Barnaby Grimes #2: Return of the Emerald Skull. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $15.99.
Barnaby Grimes #3: Legion of the Dead. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $16.99.
The Story of Cirrus Flux. By Matthew Skelton. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Adventures above old London – on its rooftops in the Barnaby Grimes stories, in a balloon in The Story of Cirrus Flux – are over-the-top in the best sense in these books for ages 8-12. Easy to read, excitingly plotted and filled with odd (if not always individually memorable) characters, all three novels have something Dickensian about them in their focuses on the seedier parts of town, and the even seedier characters who dwell therein.
Barnaby Grimes is a tick-tock lad – a messenger for whom time is money (hence, “tick-tock”). He is the most elevated sort: a highstacker, who delivers messages and packages by traveling over the roofs of London instead of being a cobblestone-creeper who must maneuver through the twisting, dirty and dangerous streets. Not that Barnaby – whose age is not given but who seems to be in his late teens – is a stranger to danger. In fact, he stumbles into it anew in every book. In Return of the Emerald Skull, he literally stumbles into it, as a worse-than-usual fog settles over the scene while Barnaby attempts to pick up a package containing a stuffed bird for the eccentric headmaster of a boys’ school. Paul Stewart has a flair for eerie writing, as in the discovery of a deserted ship whose crew’s “hasty and chaotic departure was indicated by upturned tables, meals left half eaten and, most singular of all, a blood-stained boat-hook pinning a banknote to the door of the captain’s cabin.” It soon turns out that great evil has been unleashed at Grassington Hall School, and a series of genuinely chilling scenes shows a Lord of the Flies mob mentality that will quicken the pulse of readers. The chapter in which the starving students get something to eat – and the way in which they eat it – is genuinely upsetting. But there is a touch of amusement in the way Barnaby finally overcomes the evil here, and that is one thing that sets Stewart’s writing well above the adventure-story average. As for Chris Riddell’s illustrations, they are as wonderfully evocative, as carefully executed and as reminiscent of the highly detailed work of Albrecht Dürer as they have been for years in the Stewart-Riddell epic, The Edge Chronicles. The pictures add immeasurably to a story that would be quite gripping enough on its own.
Legion of the Dead is equally effective, involving everything from gangland warfare in one of 19th-century London’s worst neighborhoods to a curse descending on one of its best. And in the course of the novel, Barnaby encounters a terrifying creature whose existence turns out to knit together many of the tale’s threads. This is a story of grave robbing – “You could make a pretty penny from a recently buried corpse” – or perhaps of something even worse: reanimation of the dead. It is a tale of an excellent, modern (for its times) hospital whose renovation may be due to singularly unpleasant circumstances. And it is the tale of an old war veteran and his knowledge of the Temple of Kal-Ramesh – a six-armed demon goddess – and the grisly things done in her name. Stewart’s consistently well-paced writing makes Barnaby and some (if not all) of the subsidiary characters come alive; even more, it makes the settings of the story seem completely real. And Riddell’s illustrations, including silhouettes as well as highly detailed portrayals of monstrous creatures and long-dead corpses, once again turn a story that is quite scary enough on its own into a tale that will stay with readers long after they have finished the last page.
The one Dickensian element that the Barnaby Grimes stories lack is Dickens’ fondness for offbeat, euphonious names. That element is present to a great degree in The Story of Cirrus Flux, but rather incongruously, since this novel is set in the 18th century rather than 19th. Still, Matthew Skelton could clearly not resist naming characters Mrs. Kickshaw, Mr. Sorrel, Mr. Leechcraft, Mr. Sidereal and Madame Orrery. And of course there are Cirrus’ own name and the name of the girl whose fate is intertwined with his: Pandora. In this book, which seesaws back and forth in time among various years between 1756 and 1783, the central mystery involves something called the Breath of God, which has come into Cirrus’ possession and which all sorts of unsavory characters are determined to claim from him. This is a more conventionally plotted novel than the Barnaby Grimes tales, but it is certainly packed with excitement, colorful characters (such as a sinister mesmerist and a nefarious skull collector), and the sorts of choices that young protagonists inevitably must make in adventure novels: who is a true friend, whom to trust, and where to turn in a crisis. Cirrus himself, an orphan who spends much of the book on the run or in hiding, is a bit of a weakness in the novel: much happens to him, but he is a more passive central character than, for example, Pandora. Nevertheless, so much does happen that preteens and young teens will be swept away in the excitement of narrow and narrower escapes, balloon flights, confrontations with toughs such as Cut Throat Charlie and Half Thumb, the Hall of Wonders, and much more. What ends up hurting Cirrus the most is a betrayal that readers will likely see coming before Cirrus does – but in the end, thanks largely to Mr. Hardy (another Dickensian name), both Cirrus and Pandora end up with, as the final chapter’s title has it, “H-O-P-E.” And that is as fine an outcome as readers themselves could hope for.