on November 17, 2007
"The Ruby in the Smoke" was first published in 1985, and was the first of Philip Pullman's books to feature Sally Lockhart. It was adapted for television in 2006 by the BBC, with Billie Piper - formerly of Dr Who - playing Sally.
The book opens in October 1872, when Sally Lockhart is only sixteen years old and has recently been orphaned. She never knew her mother, and her father - a former officer in the British Army and co-owner of the shipping firm Lockhart & Selby - has drowned in Singapore on company business. Naturally, she had been very close to her father, who had also taken personal responsibility for her education . (As a result, she knew little of French, English Literature, Art and Music though few other young ladies would have matched her in military tactic, the affairs of the Stock Market, military tactics and book-keeping. His most useful advice, however, was probably "keep your powder dry"). Sally, who also suffers from an unpleasant recurring nightmare, now lives with Caroline Rees, a thoroughly dislikable aunt.
When we first meet her, Sally has recently received a cryptic letter. It warns her of something called the Seven Blessings, and that somebody called Marchbanks will help her. She first visits Lockhart & Selby's offices - there, she hopes to find out not only who Marchbanks is, but also what the Seven Blessings are. Unfortunately, the the firm's secretary - Mr Higgs - can't help her : he suffers a heart attack and dies the moment she asks the question. She doesn't have to wait too long for help, though : Marchbanks, a former army officer, and an ex-sailor called Bedwell are both looking for her - and they both have useful information. This information puts Sally on a collision course with a dangerous villain called Mrs Holland . Thankfully she will have help - most notably from Frederick Garland, his sister Rosa and Jim Taylor - a very resourceful office-boy at Lockhart & Selby's.
A short, easy and enjoyable read - though, given the constant references to opium use, it mightn't be to everyone's tastes.
on June 10, 2003
I read this book after finishing the His Dark Materials trilogy. It's obviously a Pullman work, from the strong female heroine down to the complex, fabled power of the titled ruby. Somehow, though, the book felt a bit like Pullman's test-run for the HDM trilogy. Sally, the daughter of a shipping and businessman, is suddenly orphaned when her father dies a half world away. Left to her own devices, she must piece together the clues of his mysterious death and his final message to her. Along the way, she meets and befriends a motley crew of helpers and makes startling discoveries about her own birth and parentage (a familiar tale to anyone who's read HDM).
The book is a solid and entertaining mystery, particularly for a younger segment of "young-adult" readers (ages 10 and up, I'd say), and Pullman's writing is lovely. The book has little of the darkness or subversive subtext that Pullman's more famous trilogy offers, though, and should not be considered a necessary next-read after His Dark Materials.
on May 7, 2002
I love the Sally Lockhart trilogy. The stories read just like a "penny dreadful," only the writing is much more skillful. There is no end to the mystery, fun, and adventure in this too-short series of superbly-plotted books. I took issue with two major decisions the author made (in books two and three), but I won't discuss them here because that would ruin the books for anyone who hadn't read them. Let me just say (and this won't give anything away) that one had to do with a fire, and the other had to do with a replacement that just wasn't good enough.
Book one was the best of the three, and the reason why I went on to read other series by Mr. Pullman. There was an incredible coincidence you had to swallow that I would have spit out with any other book. But the author has so much fun with it, and it's so appropriate for a book that honors that old-fashioned melodramatic genre of dime novels, that it feels like it belongs. In fact, everything feels like it belongs in this book, so finely-woven together is its setting, characters, and plot.
Bravo to Mr. Pullman for his major success with this work!
on May 6, 2002
Sally Lockhart has been orphaned at 16 by the death of her father. She has come to live with a relative that does not want her - and her life is in danger. Dark figures are movinf around her as she tries to solve the mystery of a message sent to her by her father before she dies. The only clue she has is the name Marchbanks and a phrase, the "seven blessings". Sally is in a race against time, because as she tries to put the puzzle together others are racing to silence her permanently - and she has no idea how many enemies she has.
I had to read this book in one afternoon because I didn't want to put it down. Sally is a great character who really draws you into her world, and the strong supporting characters around her draw you into their world and keep you there. The story is great, but in the end I found it a little bit disspointing at how Pullman pulls everything together (which is why it has four stars and not five). I have the rest of the books in this series from a friend and can't wait to read them too.
