Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood & CoThree years have passed since Jonathan Stroud conjured up the last instalment in his diabolically good Bartimaeus Sequence, but our wait for another ripping yarn is soon to end. I was a latecomer to Stroud’s fiction – it wasn’t until the publication of the final novel in the Bartimaeus Sequence that I stumbled across it – and I was instantly captivated by his masterful storytelling and delightful wit and above all his genius for taking desiccated conventions and breathing new life into them.

There are several reasons why Stroud’s fiction had slipped under my radar for so long, but mostly because it is marketed as Children’s or Young Adult fiction. As I’ve written before, I’m not entirely convinced that marketing fiction as Children’s or YA is particularly useful or effective and one consequence at least is that it’s often overlooked by those of us a little longer in the tooth. This is unfortunate: while there’s no doubt that fiction written for children is typically unsatisfying reading for adults, much fiction that is marketed as Children’s fiction is not in fact written for children. Authors of the like of Alan Garner (“I certainly have never written for children”), Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Stroud and many others have written fiction that is accessible to young readers but theirs is fiction for anyone who values quality writing. As proved the case with the Bartimaeus Sequence, Stroud’s writing is at least as much a delight for this adult as I’m sure it is for a younger readership.

But I digress.

Jonathan Stroud’s new series, Lockwood & Co. is kicking off with The Screaming Staircase. Due in August, it’s a ripper! As with the Bartimaeus Sequence much of the action takes place in London, but this is not Bartimaeus’ London, nor is it ours, and for this new series Stroud has constructed another elaborate alternate reality. In the Bartimaeus Sequence, history evolved at a tangent to ours due to the existence of demons – who are a source of magic – and magicians, who are able to control them. Having established this fundamental difference, Stroud tweaks history accordingly so that while there is much that is familiar about the world we find ourselves in – its nation states, political structures, even elements of its history – it is appropriately and fascinatingly alien.

Stroud performs a similar magic trick with the new series. The moment at which the reality of Lockwood & Co. diverges from ours is only sixty years or so in the past, and so it’s not surprising that there is far more about Lockwood’s London and its inhabitants that is familiar. But the differences are more than a little hair-raising: it’s not the existence of magic that sets Lockwood’s world apart from ours, it is the unquiet dead. Ghosts. The Problem, as it is called with wonderfully British understatement, is not well understood, its cause, a mystery. With the benefit of hindsight it’s now thought that ghosts must always have been amongst us, but if that is the case, ghosts were relatively well behaved in times past. That changed 50 or 60 years ago when the dead started haunting the living in earnest. And often with fatal consequences. Now the world is in the grip of a Haunting epidemic.

There is the faintest hint of Steampunk, or at least of the Victorian Age, in the world in which we find ourselves. The Information Revolution that characterises our experience of the 21st Century has not occurred; instead this is a world in which all available resources – intellectual, capital, human, science & technology – have been diverted into understanding and dealing with the Problem. Everywhere we find the application of iron, salt, silver (and a nice hot cup of tea – the setting is Britain, after all), and other more exotic elements in defence against the dead. In the hands of Agents, identified as “sensitives” and trained from a young age to counter the ghostly threat, these elements (with the possible exception of the tea, that is) become weapons in the fight to rid the world of ghosts. Thus we find ourselves in a modern society in which safety-wear is a chain mail shirt and a silver tipped rapier is an Agent’s weapon of choice.

And so, finally, we come to Anthony Lockwood and his colleagues, Lucy Carlyle and George Cubbins, three Agents in a small, independent Agency tasked with protecting the rest of us and taking the fight to the dead. But Lockwood & Co. is languishing, brought close to ruin through mishap and bad judgement in a series of cases they’ve taken on. Each of the three Agents is in their way a highly talented sensitive – those who can see, hear or otherwise sense the supernatural – but they have a lot to learn about working together, and Lockwood, brilliant though he is, suffers from a certain youthful rashness bordering on utter foolishness that threatens to get them all killed.

Which gets us to the dead. At one extreme there are the Type Ones. They’re not so bad. They’ll give you the willies but are harmless enough. Unless, of course, they’re a dissembling Type Two. Type Twos will kill you given the opportunity – a single touch on bare skin causing the victim to swell up, turn blue and die a painful death. And then there are Type Threes…

There we have it: agents, agencies, the dead, a mystery about the origin of the Problem. And in the background, co-ordinating or at least over-seeing the operations of the agencies, is a powerful organisation called DEPRAC, the Department of Psychical Research and Control. Part government department, part police, DEPRAC’s role is to understand the Problem and to keep tabs on the agencies. Impetuous, rash, a little careless, it’s not long before Lockwood & Co. comes to the attention of DEPRAC and then the trials and tribulations of our three heroes really start to mount.

With plentiful wit and good humour, more than a few chilling moments and, above all, refreshing creativity, Jonathan Stroud has constructed an energetic, fast paced narrative that trips nimbly back and forth from the present to the past as he first sketches and then deftly paints this fascinating landscape. Events are seen through Lucy’s eyes – sometimes coolly appraising, sometimes fiery – as mishap and miscalculation and the curious interconnection of seemingly unrelated cases take the three young agents on a thrilling (read, terrifying) journey that promises, finally, to bring the team together … although, perhaps, they will be together in an early grave…

Published by Randomhouse, Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase is due on 29 Aug 2013. Great fun and highly recommended.

Read SFW’s review of The Amulet of Samarkand, the first novel in the Bartimaeus Trilogy.

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