Jun 22, 2008

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

The year is 1872. Sally Lockhart, a sixteen-year-old girl, receives a letter telling her that her father was drowned in the South China Sea. Having no other family – her mother died when she was a baby – she is forced to go and live with a relative, Mrs Reeds, who treats her like a nuisance. But then Sally receives another letter, or rather, the fragment of one, that seems to imply that her father’s death was no accident and that she might be in danger herself. The letter tells her to beware something called “The Seven Blessings.” Sally begins to investigate, and the events that ensue force her to leave Mrs Reeds’ house and fend for herself. But how is a young girl to do so in Victorian society?

The Ruby in the Smoke is in some ways a cosy Victorian mystery, but it’s also more than that. The plot itself was interesting, but not exactly remarkable as far as mysteries go. I guess the book wasn’t detailed enough for the suspense to truly build up. Things were revelled just when I was beginning to wonder about them. The characters, however, kept me glued to the story.

I really liked Sally herself, and I liked the many friends she makes along the way. From the very start we are told that Sally had an unusual education. She wasn’t taught what were then considered proper feminine subjects, but rather business management skills, horse ridding, shooting, etc. I liked how Pullman used Sally and another character, Rosa, to take a look at gender roles and the place of women in Victorian society.

Rosa is another young woman whose circumstances forced her to learn to fend for herself, and she did so in what many consider a scandalous and immoral way – she became an actress. At one point, Sally has a conversation with Rosa and tells her that she often feels inadequate and ashamed of herself for not being a “proper” young woman. And Rosa tells her that they both know deep down that they are doing nothing wrong, so there’s no reason to be ashamed. This might sound obvious enough, but at the time, considering all the social pressures they had to face, it was a courageous stance to take.

Another scene I really liked: when Sally realizes, after spending her first evening at Rosa and her brother Frederick’s house, that what was so odd about everything that’s happened was that for the first time in her life she was being treated like a person, and not just like a girl.

But back to the mystery: there might not have been as much suspense as one would expected, but there was danger and lots of atmosphere, with menacing villains, opium dens and foggy alleys. The more the story advances, the more personal it becomes, and this is especially clear by the end of the book. The Ruby in the Smoke is a story about friendship and family and independence and being yourself.

I have, however, two complaints. The first is that at the start of a chapter the narrator says this about Sally:
But she was, as Mr Temple had said, a very unusual young lady. Her upbringing had given her an independence of mind that made her more like a girl of today than one of her own time.
This is true enough, but for me it was like a flashing neon sign saying “suspension of disbelief ends here”. I have nothing against narrators calling attention to the fictional nature of their story. There are many books I love that do that, and do it very well indeed. But this one isolated reference felt extremely awkward to me, probably because up until that point the fact that this was that kind of narrator had not been established. And for the rest of the book it never happened again. There was just that one reference to the world outside the story, and it felt put of place.

The second thing was the fact that at one point, when Sally and some of the other characters are in hiding, they do something that would very obviously give their location away to anyone looking for them (and they were indeed being looked for). When they did it, I just couldn’t believe they would let themselves get caught in such a stupid way. But then they didn’t get caught, and I honestly don’t know what I would have preferred – doubting the characters’ intelligence of being forced to doubt the story as a whole.

But anyway, qualms and plot holes aside, I really did enjoy this book a lot. It’s not perfect, and it's by no means Philip Pullman at his best, but it’s a very a good read and it makes me want to continue with the series. I want to spend more times with the characters, and I want to see if the next book answers some questions that were left hanging. So The Shadow in the North, here I come.

Other Opinions:
Jenny's Books
Mari Reads
Fyrefly's Book Blog

(Have you reviewed this as well? Let me know and I'll link to your post.)


  1. Annie just got this from paperback swap, and I know she's anxious to read it. It does sound like quite the interesting story. About your qualms, knowing me, I probably wouldn't have even noticed the first...I don't think I'm smart enough. :) But the second would have driven me crazy! Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed it enough to want to continue!

  2. I enjoyed reading your book review, and I can't wait to read the book! Overall, it definitely doesn't sound as good as His Dark Materials, but that series is hard to beat. I will watch for the things that you pointed out!


