Review posted March 9, 2023.
Listening Library, 2021. 12 hours, 19 minutes.
Review written February 26, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Children's Speculative Fiction
Hooray! Jonathan Stroud has a new series out about teens doing exploits in a world not quite like our own. I was already a devoted fan of his Lockwood & Co. series, which is now a Netflix series and gaining new fans. (Hooray!) This one has much the same feel, the same cleverness and banter between the characters and is wonderful in every way. I'm kind of glad I didn't get this first book read as soon as it came out, because now I only need to wait a couple months for the next one.
Scarlett McCain lives in Britain in the far distant future, after the Cataclysm and the Great Dying. Britain is now a set of islands with fortified towns and a wilderness in between. There's a lagoon where London used to be.
The book begins as Scarlett pulls off a bank robbery. She needs the money to pay back some folks who will kill her if she fails. Everything goes smoothly, but in the wilderness she comes across a bus that has met with a horrific accident, and all the passengers were eaten by wild beasts. She stops to see if they left any valuables, planning to leave before dark.
In the bus, she hears a sound coming from the toilet. Sure enough, a boy comes out. He'd locked himself in while the others were being eaten. His name's Albert Browne and he's naive and awkward, and Scarlett doesn't quite have the heart to leave him to try to make it to a town on his own. So she takes him into her care, planning to get him to the nearest town.
The next day, though, they get chased by men with dogs and guns. Scarlett's never known anyone to be so persistent after a bank robbery. But just before she escapes by jumping into a river (after pushing Albert in), one of the gunmen laughs and asks why she thinks they're chasing after her. Turns out there's much more to Albert than meets the eye.
The book is full of more exploits. And danger. Albert has heard that the Free Isles -- which lie in the London Lagoon -- will take anyone, despite blemishes or oddities. But it's not easy to get there, and they're still being chased.
Fair warning: The book is full of violence and gore. Another terror is the zombie-like "tainted" who eat human flesh. The animals are all more fearsome than in our day, too. One of the terrors of the Thames is the river otters that can devour the unwary. Scarlett does some killing, but it does feel warranted.
Also in that future day, instead of individual religions, there are Faith Houses that offer all religions humans have ever observed. And they are wary of the evolution that has happened to the animals and have strict rules against any blemishes or deviations in people in order to live in the towns. I'm never thrilled to read a book where the villains are powerful religious people, because that's not how religion should be. However, then I had to reflect that in the Gospels themselves, the villains are powerful religious people. Scarlett and Browne are being tracked by the most powerful people of their society, and the reader is rooting for them.
Sophie Aldred does a wonderful job reading this one. I always love an English accent, but on top of that, she puts so much personality into Albert's voice. We hear his naivete and his earnestness, his wonder at the wider world and just how annoying he must be to Scarlett. Though I'm tempted to preorder the next book, I think I'm going to check out another audiobook instead. This is just wonderful.