Sunday, October 8, 2017

REVIEW | The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud
Publication Year: 2014
Genre: Middle Grade, Urban Fantasy 
Series: Lockwood and Co. #2
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Katie Lyons
Related Reviews: Book 1

WHY?: Because I really enjoyed the first book, The Screaming Staircase.

SYNOPSIS: While business has picked up since Lockwood and Co. cleaned out the most haunted house in England, it's still not great. Lucy, Lockwood and George have really meshed as a team however and Lockwood really wants to see them tackle another big case.  They agree to help out at the disinterment of a Dr. Bickerstaff, who in Victorian times was accused of grisly acts and murder.  With the body, a mysterious artifact is also dug up that seems to have dangerous effects on any who look on it, so when it is stolen, Lockwood & Co. set about getting it back at all costs so it can be destroyed.  In their quest, they get some unexpected help from a ghostly Skull in a jar, who happens to have known Dr. Bickerstaff in life.


It's a little challenging writing a review for this book because I've already read (voraciously devoured) the final three volumes in the series.  I adore it quite devotedly and it has been one of my most enjoyable reads of the year but that poses some challenges for speaking rationally about this book - book 2.  It was good and I really enjoyed it but the series didn't truly get addictive for me until book 3.  Anyway, I will try to separate out my reasonable and clinical thoughts on this installment without letting my love for the future books cloud my thoughts. Much.

One of the rules learned in book one is that ghosts don't talk except for the very rare type 3s and the last person to encounter one of the those, Marissa Fittes, is long dead.  So, Lucy was shocked at the end of The Screaming Staircase when the haunted and gruesome skull they keep in a jar spoke to her.  Much to her chagrin and unease (because it has nothing nice to say) it becomes downright chatty in this book and no one else can hear him, except Lucy.  Thus is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  (Seriously, just wait!)

It turns out that the skull knew the evil Victorian Dr. Bickerstaff in life and he has crucial information about the deadly supernatural mirror the doctor created which no one seems to be able to look into without dying.  It's obviously very dangerous which is why Lockwood & Co. risk life and limb to retrieve the mirror from an underworld auctioneer of ghostly artifacts after it is stolen of the disinterment site.  Lockwood and George are both excited about Lucy's ability to talk to the skull and think it is a huge ace up their sleeves but Lucy isn't so sure they can trust any of the information the skull is giving to them.  

Like book one, the smart-alecky humor shines and there are plenty of ghosts.  In almost every other way it surpasses The Screaming Staircase.  The characters and their relationships really deepen and become more complex. George in particular, gets a good bit more development as his friends worry he's been possessed by the mirror and also fret a little about how well he fits in.  By the end of this book, the three members of Lockwood and Co. are really and truly bonded and it's ridiculously heartwarming but not in a trite way.  Stroud does a great job writing interesting complex characters for a middle grade audience.  Sure, the characters act and seem quite a bit older than their 13 years but he makes sure to bring in some juvenile humor and recklessness from time to time and you can justify their maturity by the fact that they have to hunt ghosts and face peril for a living.

The plot in The Whispering Skull is also a good bit more cohesive and better paced than book one.  The Screaming Staircase had some serious set up work to do and the flow and plot was sacrificed a bit to establish the world and the characters.  With all that set up out of the way, this book has a good bit more meat to the plot and juggles several intertwining story lines, like Lockwood and Co.'s David and Goliath type rivalry with a team from the bigger, older and fancier Fittes Agency.  This book did not become an obsession for me like the later books but it was a really satisfying read and a step up from book one.

The narrator for the audio book is really good.  She does an excellent job voicing all of the characters.

FINAL VERDICT:  About as good a book series as you can get about young folk fighting ghosts and this second book in the installment is a step up from book one and sets up the rest of the series nicely. 4 out of 5 stars.

OTHER OPINIONS ARE AVAILABLE: The Book Monsters | Navigating the Stormy Shelves

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