Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud was published in 2009 by Hyperion.

Halli Sveinsson has grown up in the House of Svein, hearing the legends of the heroes as all his forefathers did. Theirs is a peaceful society, where the violence of the past has been outlawed and disputes are settled by the Council. But young Halli has never quite seemed to fit in with the others. For starters, he is neither handsome nor tall, like his siblings. He’s stumpy and swarthy, with a quick mind and an aptitude for getting into trouble. Bored with everyday chores and sheepherding, he can’t help playing practical jokes on everyone, from Eyjolf, the old servant, to his brother and sister. But when he plays a trick on Ragnar of the House of Hakon, he goes too far, setting in motion a chain of events that will forever alter his destiny. Because of it, Halli will have to leave home and go on a hero’s quest. Along the way, he will encounter highway robbers, terrifying monsters, and a girl who may be as fearless as he is. In the end he will discover the truth about the legends, his family, and himself.

Rating: 2/5

In between his Bartimaeus trilogy and his Lockwood & Co. series, Stroud wrote this little Norse fantasy. Heroes of the Valley is, unfortunately, not a good representation of Stroud as an author, in my opinion. It’s not particularly funny, the main character is unlikeable for a good three quarters of the book, and the ending reveal is so random and strange that it falls flat on its face.

Halli is probably one of the most aggravating protagonists to read because he’s selfish, oafish, and unlikeable up to about the culmination of the plot, which happens close to the end of the book. Then he becomes fairly awesome, but it’s a sudden change, one that you can accept because of what he’s been through but still squint sideways at and wonder how, exactly, he changed so suddenly. I did like Aud, though. I don’t usually like female characters like her, but Aud was great.

Reading Heroes of the Valley after reading something like The Screaming Staircase is disappointing. It’s disappointing because I know Stroud is a better author than what this book shows. Heroes of the Valley is so generic, so absent of any of Stroud’s usual plot tricks and characterization that it almost feels as if it was written by a completely different person. To be honest, if this was the first book of Stroud’s I had picked up, I likely would not have picked up anything else of his. I’d recommend Stroud’s other works—but not this. There are better books to read.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death, rude humor.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“Are there roads beyond the cairns?”

The old woman blinked. “Roads? Whatever do you mean?”

“Old ones that the settlers took. To get to this valley in the days before Svein. To other valleys, other people.”

Slowly, bemusedly, she shook her head. ‘If there were trails they will be lost. The settlement was long ago. Besides, there are no other valleys, no other people.”

“How do you know that?”

“How can there be roads, where the Trows are? They devour all who go there.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2kR5EGr

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The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

The Creeping Shadow, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2016 by Hyperion. It is the sequel to The Hollow Boy.

After leaving Lockwood & Co. four months ago, Lucy has become a freelance operative, hiring herself out to psychic investigation agencies that value her ever-improving skills in locating Sources and shutting down Visitors. Her new life of independence, complete with her own studio apartment, would be fine if it weren’t’ for having to work with incompetent agents and answer to meddling supervisors. And it does sometimes get lonely, even though she has the skull in the jar to annoy her with his leers and sarcastic jibes. One day Lucy receives a surprise visit from Lockwood, who tells her he needs a good listener for a tough assignment. Penelope Fittes, the leader of the giant Fittes Agency, wants them—and only them—to locate and remove the Source for the ghost of a legendary cannibal. Throughout this very dangerous undertaking, tensions remain high between Lucy and her former colleagues. What will it take to reunite the team?

Rating: 4/5

I’ve enjoyed each book in the Lockwood & Co. series more and more, and I ate up The Creeping Shadow. Creepy ghosts (seriously, the cannibal one is the creepiest yet), intriguing developments, and cute awkwardness between Lucy and Lockwood led up to an ending that I can say I truly did not see coming—and took the series in a whole new direction for the grand finale fifth book.

I said it in The Hollow Boy and I’ll say it again here: adding Holly to the picture and making Lucy leave Lockwood & Co. was truly a good thing for the series, which felt a little stagnant to me after the second book. I was ambivalent about Lucy in the first two books, grew to like her in the third, and now am vehemently behind her in the fourth. And her camaraderie with the skull (who I’ve found annoying in the past) works, so that her going after it made complete sense character-wise.

The plot revelations in this book were good, too—and reminded me strongly of Stranger Things, as any book with other dimensions will now do—and although I knew who the villain would be based on what happened in the third book, I was not expecting the Big Reveal at the end—and it was a fantastic whammy of an ending, too.

The supernatural/horror genre really is not my cup of tea, so it’s a testament to just how good Stroud is that I’m enjoying Lockwood & Co., in all of its spooky element, so thoroughly. I can’t wait for what the last book will reveal for these characters that I’ve grown to love.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)

He was here! Why was he here? Excitement and incredulity kept smashing together, like waves colliding at a jetty. There was so much noise going on in my mind that the first priority—making small talk—was a bit of a problem.

