Look, I'm just going to start with this: I love Jonathan Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy. I recommend it to everyone I know who is interested in YA and kid lit as well as anyone who is interested in stories about class issues and systematic oppression. The world is so textured and deep, the dialogue is snappy and the story arc is extremely well developed over the course of the trilogy.
That said, I'm going to have to quote my friend Katie Coyle to say, about The Screaming Staircase, "you can appreciate how much I feel like a miserable troll when I say that I did not love this novel."
Did I like it? Yes. Does it have some interesting potential for future books in the series? Yes. Is it brilliant? No.
On with the review.
The cover art for the ARC.
What is there to like?
- Lockwood & Co. is an agency consisting entirely of early-teenagers—no adult supervisors allowed. I love this; one of the great pleasures in reading stories about kids, when you are a kid (or teenagers when you are a teenager) is escaping to a world where people your own age are in charge, without grownups telling you what to do all the time.
- No one knows how or why the Problem started—why, suddenly, hauntings became ubiquitous—and no one knows why kids can see Visitors and adults can't. Based on Stroud's previous books, I'm extremely interested in how he will develop and explain this in future books in the series, because he's very capable of coming up with a complex and satisfying history. I'm betting Stroud is going to do some interesting things with the different agencies, Fittes and Rotwell, in future books, and I'm looking forward to seeing how.
- A girl protagonist with very much an "I'm a girl, and you are going to take me and my abilities seriously" attitude.
- The dynamic between the three main characters—Lockwood, the charismatic leader; Lucy, the woman of action; George, the scientifically-minded researcher—is fun, as a trio of colleagues with complementary skills and as three teenagers who live together in a house, which of course involves bickering about things like jelly donuts and personal hygiene habits.
- Creepy ghost hunting! (The Red Room was pretty horrifying.) (In an exciting way.)
What's not to like?
- All of that said, it was just so very disappointing that Stroud leaned so much on chunks of description and exposition. For example, instead of having the heroes piece together what happened on their own, there's a regular old sit-down confession with the villain. It doesn't feel believable—there's no reason why the villain should want to confess—and it also feels rushed, as though the pacing of the book was off (the titular staircase is not even mentioned until page 222), and the plot suddenly needed wrapping up in a hurry. It felt like shoddy craftsmanship.
- Likewise, there's a bit too much description and backstory-telling from Lucy that is set aside as such, rather than naturally worked into the flow of the story. And maybe it's not actually all that objectionable, but I expected a bit better from Stroud.
- Also, maybe I'm too jaded compared to the real target audience, but the villain was really quite noticeably up to no good. Before his true nature is revealed, his actions are so patently ridiculous that my initial criticism was going to be that the plot was absurd; when I figured out what he was really up to, then, it did seem too over-the-top not to be suspicious. Lockwood has him pegged all along, we find out, but are Lucy & George (and the readers) really that thick?
- And then this is a criticism not for the author but perhaps for the manuscript editors: it seemed perhaps as if it had been overly Americanized? I'm not sure if it started out in England and then got adapted, or if this is an original that just has American language settings, but it is slightly off-putting to read what are supposed to be British characters, in London, using Americanisms instead of Briticisms ("cookie" and "flashlight," etc.). I think the editors overdid it here—in trying to make it easy for American kids to read, they've sacrificed authenticity. Anyway, they've all read Harry Potter, they can handle it!
What made me pick it up?
This was an ARC that I picked up at BEA, because I will pick up pretty much anything written by Jonathan Stroud, so much do I love Bartimaeus.
The Archived, Victoria Schwab
Overall Recommendation: Recommended (with hope for future books in the series).