“The Shadow In The North” by Philip Pullman

It may be slightly odd to review the second book in a series without having reviewed the first book, but I’ve always been one for oddity. I read these books a few years ago, and after acquiring the first one in a library sale I decided to pick this one up when I saw it cheaply in an Oxfam shop while on holiday.

shadow in the north

The Sally Lockhart books focus on Sally Lockhart (surprise, surprise) — a young woman with a knack for numbers and organisation who, by the time this book starts, has set up her own business as a financial consultant, even though such a thing is almost unheard of in Victorian London, where the books are set. She’s a fiercely independent and frequently stubborn character, who is reluctant to accept help in an attempt to prove that she can manage alone. She’s also incredibly realistic and three-dimensional, with her emotional side vying for dominance with her logic and intelligence.

Sally’s joined by a varied cast that includes familiar faces from the first book (The Ruby In The Smoke) and a few new ones, too: a magician, highly anxious in real life but stunning on the stage; a ruthless businessman whose vision for a new and better world is a terrifying dystopia of fear…

Because I was rereading this book, I was aware of some of the plot twists still to come, such as the nature of the Hopkinson Self-Regulating Device that creates such a mystery during the early part of this book. However, there was enough that I’d forgotten to ensure that the book didn’t seem dull, and plenty of depth that I hadn’t noticed the first time around.

Pullman starts out with a few chapters that provide information, not only about the background of the characters (in effect, a run-down of book one in the space of a few paragraphs) but also about the company they’ll be facing up to in this book. In the hands of many other writers, this could seem like an infodump, but it’s short enough and mixed in with other elements of the storytelling so it hardly intrudes. I would think that the first couple of chapters could have been slightly more subtle about summarising Sally’s past, but it was a small flaw.

Once this is out of the way, the pace really picks up, with several apparently separate mysteries and cases for the Garland & Lockhart private investigating company joining together and creating a tightly knitted web of plot that leads in a number of directions at once, and every time I thought I’d figured out what was happening, I was taken in a new direction. I like second-guessing plots, and aided by my former knowledge of the book, I tried to work out what was happening next, but it was frequently unexpected in the best possible way.

But the ending of the book is what really makes it for me.

There’s a certain tragic brutality to the way this ends — or rather, to the way it concludes, although there is a little bit of wrapping-up to be done afterwards. Pullman doesn’t pull his punches, but unleashes the full force of an author’s power over life or death to prompt perhaps a few tears from readers. Sally’s reaction, again a combination of her logic and emotions, shows the effects of grief on somebody who has never been very good at dealing with feelings, and how explosively it can be unleashed on one’s enemies.

It’s almost inspiring the way she reacts. I was actually working on a scene of a similar sort in my own novel when I read it, and had to be careful not to unconsciously steal too many ideas, because it’s masterfully done.

The use of Victorian London is far from a gimmick, and the time period informs every aspect of the book. From developments in photography and their impact on Fred Garland’s company to the nature of a patent office or how the various successes and failures of businesses impacted on people’s wealth and prosperity, it’s meticulously researched and included in a way that draws you in rather than forming a barrier between the reader and the plot.

And while Sally comes across many barriers as a woman in that society, which are presented in the text in the form of a number of other characters who are either patronising of her efforts or downright unhelpful, her situation is never seen as unrealistic. She works hard to maintain her independence, and I applaud Pullman for creating such a well-rounded and interesting female protagonist when it would have been so easy to fall into the trap of defaulting to male heroes to suit the period.

The early chapters certainly seem weaker than the rest of the book. Nowadays, most writers don’t bother reminding readers what happened earlier in a series, expecting them to remember. Perhaps it’s something that has fallen out of fashion — in 1986, when this book was published, maybe the style was more to give that sort of summary. I did find it a little irritating but then again, I couldn’t remember what had happened in book one either, so it was probably helpful.

The rest of the book is more than readable, with a complex plot, interesting and well-developed characters, and scatterings of humour throughout the novel. But it’s the ending that really made it for me.

It’s a hard one to rate. I think I’ll give it three stars, because while I’d recommend it, it definitely seems to ‘warm up’ as it goes along, and there are also moments when the complexity of the plot makes it a little bit confusing.

Rating: ***


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