“How’s business with Lockwood and Co.?” I asked over my shoulder. “I mean, I see you in the papers all the time. Not that I’m looking for you, obviously. I just see stuff. But you seem to be doing okay, as far as I can gather. When I think about it. Which is rare. Do you take sugar now?”

He was staring at the clutter on my floor, blank-eyed, as if lost in thought. “It’s only been a few months, Luce. I haven’t suddenly started taking sugar in my tea…” Then he brightened, nudging the ghost-jar with the side of his shoe. “Hey, how’s our friend here doing?”

“The skull? Oh, it helps me out from time to time. Hardly talk to it, really…” To my annoyance, I noticed a stirring in the substance that filled the jar, implying a sudden awakening of the ghost. That was the last thing I wanted right now.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2ffJ6ym

The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

The Hollow Boy, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2015 by Hyperion. It is the sequel to The Whispering Skull.

As a massive outbreak of supernatural Visitors baffles Scotland Yard and causes protests throughout London, team Lockwood & Co. continues to demonstrate its effectiveness in exterminating spirits. Anthony Lockwood is dashing, George insightful, and Lucy dynamic, while the skull in the jar utters sardonic advice from the sidelines. There is a new spirit of openness in the team now that Lockwood has shared some of his childhood secrets, and Lucy is feeling more and more as if her true home is at Portland Row. It comes as a great shock, then, when Lockwood and George introduce her to an annoyingly perky and hyper-efficient new assistant, Holly Munro. Meanwhile, there are reports of many new hauntings, including a house where bloody footprints are appearing and a department store full of strange sounds and shadowy figures. But ghosts seem to be the least of Lockwood & Co.’s concerns when assassins attack during a carnival in the center of the city. Can the team members get past their personal issues to save the day on all fronts, or will bad feelings attract yet more trouble?

I realized something while reading The Hollow Boy. I realized that Jonathan Stroud can write one heck of a good ghost story, and even though I don’t normally like ghost stories or anything horror-related at all, I couldn’t stop reading! The Hollow Boy was everything I’ve wanted out of Lockwood & Co. and more. A new dynamic shakes up the team, Lucy finally gets more dimensionality and acts more like a character and less like a narrator, and spooky, gripping scenes abound. And points for the double meaning of the title!

Things weren’t all perfect, alas. As interesting and spookily good as the book was, I thought there were one too many “ghost hunts.” I wondered almost 2/3rds of the way through the book when the “hollow boy” of the title would show up. Of course, once I realized the double meaning, I realized that he’d been there all along, but still—it felt slightly too drawn out even so.

Also, one of the complaints I had about The Whispering Skull was that I felt that Stroud made the villain too obvious. And in The Hollow Boy, even though there was no villain per se, beyond the ghostly ones, I felt that it was slightly too obvious who Stroud was setting up to be the Big Bad. Or maybe I’ve read too much and know a lot of plot twists. But I think I know who the villain of the next book will be, and that makes me a little sad because some of the surprise will be gone (if I’m right, of course).

Overall, I thought The Hollow Boy was mostly excellent, and definitely improved on some of the things I found stale and/or annoying about the first two books. While it was still fairly formulaic (the book starts in the middle of a ghost hunt, again, and there are several ghost hunt interludes before the big plot wraps up, again), I found the mystery of it intriguing and the ghost sections suitably creepy and spine-tingling. Also, I really want Lucy to become the commander of a ghost army and save London from Villain Guy, even though I know that in Stroud’s world, that would never happen because of how he’s built the world. But I can dream!

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)

“Is it me,” I said slowly, “or is there something lying on that beam?”

It was the crossbeam almost directly overhead. Cobwebs hung down from it, merging with the shadows of the eaves. Above was a funny patch of darkness that might have been part of the beam, or part of an object resting directly on it. You couldn’t really see it from below, except for something poking out on one side that might have been hair.

We regarded it in silence.

“Ladder, George,” said Lockwood.

George went to get the ladder, pulling it upward through the hatch. “Those guys are still down there,” he reported. “Just standing around the chains. Looks like they’re waiting for something.”

We set the ladder against the beam.

You want my advice?” In its jar, the ghost had stirred. “The worst thing you can do is go up and look. Just chuck a magnesium flare and run away.”

You can buy this book here: The Hollow Boy

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2014 by Hyperion. It is the sequel to The Screaming Staircase.

