Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited. I read many books that I don’t feel sufficiently enthusiastic about to review at all. Rather, this blog is intended as a celebration of the more interesting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Monday 9 October 2017

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

Here is a title I have been eagerly waiting for, the final part of a story to which I feel already very committed. Like countless other fans  I desperately wanted to discover how things turn out for people I feel I know and, yes indeed, care for. It is no disappointment. The final book in this hugely popular series is everything readers (including me) could want. 

A writer with form

I have been a great admirer of Jonathan Stroud for a good while now. I consider his Bartimaeus books to be one of the very best of contemporary children's fiction sequences, a brilliant blend of comedy and fantasy. (See my post from April '17.)  More recently, I have explored his earlier novels and found that very rewarding indeed. (Post June '17.) I notice that the UK paperback of The Empty Grave has at the back a page advertising his first four major novels*. I do hope it succeeds in attracting some attention as they are all great reads, well worth seeking out. They are very different from each other, as well as from the later sequences, but each is a very fine novel in its own right.  It is also fascinating to track through his development as a writer. 

Series finale 

His most recent sequence,  about teenage spook-busters, Lockwood & Co, is aimed at a perhaps slightly older audience** than Bartimaeus. It is also probably his most overtly popular success to date. Deservedly so. It is quite splendid entertainment, providing gripping adventures and believable, endearing characters. It is set in a world which resembles our own but has been overrun by supernatural visitations. Our little band of adolescent heroes each have 'talents' to fight back against ghosts,  ghouls and other horrors they are employed exorcise. It turns out they are pretty good at it as well - although they do not always have  the luck to escape totally unscathed.  The books are  laced witn both high humour and dry wit and somehow succeed in combining a rather homely comfort (lots of cake and biscuits) with plenty of contemporary 'edge', gripping suspense and high adrenaline action.

From a great start, the Lockwood series has just been getting better and better. The through line plot has broadened out from separate incidences of ghost-busting to the thwarting of a mega villain, who may well have caused all the haunting in the first place. At the end of the last book readers were left in cruel suspense as to how the whole situation would develop and resolve. This final book, involving, amongst other trials for the intrepid young 'firm', a terrifying attack on their own home, a horrendous journey through the 'other side', and a cataclysmic battle at the headquarters of the controlling  'agency ' itself, just racks up the tension at every thrilling turn. Jonathan Stroud is a true master of plot building.

Bickering and bonding 

However it is the relationships between the young agents of Lockwood & Co which really underlie the irresistible pull of these stories. Characters, and the interplays between them, have become deeper and richer with each successive book. By this final stage, readers have come to know the Lockwood team as familiar friends. Narrator, Lucy, a mixture of a young Bridget Jones and Zoro (well, sort of), is continually enchanting despite, or perhaps because of, her many insecurities and foibles.  She is certainly no great physical beauty (in her own eyes at least), nor any angel either, but her flaws make her all the more lovable. At one point team-mate George, on seeing a particular ghoul emit a repulsive  splurge of slime, comments that it is almost as bad as Lucy with a head cold. Whilst he is clearly being wickedly teasing, one suspects there may be some modecome of truth behind the comment. Such an exchange is in fact typical of the bickering and crosstalk that is one of the delights of the Lockwood crew. Yet, when push comes to shove, they also display loyalty and mutual caring to the nth degree. 

In Lucy's even more acrimonious yet strangely strong attachment to her cynical, obstreperous talking skull-ghost, which she persistently carries around in a jar, lies one of the richest veins of the story's humour. However it is her developing relationship with the darkly handsome, and somewhat enigmatic Lockwood which is at the story's heart. In this final instalment, she has a pervasive fear that he might end up sacrificing his own life to save her , that he might far too soon occupy the empty grave of the title. It is this terrible conviction, as much as the story's action, which compels the reader forward, sharing Lucy's apprehension and quaking at the ever-increasing likelihood of her fears being realised. 

Building through the successive books of Lockwood & Co, are the early adolescent stirings of romance, but Jonathan Stroud handles them with sensitivity and real understanding . We are still really in the area of special friendships rather than anything more mature, but the feelings he explores are all the more affecting for that. They pull at the heart-strings and consequently pull the story strongly along too. A good  example of his sensitive, sympathetic  writing of character is the way he gently introduces hints that Holly, another prominent Lockwood team member, may have different growing emotional/sexual interests of her own. In doing so he skilfully adds a further level of depth and humanity to the telling, without any fuss or sensationalism. 

Grand climax

Needless to say, this 'series finale' pulls all of the strands of this long narrative journey very cleverly together. I would of course not dream of saying how. But I am certain fans will not be disappointed. 

Jonathan Stroud uses language like a master, never pretentiously but with a skill that evokes in his reader vivid  images of his characters and their world. It has been announced that a screen version of Lockwood and Co is in the offing. This will, of course, recruit countless more fans, many of whom will subsequently read the books too.  That will be a very good thing indeed. However imposed screen images do tend rather to swamp individual visualisation and can be difficult to shrug off when subsequently reading. My advice to any who have not yet discovered this series is to get in and read it first, whilst your own imagination will take you (with the writers help) powerfully into what becomes a shared creation. 

You would best start at the beginning of course, but this page turner will rapidly pull you in. And you can move through the five books in the assurance that a great start just gets better and better. 

These are not novels of any particular profundity, but they have no pretensions to be. They are, however, some of the most hugely compelling and entertaining reads currently around. It will be really interesting to see what this fine writer comes up with next. 

The paperback editions are arrestingly designed and will, I am sure, meet the needs of most young readers. However, it is a shame that, with such an important and successful series, the UK publishers seem to have abandoned their hardback set after the third volume. Fortunately there is a very attractive US set of hardbacks for those who wish to collect and keep the whole series longer term. 

* Buried Fire, The Leap. The Last Siege. Heroes of the Valley. 
** Older children and young teens (although, of course, readers of a huge range of ages can enjoy almost any book, if it is the right thing for them at the time).