Fate brought me together with the first two books in Jonathan Stroud’s newest series, Lockwood & Co. That is to say, fate, a sale at the British Book Store, and Erika’s glowing recommendation.
Yet I sped through these two novels with dawning horror. Both at the ghosts on the page (well, done Stroud, you’ve written some seriously scary shit) and at the fact that I was more annoyed than enamoured with Lockwood & Co. Oooh shit. What to do when your co-editor loves something and you mostly didn’t (but sort of did)? THROW DOWN. Because if you can expect one thing from Book Punks, you can expect that Erika and I won’t let our good opinion of each other get in the way of a loud, healthy book rant. If you want to hear Erika’s thoughts, read her review of The Whispering Skull (book two) here. As for mine…
The first two books in the Lockwood & Co series are really, really addictive. Seriously addictive. Stroud is excellent at timing and suspense—even if it sometimes comes across a bit made-for-tv, even if you solve the mystery hundreds of pages before the characters—and it makes you want to keep reading and reading and reading them. I left both of these books extremely annoyed, and I still want to read books 3 and 3.5. I am literally sitting here pining after The Hollow Boy. Which leads me to another thing that Stroud is really good at: effective, irresistable, completely organic cliffhanger endings.
So, points for Stroud: scary ghosts, excellent suspense, cliffhangers that make me want to keep reading and also don’t make me want to barf.
Points against Stroud: Flimsy characterization; non-existent, privilege-blind economics.
Let’s start with the characterization. UHHGKDJKFLMKLndnfklsjdklsjfö. Ehem. Must have had something in my throat.
Lockwood & Co is an independent ghost hunting agency run by the titular Lockwood and staffed by two further teenagers, Lucy and George. (Only kids have the really awesome psychic talents you need to hunt ghosts.) Lucy is a plucky, sarcastic, totally not at all pretty—why does he keep repeating this? fine she’s not pretty, Stroud, jesus—talented, psychic ghost hunter, the first-person narrator, and the star of the show. George does the team’s research and is an incompetent slob with B.O., horrible taste in clothing, and a fat ass, which is another fact that Stroud repeats over and over again. Fine, Stroud, George is overweight. You don’t have to keep repeating it as if George’s BMI and Lucy’s totally-not-pretty face are the punchlines to some meta joke you’re making about the supernatural mystery-thriller genre. I notice you aren’t making fun of the heroic and handsome White Male Protagonist, hmmmm. NOT COOL.
(This is where Erika might—because she in fact did so in a recent conversation about this—that Lucy is an unreliable narrator. Fair point.)
Speaking of the heroic and handsome WMP…Lockwood. Arrogant, mysterious, dashingly handsome (so handsome) (oh my pod his hair) Lockwood (do you think he likes me?) who, by remaining a complete enigma throughout two entire novels, also remains completely two dimensional. Who is this guy and why does anyone like him? Better question: Who fucking cares? He’s a good-looking (so good looking), privileged, arrogant ass—in the way of Sherlock, but minus the genius—who takes his colleagues for granted and, beneath the shiny veneer, is manipulative, secretive, and all around bad at communication. He is written as if he’s likeable—Lucy’s PoV strikes again—as if we’re reading about his antics and saying Oh, that Lockwood, in that voice that says we’ll forgive him anything, and almost everybody does. Fuck that guy. Fuck Lucy’s crush on him, and fuck all the times he tells her to calm down and stop worrying because—OMG, hysterical female amiright?
This would all be a lot easier to swallow if Lockwood was just the annoying side kick and not both the titular character and the only character pictured on the covers of the British editions of every book in the damn series. Lockwood is not the star of this show, dammit, Lucy is; Lockwood is more like a very important prop. Lockwood, at heart, feels like he is meant as a joke, a play on a trope, as a result, hollow.
But everyone in the novel feels like a cartoon—especially the characters outside of the Lockwood three—in large part because of Stroud’s over-the-top structural tendencies and brand of humor, but also because we get very little detail about any of them. It isn’t until the end of The Whispering Skull (ie book two) that Lucy and George finally start to feel real, not because Stroud finally turns up the back story or the characterization, but because at that point I’d spent over 800 pages reading about them doing stuff.
So. On to the wonky economics. So, Lucy. Lucy is the character we get to know the best. We know she is one of seven kids, that her father was a drunk, and that after he died, Lucy’s mother relied on the kids to help bring home money. Lucy, being such a talented psychic, became the family breadwinner at the age of six. Then some shit goes down, and at the age of 15, she runs away from home to London where after a harrowing week of failed job interviews, she is finally hired by Lockwood & Co.
I was irritated when we didn’t see Lucy asking about the salary—it doesn’t gel with my idea of a character who has been forced to think about the finances of an 8-person family from ages 6 to 15—but hey, maybe the salary discussion happened off-page. Maybe the best way to write a page turner is to leave out the piddly financial shit. Maybe. Maybe except that several hundred pages and one month later, a character says something to Lucy that reminds her that she hasn’t gotten paid since she started the job, and she hadn’t even noticed. D’oh. Cue punchline drumroll. Har har har.
It was strange then, if we’re supposed to believe that Lucy is the kind of person who would forget to ask about her paycheck, that multiple times throughout the next two books, to find scenes were Lockwood tricks and/or asks Lucy to pay for shit when they’re out because she’s “the only one of us who carries money” and because well I don’t fucking know, she’s his fucking butler/mother or something. Annoying. Annoyed. It’s a nit pick, I know, but it is exactly this sort of inconsistenct detail that undermines the characterization Stroud does put into these characters. And if everything is just one big joke—and I’d guess a large percentage of it is meant to be over-the-top in order to be funny—then frankly, fuck all this shit ’cause didn’t even make me laugh once.
And I still want to find out what happens in book three. Ugh.