The Ruby in the Smoke
by Philip Pullman
Some time ago, I caved into pressure to write a review of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials
trilogy. I hadn't wanted to write about it, because I regard The Book Trolley as my own personal
"book recommendations column," and I didn't particularly care to recommend His Dark Materials
I finally wrote brought me more notoriety than all my other writings put together. Years later I
still hear from people who either understood me perfectly, or didn't understand me at all - and of
each group there are those who appreciate what I wrote and those who don't. I'm afraid I let
everyone down, because that review gave many people the idea that I was on a crusade to make
children's literature safe for Fundamentalist Christians; and they either turned away in disgust, or
had their hopes dashed when they read my other reviews.
I decided to show that bygones are bygones, and give Philip Pullman another chance. Perhaps my
legions of disappointed readers will give me another chance as well! So I started with The Ruby in
the Smoke, the first book in the Sally Lockhart trilogy.
Sally Lockhart is a very unusual young woman, given the world in which she lives: the world of the British
Empire under Queen Victoria. Raised by her widower father, an army captain and later partner in a
shipping firm, Sally has few of the traditionally feminine accomplishments (such as embroidery,
music, and French) and many decidedly non-traditional ones (such as bookkeeping and shooting a
pistol). She is also heir to a secret so deep even she knows nothing about it, except for a few
cryptic hints. Nevertheless she is in grave danger from the moment she asks a member of her late
father's firm about "the Seven Blessings," and the man's only answer is to drop dead of a heart
attack in front of her.
The next thing Sally knows, she has run away from her prim aunt and joined the unconventional
household of an art photographer and his actress sister; she has found an admirer in a cockney
office boy named Jim, a deadly enemy in a local crime boss named Mrs. Holland, and an adventure full
of mystery and danger, involving not only the street thugs of London but the aftershocks of a
tragedy in India, a murder in the East Indies, and the moral morass of the British government's
complicity in the opium trade. And before Sally can be free of the dangers that surround her, she
must face a memory that only the evil influence of opium can unlock.
I must admit that I enjoyed this outing. Pullman does have a flair for action, dialect, and
historical color. He can conjure a three-dimensional world of warrens and wharves through which your
imagination can run, its bootheels clattering on the cobblestones. He also likes to create
characters living on or near the outermost edge of socially acceptable behavior - the bad ones being
distinguished from the good by which side of the line they live on. It makes you desperately want to
find out what these people do next, whether the good ones will continue to be good, and what bad
things will happen to them another time. Despair not: the trilogy continues in The Shadow in the
North and The Tiger in the Well. Pullman also wrote a book featuring some of this trilogy's
characters, titled The Tin Princess. Once I had read Book One, I, for one, could not resist the
temptation of buying the other three!
So, are we all friends again?
Recommended Age: 14+
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