I first heard of this book over at Angieville. Phillip Pullman also wrote the more well known series His Dark Materials. I have never read the His Dark Materials series, but after hearing about this book, I wanted to give him a try. This is an older book, obviously, because I'm reviewing it for Retro Friday, but it's a new book for me.
The plot centers around Sally Lockhart, who has been orphaned after her father is killed after his ship sank. She is living in London and accidentally kills a man after uttering the words "the Seven Blessings." This pulls her into a mystery involving India, a ruby, opium and various characters, both kind and despicable.
The book is very Dickensian, and I will admit to not having read any Dickens, but the characters in this book remind me of some of the more famous characters from Dickens. The setting is also Victorian London, which I loved. Pullman also uses written dialect to convey the characters. Sometimes this can go horribly wrong, but I thought he pulled it off well without insulting the characters, some of which come from the lower classes of London
As for the characters, I liked how Sally was both unusual and typical for her time. Sometimes when I read historical fiction, the characters are so modern as to be unbelievable. I thought Sally was a nice balance. She obviously lives in the Victorian era where women did not have the same rights, but she is able to function independently, but Pullman also makes note the struggles that unmarried women with no family had to face. I thought it was a nice portrayal of being a woman in the Victorian era, especially showing how women were beginning to gain equal rights. I did like Sally, but sometimes she seemed too trusting. She automatically trusts a messenger boy, Jim, because he has an honest face. Luckily, Jim is honest and becomes devoted to Sally, but I think Sally's judgement is lacking, especially considering that people are out to kill her. I thought this was her major flaw and I'm amazed it didn't get her killed. Speaking of Jim, I liked him and his love of penny dreadfuls and his devotion to Sally. And of course, the book sets up Frederick and Sally, and they seems to meet on an equal level. That is one thing I liked about the the characters that befriend Sally, they view themselves as equal and readily accept Sally and each other.
As for the villains, Mrs. Holland was a very old fashioned, terrifying villain. Unfortunately, her motivations aren't shown until the ending, but she is brutal in the best. And despite being an old lady, she is terrifying.
I was confused by some plot points while reading the books, especially why the man at the end wants to kill Sally. Maybe I read too quickly, but it felt a little jarring to me and didn't make sense. I would have liked more back story with that man, because I felt that part was explained too quickly.
I posted three different covers I found. The middle is the cover of the version I bought, but I do like the current cover on the left. The one on the right feels a little dated to me, plus I don't like the hat Sally is wearing in the illustration.
I am currently reading the second book in this series, The Shadow in the North. I like this one so far, too, but it's jumped 6 years into the future and I am still trying to get my grounding. I think I will finish out the series. The best way I can describe these books so far is cozy.