I’ve spoken before in my blog about being hooked by certain series, and one of those over the past few years which I’ve looked forward to sufficiently for me to pre-order titles from is the Lockwood & Co one from Jonathan Stroud. Although I have only just started to read his four stories featuring the exploits of djinni Bartimaeus, it is the Lockwood books that I have really taken to my heart, so when the opportunity to read this – the first in a new series – came up on Net Galley I was curious to see what it would be like and immediately requested it.
Unusually for me, this is not a middle grade title but one aimed at a slightly older, YA (young adult), audience but I am occasionally asked by parents of the children in my class for recommendations for older siblings so with that as another excellent reason to read this, set about doing so with absolutely no idea whatsoever regarding the storyline – something that I very rarely do. In this case, the gamble has paid off enormously because this is an exciting and masterfully imaginative adventure set in an world familiar enough to us to be able to recognise it but strange enough for us to not to be able to second-guess anything that happens along the way.
Very few protagonists wake up next to the corpses of four men that they have killed, and yet that is exactly how we are introduced to Scarlett McCain, who has had to defend herself from their unwanted attentions. After packing away her camp, and filling her water bottles, she heads towards the town of Cheltenham, where she pays a visit to the bank which its manager will most definitively never forget. Following this, she swiftly leaves the town and heads out into the Wilds.
Aware that she is being pursued, Scarlett heads for the woods in an attempt to shake off the men following her and heads for the town of Stow, hoping to reach its safe-lands by the following afternoon. Skilfully avoiding both wolves and other dangers, Scarlett is taken by surprise when she comes across a bus which has crashed after leaving the road. Cautiously going to investigate, Scarlett cannot fail to notice the dried blood on the ground beside it and apparent absence of any survivors indicating that the accident has not only just taken place.
Entering the bus through a large hole in its side, Scarlett looks around for anything which would be of use to her before noticing that the onboard toilet appears to be occupied. Calling out to whomever might be in there, and offering her assistance to them, Scarlett is taken aback when a boy who appears to be a little younger than herself tumbles out and talks at her in a fairly incoherent fashion, leaving her uncertain as to what to do next.
After wrestling with her conscience, Scarlett decides not to abandon the boy immediately but to help him up to the road, where she tells herself someone will be along eventually to assist him. Helping him out through the hole in the bus’s side, she cannot help but notice that the boy’s behaviour continues to be rather odd as he comments on how beautiful their surroundings are and thanks her profusely for saving him. Shortly after leaving the bus, the boy introduces himself as Albert Browne before Scarlett tells him she is leaving him to fend for himself.
Albert is not prepared to be separated from his saviour and does his best to talk her round, not wanting to be left to the mercies of the dangerous creatures that live outside the towns scattered across the country. A somewhat irritated Scarlett begrudgingly tells him that he may tag along under certain conditions and the pair of them set off together. As they head for Stow, it soon becomes clear that they are being followed and they need to shake off those who are tracking them. With Scarlett now responsible for keeping not only herself alive and well, but Albert too, will the pair of them manage to make it there in one piece and just what will they find waiting for them if they reach their destination?
Emblazoned across the top of the front cover is a quote from author Rick Riordan proclaiming Jonathan Stroud to be a genius, and far be it from me to disagree with that statement. As he did with the settings for both Lockwood and Bartimaeus, the author has created a world in which we believe ourselves to be familiar with the geography and history – in this case the southern half of England – which lulls us into a false sense of security when the story kicks off, enabling us to focus our attentions on the characters of Scarlett and Albert. Once that feeling of security starts to unravel, it becomes clear that this different vision of England is a far more sinister one than the one with which we are familiar. By including the dual threats of other humans and the terrifying creatures which live outside the settlements, the balance of power between Scarlett and Albert and those who would harm them shifts throughout the story to create a narrative which keeps the reader on the edge of their seat right until the ending.
Both Scarlett and Albert are complex characters. She is someone who has lived on the wrong side of the law for some time and who has no qualms about taking lives when she feels she needs to, and yet she also clearly lives by her own moral code and will punish herself if she fails to meet the standards of behaviour she demands of herself. In Albert she finds an individual that time and time again, she protects and tolerates when he seems to offer very little in return and yet after finishing the book, I cannot imagine one without the other. After Scarlett finds him locked in the toilet cubicle, it is clear that Albert’s life experiences have been totally different from hers and while she is worldly-wise, he appears to be far more innocent in his responses to the events that unfold around them. As he starts to share in her life of crime and shady dealings, he soon has to try to adapt to her way of doing things and yet it is Scarlett who has to make the biggest changes.
I’m so glad that this is the first in a new series and I cannot wait to find out what happens next to Scarlett and Browne. For anyone concerned that this might not work as a stand-alone book, the ending is neat enough to please the most demanding of readers, but whets the appetited for more adventures to come.
Enormous thanks to both Net Galley and to Walker Books for allowing me to read this in advance of publication on 1st April 2021. A perfect 5 out of 5 stars.