The Shades of London series by Maureen Johnson is (alongside The Raven Cycle) one of my favourite new obsessions. The first book in the series The Name of the Star was published in September 2011, and the second book The Madness Underneath was released in February this year. (And yes, these copies are my own. Kidsbooks is a place of evil and I love it.) But these books make for great October reading, so I feel okay about my late review.
The series revolves around Rory Deveaux who moves from Louisiana to London for a year (her parents are on sabbatical), and following a near-death experience at her new boarding school, develops the Sight, or the ability to see ghosts. As she begins to figure her odd new talent out, she meets others like her. They call themselves the Shades and police the streets of London and make sure that ghosts and people coexist peacefully. And when a nutter (who doesn’t show up on CCTV cameras) starts recreating the Ripper murders of 1888, it becomes obvious to Rory that maybe London has more in store for her than just the drama of a boarding school.
The Name of the Star wastes no time in introducing a lot of elements that interest me- there’s the boarding school story, the murder mystery, the terrifying history of the Ripper killings, the (beginnings of) romance and, of course, the fantasy. What I was not prepared for was the wonderful sense of humour that would flavour the writing. Rory is simply the funniest character who loves to talk, hates to run, and can see ghosts, EVER! Her witty observations of everyday life at Wexford is so funny I caught myself hoping for a London guidebook by Maureen Johnson:
The English will play hockey in any weather. Thunder, lightning, plague of locusts … nothing can stop the hockey. Do not fight the hockey, for the hockey will win*. (Page 61, The Name of the Star)
The thing about Rory is that odd stuff happens to her, but she just bounces back. And while almost-dying-and-gaining-the-Sight is not funny, the way that Rory gains her Sight is so ridiculous, it did actually make me laugh. (I won’t reveal it here. I should let some of the laughs take you by surprise. Or not. Either way, look forward to it.)
Of course, this does not in anyway, make the book less creepy. If anything, Rory’s generally positive outlook heightens the scare-factor because you just don’t see it coming. You’re lulled into a giggly cocoon when you read Rory, but when you are taken out of her life and placed into the lives of those working around the Ripper killings, well, get ready for some chills. My favourite part though, is when these two storylines begin to intersect and Rory starts figuring out her gift (if you could call it that?):
“Who were you talking to when you were out there?” Jazza asked.
“That guy,” I said.
Jazza was instantly on the alert, sitting bolt upright.
“The one who said good night to us.”
“I didn’t see anyone,” Jazza said. (Page 104, The Name of the Star)
Johnson is also especially careful in her research- not just of the Ripper histories, but of London itself- and it shows in her writing. (I’m pretty sure she actually went to England to research.) So it’s an engaging mix of culture, history, and fantasy. And while on the topic of fantasy- not a lot is revealed in the first book on the topic of Sights and Shades, but she definitely provides enough to make you want to read the next book. The main selling point (for me) of the first one was the Jack the Ripper references, but the second book was just as chilling as it incorporates Bethlem hospital’s uncomfortable history into Rory’s story.
The excitement never ends for Rory but The Madness Underneath is one of those rare sequels** that depict a protagonist who actually has to deal with a traumatic event. It gives her space to recuperate, it gives her space to try and fail, and it allows her to choose who she wants to be. I appreciate these details. We also get a little more in the way of background on people with Sight who don’t have anywhere to go. And given the references to Bedlam, it suddenly puts this incredible talent into perspective for readers. Again, I do not want to go into it much here.
One of the most important things to me was that despite everything, Rory should remain at her core, the funny, quirky girl from the first book, rather then changing into an angst-ball. And my wish came true. I want to give you a sampling of one of the funny bits that also address one of my pet peeves (why are pregnant women always described as “glowing”?!), so here you go, proof of the funnies:
“I understand you and Callum went out the other night,” he said.
“He told you?”
“he didn’t. Boo did.”
“Boo is very observant,” he said. “She always seems to know what we’ve been doing. She said Callum was ‘glowing,’ which I suppose means that he looks very happy after he’s been patrolling.”
“Or he’s pregnant,” I said. (Page 143, The Madness Underneath)
Moving on. The romance is not too cheesy (YAY!), albeit a tad predictable (AW). However …
[POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT]
… the gripping conclusion of The Madness Underneath does throw a wrench in my prophecies for Rory’s romantic life, so maybe I will reassess that statement once the next book comes out (SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHEN!) and Johnson pulls one over me.
[END OF SPOILER ZONE]
My only real issue with the series is that there is a female character of colour introduced to the story (I was absolutely jumping for joy- a character of Indian decent, in a fantasy series, by a writer that I adore? Perfect!), but she doesn’t really do much. Boo (no really, her name is Boo) marches into Rory’s life in a blaze of glory and a flash of purple lace panties, but then … kind of fades into the background in the second one. Hopefully, she and Callum (I always fall for the sidekicks) have more to do in the next one. Oh well.
Why You May Like This Series: It has huge crossover (genre, I mean) appeal- romance, humour, horror, mystery, and fantasy. Plus, it’s set in London. And the horror is actually not graphic at all. Well, I mean, it’s no From Hell by Alan Moore, you know? (The only thing that might actually scare you is actually reading the Wiki page on Jack the Ripper. I do not recommend it. Those images will stay with you forever. No. Nope. Don’t do it. Stop.) Pretty much all the characters are likeable (or at least sympathetic), and Rory is a fabulous narrator. She’s a real strong female character.
Why You May Not Like This One: You don’t like romance, humour, (non-graphic) horror, mystery, and fantasy. Or at least this particular cocktail. And hey, that’s fine too. We have a whole month to figure out what kind of scary you’d like. Also, The Madness Underneath ends on a hell of cliffhanger, and I’m not sure when the next one comes out. It may feel a bit like waiting for series 3 of BBC’s Sherlock.
All Hallow’s Read? Yes, I would definitely recommend this one as a potential All Hallow’s Read present. It’s easy on the romance and the horror and the fantasy, but only because Johnson is just so good at blending all three genres into a delightfully mysterious story. So when you finish the book, you look back and begin to appreciate how masterfully each aspect was handled. For those who are reluctant readers (or reluctant readers of horror), I think this book could be a good starting point.
*And suddenly all those crazy Quidditch matches in impossible weather makes sense. It isn’t a wizard thing apparently; it’s an English thing?
**I would probably switch out a couple of my books from the Top Ten Tuesday list on sequels in order to favour The Madness Underneath and The Dream Thieves.