The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud
Published by Disney Hyperion
Genres: Children’s, Paranormal, Horror
For Fans of: The Bartimaeus Sequence, Skulduggery Pleasant, cool heroines, and, middle grade novels that read like YA.
My Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
In the six months since Anthony, Lucy, and George survived a night in
the most haunted house in England, Lockwood & Co. hasn’t made much progress. Quill Kipps and his team of Fittes agents keep swooping in on Lockwood’s investigations. Finally, in a fit of anger, Anthony challenges his rival to a contest: the next time the two agencies compete on a job, the losing side will have to admit defeat in the Times newspaper. Things look up when a new client, Mr. Saunders, hires Lockwood & Co. to be present at the excavation of Edmund Bickerstaff, a Victorian doctor who reportedly tried to communicate with the dead. Saunders needs the coffin sealed with silver to prevent any supernatural trouble. All goes well—until George’s curiosity attracts a horrible phantom. Back home at Portland Row, Lockwood accuses George of making too many careless mistakes. Lucy is distracted by urgent whispers coming from the skull in the ghost jar. Then the team is summoned to DEPRAC headquarters. Kipps is there too, much to Lockwood’s annoyance. Bickerstaff’s coffin was raided and a strange glass object buried with the corpse has vanished. Inspector Barnes believes the relic to be highly dangerous, and he wants it found.
This review is late because life likes to keep me busy sometimes. I apologize.
I have read the Bartimaeus Sequence five times. I recommend it to all my friends so passionately, it’s a miracle I haven’t hit any of them in the face with the books and forced them to read it. Yet. I was even contemplating another reread sometime this month. Basically, if you tell me Jonathan Stroud’s written it, I will shove aside the children the book is meant for in order to read it.
(Disclaimer: I’m not really going to shove children aside. That’s me being melodramatic. You know what I mean)
Like the Bartimaeus Sequence, Lockwood & Co. is set in an alternate England. But instead of djinns, afrits, imps and magicians, the Brits have to deal with hauntings galore. Yup, you heard me. A ghost epidemic. The poor sods.
The Whispering Skull is the second book in the series, set six months after the events that took place in The Screaming Staircase. Picking up the pace from the first one, TWS sees Lockwood & Co. a little busier than they were accustomed to, thanks to the shiny reputation they gained after solving a case in one of England’s most haunted houses.
The characters had grown some since we last saw them. Lockwood, while still charming as hell, was given an air of mystery. No, wait. That’s not very accurate. His pre-existing air of mystery was intensified. He was given a layer of darkness that wasn’t very visible in the first book. And it was done so gradually, so artfully, that it didn’t seem at all out of place. The first book gave you the nagging feeling that there was more to Lockwood than the charming, charismatic boy he appeared to be. The second book validated those feelings.
TWS showed us a side of George we hadn’t seen before. This kid was at risk of becoming your run-of-the-mill flat, static character whose sole purpose in the group was to act as comic relief. I have to admit, I was worried for him after The Screaming Staircase. But it turns out I should have trusted Stoud to do right by George. He’s still funny – in that dry, sarcastic, British way of his – but TWS showed us that he’s so much more than just the funny man. George is is a meticulous planner, an academic. He’s the order to Lucy and Lockwood’s chaos. He plans. He researches. He shakes his head at them when they leap before they look.
I said in my first review that Lucy had the potential to become a great heroine, and I am beyond pleased to see that her character is heading in that direction. She’s still uncertain, still growing and still wonderfully complex. But she’s slowly starting to come into her own – starting to trust herself and the people she’s around. I’m truly looking forward to see where the third book takes her.
If I’m being completely honest, the cast and the dialogue coming from the three main characters (and the skull) are probably the best things about this book. Which isn’t to say the rest of it was bad. Yes, the narrative reads like a YA novel thanks to Lucy’s vocabulary and manner of speaking (one of the things I love about Stroud’s writing) but it’s important to remember that this is still a children’s book. So the plot’s not overly complex, and it kind of lacks the punch that Stroud gave us in the Bartimaeus Sequence, and… it’s missing that sense of urgency of danger from his first series as well. And if you’re looking for the same wit and snark had us cackling with ol’ Barty, then you’re going to be disappointed. I mean, the snark’s there, just not at the same level as Barty’s.
But this could just be me nitpicking. It’s a good book overall. An enjoyable, if somewhat slow, read. The cast definitely makes up for any of it’s shortcomings, and I definitely do recommend it.
The big reveal at the end of the book was unfair, but promises good things about the next book. It’ll be very interesting to see how the story picks up from there.