  3. I watched this about a year ago when it was on TV (PBS?) and enjoyed it. I've been wondering how the book compares to the movie. I enjoyed His Dark Materials very much. I have certain "issues" with his world view, but I don't tend to let things like that bother me when reading fiction. Loved the writing, loved the story, and still carry around images in my head that I think about once in awhile.

    If you've watched the movie version of Ruby in the Smoke and have any thoughts on comparison to the book, I'd love to hear them.

  4. This book was one of my favourites when I was a teen, together with The shadow of the North. I think I had a crush on Fred Garland at the time. Then last year I re-read the first two books and added the third book in the series, The Tiger in the Well--it was good, but the magic wasn't there for me anymore :( for reasons I can't explain without spoiling you terribly with The Shadow of the North.

  5. I'm so ashamed to admit that I've not read anything by Philip Pullman! But this book sounds like a great one to start with though. Thanks for the review, Nymeth! :)

  6. I REALLY love Pullman's His Dark Materials books (despite similar reservations as Terri B.), but I haven't read any of his other stuff - you've made this sound like a good place to start - despite the pair of bumps in the road you highlighted!.

  7. I read this and The Shadow of the North earlier this year and enjoyed them both, but prefered the second one. I'll read the third over the hols

  8. Debi: I really don't think it has anything to do with being smart...I was probably just being too picky :P But it's definitely an enjoyable book regardless.

    Annie: His Dark Materials is indeed hard, if not impossible, to beat! In my book anyway :P This one is still fun, though. It's hard to go wrong with Philip Pullman.

    Terri B: I haven't watched the movie, no, but I'm curious about it! I just don't like how now they stuck those movie covers on the books...I like the old covers so much better. About His Dark Materials, I love it, it's my favourite fantasy series! I'm glad you managed to enjoy the story despite those issues. Pullman's worldview is in many ways similar to my own, but I understand why some readers have some problems with it. And sometimes it's interesting to read books grounded on a worldview different from our own. Two examples are, for me, A Wrinkle in Time and Anne Rice's Memnoch the Devil.

    Alessandra: You've made me curious! I'll read the rest of the series and then you can tell me what it was.

    Melody: He's one of my favourite authors. I hope you enjoy his books! This wouldn't be a bad starting point, but I think either The Golden Compass or I Was a Rat! are even better.

    Ken: My favourite of his other stuff is, so far, a little book called I was a Rat!. It's such a sweet story, and it's structured in a really clever way. It's actually a fairy tale retold, but you only realize which by the end. Another one I really loved was Clockwork, a delicious little Gothic tale. I think you'd really enjoy either one of those!

    Katrina, I hope you continue to enjoy the series!

  9. Sally Lockhart is one of my favourite characters in the world!
    i first read this book when I was 12 and had to reread it another time to actually get it:P eheh.
    The second one is good too, but I think my favourite is the third, The tiger in the well. I've read it only 2 or 3 years ago and it definitely established Sally as one of the coolest women in literature. The story is simple. It doesn't have many twists and turns and you pretty much can guess the mystery straight away. It's a much more mature novel than the other two, where Sally's independence comes back and bites her, showing her the harsh reality of victorian times. It's a book that will always be with my top favourites!

  10. I got this series after reading and loving His Dark Materials but there they still sit on the shelf unread. Someday..

  11. I still have to find a copy of this book! Anyway, I think I could start with the succeeding volumes (which I obviously own). Hahaha!

  12. This sounds like a great book. I need to re-read His Dark Materials because it's been many years since I read them the first time.

  13. Valentina: Now I'm even more curious about the rest of the series!

    Tanabata: The old books versus time conflict :P

    Lightheaded, hope you find it!

    Andrea: I need to re-read it too. It's been a while.

  14. I keep meaning to read this series but haven't gotten around to it yet. It sounds ok but not something to rush out and get hold of. I hope you enjoy some of the others better.

  15. I just finished reading the book my favorite part was at the end of the book when the letter from her dad. I am glad and touched and the part when she was in that guys tent and Mrs. Halland is chasing her i liked that part Exciting! I just dont get anything after the part when where they meet under the tree with Adeline? Can someone help me!


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