The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
Digital Audiobook narrated by Anton Lesser
Published by Ember on September 9, 2008
Genres: Historical, Mystery, Young Adult
Length: 256 pages or 6 hours, 25 minutes
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“BEWARE THE SEVEN blessings . . . ” When she first utters these words, 16-year-old Sally Lockhart doesn’t know their meaning. But when an employee of her late father hears them, he dies of fear. Thus begins Sally’s terrifying journey into the seamy underworld of Victorian London, in search of clues to her father’s mysterious death.
The Ruby in the Smoke called out to me not because of any merit of its own, but because it was written by Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials. Usually, when I enjoy an author’s work as much as I enjoyed The Golden Compass, it only makes sense to try some of his other series, yeah?
I have some mixed feelings about The Ruby in the Smoke.
On the one hand, I really liked the characters as a general rule. Each had his or her own quirks. They were a little bit stereotyped to what would have been common to their class, but they were individual enough that they stood out to me more than characters in similar situations in other novels, like Dodger or The Reluctant Assassin. I liked Sally, Rosa, and Fred in particular… but honestly Jim, Trembler, and Adelaide also had their merits. Each character was strongly written enough that I cared about what happened to them.
Within the character arc, I want to talk a little about the villain, Mrs. Holland. Mrs. Holland is a picture perfect Disney villain. She’s single-minded and old and crotchety and selfish and arrogant and dangerous. Think of a personality mix somewhere between Maleficent, Cruella, and Ursula… and you’ve got Mrs. Holland. She’s perfectly done.
I really liked the romance too, which is something I don’t often say. I like it for the same reason I like it in Pullman’s other novels… there’s a slow, sweet build to it. Romance tends to take over stories and doesn’t seem to develop naturally… that drives me crazy, and it’s not true of The Ruby in the Smoke. Sally falls in love slowly, and in such a way you know it’s going to develop naturally over the course of the series. I really liked it, and I liked the potential couple too… so… I’m here for it.
While this is an historical fiction mystery, it’s also very much a YA novel. These were rare enough in 1985, and it goes to show that Philip Pullman was one of the early runners for the YA genre. Because of this, there’s been some criticism that the novel is too simple and straightforward. Honestly, those were some of the things I liked about it. There’s not a lot of glitz and glam to the writing, but it’s not so overly simplified that I would consider it middle grade. Not too hot, not too cold… just right.
The tale of the ruby itself immediately brought The Maltese Falcon to mind. The central piece in the story – or what the reader is led to believe is the central piece – is this ruby that people are willing to kill to have. It’s an immense fortune, and it seems to change people, bringing out the worst of their greed. I enjoyed the twists and turns of the novel – I predicted some elements because some cliches are just good… but not the dramatic shift in the story. I thought it was well-done.
So here’s my concern, and I guess, it’s my only concern. The Ruby in the Smoke is based on and around the Opium Wars. Here in the States, we don’t talk a lot about these, as they aren’t a part of our country’s history, but in the mid-1800s, Britain went to war twice with China over opium. Opium plays a large part in The Ruby in the Smoke, and is used by multiple characters. There’s some stigma around it, but it is nonetheless appropriated for its hallucinogenic properties. So on one hand, we have drug use. And on the other hand, I’m not crazy about the depiction of Chinese characters? All are shown in relation to opium dens. They make up so little of the book, but it stood out to me immediately and… I don’t know. I guess it was just worth mentioning.
Generally, though? I really liked The Ruby in the Smoke, more than I was expecting to. It was refreshing to read a YA mystery that wasn’t a secret YA romance. This is an older book, so there are definitely cliches and tropes that were perhaps less common 34 years ago. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it if you enjoy the genre and in particular, if you liked The Golden Compass and are interested in some of Pullman’s other work. For myself, I’ll be venturing forth with The Shadow in the North.
Can you recommend any good YA mysteries or thrillers? I’ve read a couple YA horrors, but wasn’t a huge fan of them because the romance took over. If you’ve got suggestions, I’m all ears – let me know in the comments!