These books are completely different from the Dark Materials Trilogy and should be read in their own right. The best part about this book is that Sally is the kind of person that I would have been friends with at the same age - and I can see a little bit of me on her too. Guys should like this book too as their is action, adventure, and suspense.
on January 26, 2002
This book of a 16 year old girl in Victorian London is the best of the trilogy. It's written for young adults but at 56, I enjoyed it thoroughly. The second two books find the protagonist, Sally Lockhart in her 20s and probably makes her of less interest to the young adults, not so to us "seasoned" adults.
While the mystery is well thought out, it's a bit far fetched at times, but like so many off the best Victorian and later mysteries, there are strong influences from the kingdom of the Raj, India.
Sally needs to solve the mystery of her father's death and her inheritance. One of the biggest strengths of the book are the characters populating it. Thre's wicked Mrs. Holland who wears a set of false teeth that are too big for her that she yanked out of her husband's mouth just before his coffin shut forever. There's also Jim Taylor, sort of a gopher who is no respecter of office clerks, who he regards as "a very low form of life" and who has some of the best lines in the book when for example he describes the death of somone stealing Sally's money as "that's not murder, that's natural justice" or "She's mad. Best leave her be, in case it's catching".
There are a few strange things such as where Jim found the ruby and why Ah Ling felt the need to explain everything to Sally in the end instead of just killing her. I realize it was necessary to tie up loose plot ends, it's too bad the most feared smuggler in South East Asia was willing to waste precious time to explain how clever he was to a 16 year old girl.
Sally isn't concerned about her limitations. She considers her options and generally makes the right decision. She has just the right amount of pluck, respects the values taught by her father and lives by them.
on January 18, 2002
If I ever have children, whether they're sons or daughters, I'll give them copies of the three Sally Lockhart books, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, Garth Nix's Abhorsen series (which, with luck, will by then be finished), and CS Lewis's Narnia books, and then wait for the questions. If I've done anywhere near a decent job as a parent, there will be many, and not all of them will be comfortable.
Pullman's skill as an author is that he writes simply, even though he gets the convoluted plots and schemes of the Victorian thriller pitch-perfect. Whether you're surprised or not at his plot reversals and sudden revelations (and even if you read a lot of thrillers, there will be times where you'll be caught off-guard), he writes with an assured grace that leaves no doubt that everything is going as planned. He never cheats his audience, which is even more critical with younger readers than older, because they still trust authors to not cop out on them -- a trust that we'd all be happier if we still had when were older and more cynical.
Sally is too perfect to be a role model; Pullman makes occasional half-hearted attempts to outline her weaknesses, but her insecurities and doubts are too adult to really make her seem like a typical adolescent. She's brave, she's strong, and she never fails when it comes down to the clutch. She's a heroine in the old mold (not that the old mold had room for feminists like Sally), and even if she's assailed by doubts, they never impair her effectiveness. By necessity, then, her foes are large and merciless: a minor criminal genius who is driven more by pride than greed (and, unlike most books of these kind, is a woman), a powerful and paternal Triad boss, and (indirectly) the British government and its shameful history with the opium trade. That Pullman takes on real and historic injustices should be unsurprising to anyone who's read any of his other books; it should also be unsurprising the much is left unresolved at the end of this first novel of the trilogy.
Like most great young adult novels, this features a cast of bohemian oddballs who could care less about social norms. Fittingly, given their reputation at the time, the bohemians in this novel are an ad hoc family helmed by a photographer and his actress sister. Their business is struggling and they're both pragmatic and intelligent enough to take help when they can find it. Can they find a way to take in a financial whiz who's also a brilliant shot and a talented military strategist? Oh, I think they can. Is this just a little light and frothy? Certainly. Is it cheap? Most assuredly not, because the interactions between the characters are taut, lively, and almost never fall into stereotype. In short, these are the kinds of people I'd love my children to become, and so these are the kinds of people I'd love my children to be reading about. These are, in fact, the kind of people I'd like to *be*. If you're a kid yourself, buy this, you're in for a treat. If you're a grownup, buy a copy for a kid you like and buy a copy for yourself. It's a fast read and it will leave you feeling good about yourself.
on December 5, 2001
A Review by Amy
The book was very interesting. This story is about a girl named Sally, who is sixteen years old. It takes place in the 1870s, in an old town in England. Sally is trying to figure out her father's death. She was given a note that talked about "The Seven Blessings." Sally has no idea what that means. So she goes on a hunt to figure it out. However, ever person she asks about the saying or her father's death, a new mystery shows up.
