportunity to show off his lyrical gifts. The descriptions of the various rural settings the two protagonists pass through is absolutely beautiful and compelling, and, even better, completely fitting and essential for the plot. In this way, the flowery descriptions are not a literary indulgence, but integral to Stroud’s realisation of this new world.
But the real joy here are the characters Stroud has created. The heroine, Scarlett McCaine, is one of the finest, feistiest female characters since Dido Tweete in the incomparable Joan Aikens Wolves books. Funny dialogue, intriguing hints at her back story and exciting exploits undertaken with real physical bravery all five the story forward. The reader is also motivated by the wonderful relationship that emerges between her and the waif she discovers early in the book, Albert Browne, whose opening sections of dialogue are joyfully, and unexpectedly literary and verbose.
At the beginning of course, Scarlett, a determinedly free spirit loner, cannot wait to get rid of him, as she journeys through a dangerous and inhospitable country, trying to escape her pursuers. But it’s clear that this will be the story of the two characters, McCaine and Browne growing closer to each other as their mutual respect and affection slowly and grudgingly grows. Again this is something that Stroud handles with great skill and subtlety. You know it’s going to happen, and as it does, you know it’s happening, but you can never see the joins.
The other marvellous character is Doctor Calloway who is relentlessly pursuing Albert after his escape from her Hospital/Laboratory/ Prison. There are shades of Philip Pullman here, as Calloway echoes the evil Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials. It’s a tribute to Stroud that this comparison strengthens each character, rather than diminishing them.
By the end, we are set up for more adventures in this new future England. For which promise I say, Please Sir, can I have some more? I have a feeling that this is a series that could run and run. And now, I’m going to check out the other books Stroud has written. This one could, of course, be a one off. But, really, it’s so good that somehow I doubt it.