Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character development: ***** (5 stars)
Plot: ***** (5 stars)
Writing: **** (4 stars)
Overall: ***** (5 stars)
Age range recommendation: 11 and up
It’s rare and exciting that I read more than one book in a series. Series aren’t often my thing, and even when I do read a first book that sweeps me off my feet, the sequels tend to get lost at the bottom of a daunting pile of New Books I Need To Read. That avalanche is real, it’s heavy, and it’s never ever ending. But I was kinda-sorta on a little vacation this weekend (meaning I stayed home and ate cranberries and finally got to read in the daylight) so I said to myself, “Do something crazy an unexpected with your free time! Break the rules! Follow your heart to whatever terrifying destination awaits!” I didn’t move from my reading chair, but I did pick up the second book in a series.
Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series is ghostly and scary and action-packed. There’s a terrifying destination for ya’, without having to put on proper pants! And The Whispering Skull is a sequel, so I can put a check-mark next to “unexpected”, too.
I read it because Halloween’s approaching, and Stroud writes some properly terrifying scares. Bleeding walls, hungry rats: really not for the faint of heart.
I read it because I really enjoyed The Screaming Staircase last year, and wanted to hang out with Lockwood, Lucy, and George again. You can read my review here. The old-fashioned ghost-hunting subject mixed so well with the modern setting and characters in the first installment, while the young team’s mysterious adventure was tightly-plotted and tense. Plus –huzzah! — the ending left room for development but was not an unbearable cliffhanger that left frayed seams and torn holes in the fabric of the plot. More of that in kids’ series, please and thank you.
And I read it because the skull on the cover was staring at me from my shelf, whispering: “Read me. You know you want to fall back into a world where specters haunt the streets and psychic children carry swords. It’s a rainy October afternoon and you’ve got nowhere to be until tomorrow. Reeeeaad meeee.” So I gave in and followed the skull’s advice. Unlike Lucy and her friends, who end up seriously regretting an instance in which they follow the haunted cranium’s suggestions, I had a great time reading the book. Didn’t even mind the goosebumps too much, though I did turn on lots of lights that evening…
The Whispering Skull introduces a new set of assignments for Lockwood & co, but also carries over some unsolved mysteries from the first book. Clever readers would have no trouble starting with the second book, as long as they could throw themselves unreservedly into the setting of post-Problem modern London. (The problem being ghosts, of course, the history of which is developed a little further in this second installment.)
Lucy, George, and the ever-dashing Lockwood made quite a name for their rag-tag agency after their adventure in Combe Carey Hall where, yes, the staircase was rather unhappily vocal. They’ve been busy with new cases and a few mishaps. When the bully Quill Kipps and his team of smug, snobby young agents from the well-established Fittes agency challenge Lockwood & co to a ghost-hunting competition, the rivalry between agencies takes on higher stakes than ever before. Bruised pride and broken faces abound. The trial: the next time they’re each working to solve the same haunting, whichever team defeats the spirits first and secures the case gets to humiliate the other team in print.
As luck would have it, Lockwood and Kipps find themselves called together quite soon. An every-night graveyard job went badly awry when a definitely-haunted and probably-cursed mirror is stolen from the scene. The mirror has an irresistible pull, but anyone who looks into it goes very mad and is quickly dead. The twisted individual who created the mirror centuries before was Dr. Bickerstaff: a man obsessed with finding out what lay beyond mortal perception, who was pleased as plasma to harm other people in his quest to find out. With the mirror at large in London, the living are at risk. Scotland Yard insists that Lockwood’s team work together with Kipps’ cronies to secure the mirror and keep Bickerstaff’s ghost from killing anyone else. Racing against nefarious antique dealers, dangerously obsessed academics, and their horrid rivals, the young psychics will have to draw on all their sword skills and quick wits to find the mirror before calamity finds them. (Lucy even has to do it in a cocktail dress and high heels!) And if that weren’t enough to keep them on their toes, the haunted skull that George has been experimenting on since Lucy joined agency has started talking to her. Only to her. No one has been able to converse with spirits since the legendary founder of the Fittes agency, so very long ago. So why is the rude and crafty skull trying to get Lucy’s attention? Why is it trying to play on their fears and turn the three friends against one another? And should they trust anything the skull tells them, if it might help solve the case even while it endangers their lives?
The Whispering Skull has all the trappings of a good episodic sequel. The mystery in this book is new and self-contained, but bigger questions from the first book get embellished. (I can only hope there will be a third book next year, so that I can continue my wild and crazy rule-breaking trend.) Some of the things I didn’t like so much about The Screaming Staircase are even remedied in this installment. For example, I thought that the antagonism between Kipps and Lockwood was too petty when the characters had their little standoff in book one. The renewed strength and higher stakes of their rivalry made me really cheer for Lucy, George, and Lockwood to solve the case and wipe the smug looks off of their opponents’ pointy faces. That is, I cheered for them when I wasn’t inwardly screaming, “Agghh just run! There’s something horrible coming down the hall!”
Stroud’s writing continues to be mature and chilling. These books are rather long for Middle-Grade adventures, topping out at over 400 pages. What with the gruesome hauntings and complex plot, I still recommend Lockwood & Co to teenaged readers and even to adults looking for fast-paced supernatural thrills. There’s no heavy romance in the series, yet – no time for making eyes at one another when you’re busy jabbing wraiths with swords – but the plot, action, and lively banter should stand up to older readers’ expectations very well. Many middle school readers will surely love the books, as long as they’ve got an appetite for some quality horror but no appetite for their dinner just yet. (Did I mention the rats?)
I’m getting seriously attached to Lockwood and his not-always-so-merry band of psychic swashbucklers. All of the major characters had a chance to develop further in The Whispering Skull – even the skull himself. Maybe it’s thanks to the haunted head’s spiteful meddling that we learn more about Lucy’s gift, about the extent of George’s curiosity, and about Lockwood’s dark secrets. I wouldn’t thank the skull, myself, because honestly it’s an asshole. But I’m really liking the chance to get to know these characters better. This series deserves a whole hoard of eager followers.
Can you guess if I have any regret about reading the second book in a children’s series instead of making a few inches of progress against the Towers To Read? None at all. Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull has got me so ready to wander around in the dark on Halloween night. I would feel a little better if Lockwood himself were around to provide back-up, but maybe I’ll stick some iron in my pockets and lavender in my purse, just to be safe.