Book Review: The Ruby in the Smoke

“Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man…”

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Sally Lockhart has her life turned upside down following the death of her father in mysterious circumstances. Armed with a gang of misfits and some charming humility, the newly orphaned woman seeks to uncover the mystery behind her father’s death and the ruby of Agrapur.

The Ruby in the Smoke should have loads of things going for it in terms of stuff that I look for in a novel. It’s got murder, it’s got intrigue, it’s got a reading age of 13. That’s pretty much all I need. On top of that, the novel was written by acclaimed author Philip Pullman and is set in Victorian England. All wins for me. I have been looking for a way in to Pullman’s work for a while now so this book seemed like the perfect opportunity…

Alas, I didn’t much care for The Ruby in the Smoke. I found the plot to be overly complicated, the characters cliche and the twists predictable. I absolutely love Gothic fiction and while The Woman in Black, a contemporary of Ruby, captures the feel of the Gothic perfectly, Pullman’s effort too often feels like a cheap knock off. I am reticent to slam a book too harshly, given that I have written a grand total of zero books, but on the other hand there is no point in pretending to like something when you didn’t.

Perhaps because this is the first book in a trilogy or perhaps because I am a simple creature, there seemed to me to be too many characters in Pullman’s novel, many of whom felt superfluous. This results in the story being unnecessarily difficult to follow, especially when placed alongside something like Street Child (which I mention here as they are both meant to be taught to the same age group in schools).

Overall, The Ruby in the Smoke feels like something a computer might churn out if fed the specifications ‘children’s literature’, ‘the gothic’ and ‘Victorian England’. Pullman is clearly a gifted writer but I struggled to make any kind of emotional connection with this book.

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