“It was only at the very end of the Lavender Lodge job, when we were fighting for our lives in that unholy guesthouse, that I glimpsed Lockwood & Co. working together perfectly for the first time. It was just the briefest flash, but every detail remains etched into my memory: those moments of sweet precision when we truly acted as a team.
Yes, every detail. Anthony Lockwood, coat aflame, arms flapping madly as he staggered backward toward the open window. George Cubbins, dangling from the ladder one-handed, like an oversized, windblown pear. And me-Lucy Carlyle-bruised, bloody, and covered in cobwebs, sprinting, jumping, rolling desperately to avoid the ghostly coils…
Sure, I know none of that sounds so great. And to be fair, we could have done without George’s squeaking. But this was the thing about Lockwood & Co.: we made the most of unpromising situations and turned them to our advantage.
Want to know how? I’ll show you.”
So, yes, I know that is a lot more than just an opening sentence, but it’s just such a stellar start to a stellar volume of a stellar series that I just HAD TO include the whole thing. It incorporates many of the things I absolutely love about Jonathan Stroud’s phenomenal Lockwood & Co. series: the snarky voice, the wonderfully fresh descriptive writing (a “windblown pear”! I love it.), and a glimpse of the ghostly comedy of errors style narrative that is to come. In case you are unfamiliar, this is an alternate reality in which the world has been overrun by The Problem, i.e., hauntings up the wazoo. The ghosts (or, “Visitors”) take many forms, and if ghosts touch you you can die of “ghost touch.” Fortunately for the middle grade audience, only kids and teenagers can see ghosts, and so there are all these child ghostbuster agencies flapping about, fighting ghosts with rapiers, magnesium flares, and iron chains, as one does. I gave the exact same summation to a bunch of middle school teachers the other day and they all started smiling these contented little smiles, because if you don’t think these books sound like a whomping good time then you are probably on drugs of the major bummer buzzkill variety. If you are interested, you should read my review of the second volume, The Whispering Skull, here. (Sorry, folks, I read the first book, The Screaming Staircase before Book Punks was even BORN.)
In other words, I adore the snot out of this series, and as far as I’m concerned this is the best installment to date. At this point readers are well familiar with the characters, and so cracking open the novel to a fresh tale of disaster felt like sitting down to tea with an old friend and promptly farting: a bit uncomfortable, but a good experience in the long run. I particularly dug the way in which the addition of a new character exposed Lucy’s (often quite glaring) asshole tendencies; while I do enjoy her as a narrator and would 100% corner her in a fight if it came down to it, I do love it when an author creates a flawed main character. Lucy’s insecurities in the face of someone who has apparently succeeded at traditional femininity in ways that she has not was simultaneously a bit pillow-bitey but also totally sympathetic, at least to someone who sometimes doesn’t know how to dress herself or style her hair (hint: that someone is me).
The Hollow Boy also benefits from an increased presence of my favorite character: the skull in the jar. Yes, that’s right, Lucy carries around a skull inhabited by a ghost that is contained in a magically reinforced jar. Only she can hear its voice, and so she has some really deep, seemingly one-sided conversations with it on the regular. FOR EXAMPLE:
“‘I’ve done my thinking,’ the voice from my bag announced. ‘And I’ve had an idea.’
‘Great.’ What was that odd sensation, deep down and far away? It had really been bugging me. I wanted the skull’s insight. ‘Let’s hear, it, then.’
‘Here’s my tip: lure her down to Kitchenware and brain her with a skillet.‘
‘Holly. It’s a golden opportunity. There are lots of pointy things there too, if you prefer. But basically a simple smack with a rolling pin would do fine.‘
I gave a snort of fury. ‘I’m not interested in killing Holly! I’m concerned about the weird vibes I’m getting in this place! Is mindless violence your solution to everything?’
The ghost considered. ‘Pretty much, yeah.'”
(I’ve bolded the skull’s dialogue because it’s italicized in the book.)
All of the skull’s moments in the spotlight had smackings of another of my favorite fictional characters of all time, also created by Stroud: Bartimaeus, the djinn star of the fantastic Bartimaeus books. My burgeoning love for the skull and its parallel brother from another series mother, Bartimaeus, led me to a pretty profound discovery about myself: I am simply DYING for a supernatural, snarky sidekick. I don’t know whom I’d prefer. I mean, Bartimaeus is fairly all-powerful and operates on a skrillion different levels of intelligence, but the skull is so Shakespearean, if you just imagine that the skull that Hamlet soliloquizes is actually a bit of a mouthy, evil asshole, which would make it less of a soliloquiy but whatever, moving right along. Which would you prefer? Snarky djinn or snarky skull-in-a-jar? We ask the pressing, hard-hitting questions here at Book Punks.
One thing that does occasionally bother me is the physical characterizations of, well, everyone. As is typical in so many fictional ensembles, the characters we’re supposed to love are good looking, and the characters who are unsavory in some way, whether they’re sniveling, nasty, or what have you, are all unattractive. Stroud does do a pretty admirable job of foiling Lockwood and George in this way; Lockwood is charismatic and handsome, whereas George is socially inept and physically sloppy. We, as the readers, are probably supposed to like Lockwood more, but honestly? He’s a bit of a bore, and I’ve always preferred hard-researching George. Whether this was Stroud’s intention or no, who knows, but I’d like to imagine that it was so I can lower my raised eyebrow a bit.
Bottom line: this is the best yet in an already superstar of a middle grade series. It’s clever and full of effusive descriptive writing, and is surprisingly a bit terrifying. I abruptly went from laughing and smiling good-naturedly at it all to white-knuckle gripping the book and feeling nervous about being home alone. Stroud’s outdone himself yet again with his acrobatic writing, being able to turn on a dime from very British slapstick comedy to Gaiman-esque horror; the man can even write a hilarious glossary, for chrissakes. I can’t wait for the next volume.