The Ruby in the Smoke (#1) by Philip Pullman

Published: November 12th 1988
Goodreads badgePublisher: Scholastic
Pages: 373
Format: Book
Genre: Young Adult/Historical Fiction/Mystery
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

Sally is sixteen and uncommonly pretty. Her knowledge of English literature, French, history, art and music is non-existent, but she has a thorough grounding in military tactics, can run a business, ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol.

When her dear father is drowned in suspicious circumstances in the South China Sea, Sally is left to fend for herself, an orphan and alone in the smoky fog of Victorian London. Though she doesn’t know it, Sally is already in terrible danger. Soon the mystery and the danger will deepen – and at the rotten heart of it all lies the deadly secret of the ruby in the smoke.

This book certainly starts off unexpectedly, I will give you that. In what is a crime/detective type story, we are immediately introduced to a Miss Sally Lockhart and the mysteries around herself and her father. The novel opens with 16 year old Sally visiting her father’s place of business after his death to inquire about a letter she received and Pullman instantly sucks you in by the second paragraph by saying “in fifteen minutes she was going to kill a man”. If that doesn’t make you keep reading then what will?

As a character, Sally is has had little conventional education, but she does know her fair share about running a business, military tactics, and how to shoot a pistol. The world she knew is changed when her father is drowned in suspicious circumstances and now must live as an orphan in 1872 Victorian London, living with her aunt who does not approve of her and how she lives her ‘unladylike’ life.
The letter mentions something called the Seven Blessings, and when her initial inquiries go awry Sally tries to find an alternative way. However while she continues to investigate Sally learns her life is in danger, and with the help of friends of her father and helpful strangers turned friends, Sally tries to solve the growing mystery and keep herself from harm. As readers we are not given much to go on ourselves about what these are and we must learn with Sally as she investigates these Seven Blessings that no one wants to talk about despite the chaos they create, though we are given an advantage as we are shown where this possible danger lies, as well as hopes for Sally finding some answers.

With the help of people like 13 year old office boy Jim, as well as brother and sister Frederick and Rosa Garland, Sally continues her journey for answers. After leaving her aunts house she lives with Frederick and Rosa, helping them to improve their business as payment for their help. As a photographerand actress, Frederick and Rosa are very enjoyable characters, they have quirks, as does their employee Theophilus ‘Trembler’ Molloy, ex-pick pocket with a nervous disposition. There are dangers and fear through this story, which makes it seem real and demonstrates the danger that really is present. People are selfish and ruthless when they want something, and there are suffers because of this, but Pullman offers enough hope and goodness to counteract this.

This is only the first book in the series so not a lot is given away, yet a lot is revealed, and that is not to say there is no curiosity sparked about characters and their circumstances. Pullman ends on a wonderful cliffhanger, as cliffhangers go, with new mysteries on top of the half solved old ones to bring readers into the second book. I had been wanting to read this series for about ten years and I am really glad I have finally gotten around to it. The way Pullman writes is for the Young Adult reader, but there is just as must grit, violence, death and intrigue as any other book. Perhaps not as well described, but there is drug use and violence throughout which I found rather charming in a book for this age group. The way Pullman uses it is certainly for the pot movement and isn’t exactly shown in the best light, though it does suit the era, and by doing so, amidst this crime and mystery, there is a nice little moral address about the dangers of drugs for the younger readers; but with full credit to Mr Pullman he weaves it in almost seamlessly with the narrative and it is certainly well placed.

The fact this is set in the Victorian era just adds to this charm. Reading about old England and the inventions emerging and the technologies is great. Seeing how people react to new things could pretty much be suited to anything at any time, but the fact this is the past makes you realise just how some things just don’t change, and how people don’t like it when it does. Another joy of being in this era is how proper and adult these 16 and 21 year olds can be. Not to mention the society, which I think Pullman captures well, especially around Sally. Somehow I think through capturing the society and the era, it adds a little more to the characters and who they are. It makes them more believable, rather than some one who could be living anywhere or any time. You certainly get the feeling of walking through London and its surrounding areas in the later 19th century, it’s rather enjoyable.

There are twists in this book, and enough intrigue and unanswered questions to get you into the second book. And while we may not call  it an actual cliffhanger per se, but the characters introduced, what happens to them and their lives and personalities are so engaging that you do want to keep reading and see what happens. It certainly ends very differently from where it begins, and all for the better I feel.

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