The story was somewhat a page-turner. Still, some chapters would be very long and not full of excitement. The author sometimes uses descriptive words that describe too many things at once and becomes confusing. Also, the author uses "she" a lot, so you have to follow the story to understand what she they are talking about.
The book would probably be better if it wasn't as confusing. I started to get into the book around the fifth and sixth chapter, and then it went downhill and became dull. The book was then very boring and not interesting. I would recommend you to buy this book if you can sit down and really focus in on the book. However, if you can't do this then you shouldn't buy the book.
on August 23, 2001
I admit I am biased! Philip Pullman writes books that are readable, entertaining, educational and, sometimes, controversial. This one fits easily into the first three categories. In later books (his Dark Materials Trilogy) Pullman becomes more controversial and has opened himself up to criticism from various religious extremists who see his novels as an attack on thier own personal beliefs. The Ruby in The Smoke is NOT controversial (though doubtless some fundamentalists who have found fault with his later books will now be trolling through his earlier writing to try and find a politically-incorrect sentence they don't agree with and give it the big thumbs down).
The heroine is 16 year-old Sally Lockhart and she lives in Victorian London. Her father has been murdered and her life is about to be turned upside down by a legacy she doesn't want. Pullman does an excellent job of describing Victorian London (the educational concept). He also makes an exceptional job of plotting and holding the reader's attention (the entertainment). In terms of writing, his style is clear, often amusing, and he has the ability to draw settings in just a few brief words (the readability).
Pullman's London is full or rogues and scoundrels and vagabonds and neer-do-wells. And it seems they're all on the side of the opium dealers (who really DID exist in Victorian London). But Sally Lockhart draws loyalty from some borderline characters of her her own. People who are street-wise, and know how to help her through her problems.
If you've not yet read a Philip Pullman book, start with this one and see how you get on. They're a lot of fun and they're extraordinarily well written.
on June 12, 2001
This is a story about a young woman in London who is caught up in not one, but TWO mysteries. One involves her own past, a past that seemed complete and normal until one day she hears of the ruby. The other conflict involves the girl's father and the opium trade. Thus, a ruby (one mystery) in the smoke (the second.
I often read books where there is maybe one conflict, or perhaps two, that last throughout the entire novel, and there are no smaller problems to keep the book going. This book wasn't like that. Though there were two main mysteries that were solved (seemingly, notice there are three books) at the end, there were plenty of other problems that captured my interest. I also really liked how the problems related to the setting (sorry, can't say more!)
The characters in this book were good, but not excellent. They were rather one-dimensional. However, as the trilogy continues, some of the characters do grow, but in this book there was not a lot of character development. If you want a book with excellent characters by Philip Pullman, read the HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy.
To sum all of this up, if you want a fun book, that is well written and has A LOT of intrigue, this is the book for you.
on January 27, 2001
Philip Pullman's first novel is among his very best -- and like the highly acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy the story and characters are beautifully written and its depth never wavers. The Ruby In The Smoke, the first of the Sally Lockhart trilogy, is often described with one word: powerful. Bold , brave sixteen-year old Sally Lockhart plunges into a terrifying journey to uncover her father's death's real meaning and a mystery that contains an item hunted for centuries. Determined to uncover the dark truth, she sets out to Victorian London in doing so -- and learns of an enemy lurking in her shadows. Her real journey begins there. And little by little, she will slowly uncover the bits and pieces of a terrifying mystery that will threaten everything -- and secrets that may destroy it all. A heartbreaking, thrilling and satisfying story, The Ruby In The Smoke shows us the talent of Philip Pullman -- and as his stories thrill many a reader we see that his deep plots get better and better over the years. With The Ruby In The Smoke, the reader falls in love with Sally Lockhart's daring personality and will want to read the next two books. I can't wait to read Book Two, The Shadow In The North. And like a ruby in the smoke, the story shrouds itself in powerful mystery with an ending so beautiful and satisfying. Philip Pullman's first novel is one that will impress many; his true talent is seen in The Ruby In The Smoke (I am certain the other two books in the trilogy are even more gripping) and The His Dark Materials trilogy, and he is unsurpassable at that.