In the six months since Anthony, Lucy, and George survived a night in the most haunted house in England, Lockwood & Co. hasn’t made much progress. Quill Kipps and his team of Fittes agents keep swooping in on Lockwood’s investigations, which is creating a bit of tension back home at Portland Row. Things look up when a new client, Mr. Saunders, hires Lockwood & Co. to be present at the exhumation of Edmund Bickerstaff, a doctor who, in Victorian times, purportedly tried to communicate with the dead. Saunders needs the coffin sealed with silver to prevent any supernatural trouble. All goes well—until George’s curiosity attracts a horrible phantom. That isn’t the only chaos that follows the phantom’s release. Inspector Barnes of DEPRAC informs Lockwood and Kipps that Bickerstaff’s coffin has been raided and a strange glass object has been stolen. He believes the relic to be highly dangerous, and he wants it found. Meanwhile, Lucy is distracted by urgent whispers coming from the skull in the ghost jar…

The Whispering Skull has great suspense and creepiness to it; it’s basically a really good ghost story. There’s some more development for the characters, which I liked; I liked that Lockwood & Co.’s relationship was tested and that they had to work out some things. It made them seem less two-dimensional.

I also really enjoyed the writing; there are several moments in the book where Stroud does situational humor through his writing, through his descriptions of things. Like when someone mentions the name of the rumored killer “Jack Carver” and a flock of crows bursts from the trees. There’s also a lot of humorous dialogue, and not all of it comes from George, the designated Wise Cracker. And the book as a whole is really entertaining.

However, I’m still less than impressed by the characters. None of them have really done anything to make them stand out very much. I don’t like the “tantalizing mystery” surrounding Lockwood, George doesn’t do much besides be the comic relief, and as a viewpoint character Lucy is really flat. She gets a little development with her interactions with the skull, but still. I don’t understand her character. Both she and George completely revolve around Lockwood and it’s annoying. What I hope will happen is that Lockwood & Co. gets a new team member (preferably female) in the next book, because right now they really need it. (Note from the future: They totally are! Yes! Thank you, Stroud!)

Four more little things bothered me: 1.) it was too unbelievable that the skull in the jar that George happened to pick up just happened to be connected to the case. 2.) The “villain” was really obvious due to Stroud’s almost over-description of him every time he appeared 3.) The ending was a cliffhanger and I hated it. 4.) I didn’t like how almost every character besides the Main Trio were described in unflattering terms.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Ghosts and ghouls, scary situations and imagery.

Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)

“Can you describe them?”

“One, not so much,” the kid said. “Plump bloke, blond hair, scritty mustache. Young, wears black. Name of Duane Neddles.”

George made a skeptical noise that sounded like gas escaping from a rhino. “Duane Neddles? Oh, he sounds scary. Sure you’re not making this up?”

“And the other?” Lockwood called.

The kid hesitated. “He’s got a reputation. A killer. They say he bumped off a rival during a job last year. Maybe I shouldn’t…”

Lockwood stopped short. “It was a team of two last night that bashed your colleague,” he said. “Let’s say one was Neddles. Who was the other?”

The kid leaned close, spoke softly. “They call him Jack Carver.”

A group of crows rose squalling from the gravestones. Wings cracking, they circled against the sky and flew off over the trees.

Overall Review:

The Whispering Skull was deliciously spooky and wonderfully entertaining—but that’s about all it was. I still think the characters are flat and generic, and Lucy particularly, being a first-person narrator, needs some work. There were a number of other small things in the book that bothered me, to the extent where I enjoyed the book, but was annoyed with it at the same time.

You can buy this here:The Whispering Skull

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2013 by Hyperion.

For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions. Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.

I don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed that the fantastic humor of Stroud’s Bartimaeus series was lacking in The Screaming Staircase. There’s a bit of humor thrown in by George, and this book desperately needs humor because of the tension and overall scariness of the atmosphere, but what I was expecting—Bartimaeus-like humor, etc.—was not what I got. I suppose I should be pleased, since it shows that Stroud can write more than one style, but I’m also slightly disappointed–although I know it’s unfair of me to expect every book Stroud writes to be like Bartimaeus.

I really liked the characters, despite the fact that nothing they did particularly stood out to me and they were overall extremely generic. George’s humor, as mentioned above, was much needed, and I liked the dynamic between the three of them (even if it was predictable due to their character types). I think the “Intelligent, Often Closed-Mouth Protagonist With The Mysterious Past” is way overdone, but I couldn’t help but like Lockwood despite of it.

I did really like the mystery, even if, like the characters, it was predictable. I’m glad that Stroud connected the first part of the plot with the second (although I think the killer’s identity is too obvious), and I love both the atmosphere that he sets up (the Red Room was the creepiest thing) and the world overall. Lucy has a spectacular moment at the end when her thoughts and mine completely matched and she did exactly what I wanted her to do and it was awesome. I hope she gets more dimensionality to her in future books, because I can see her completely stealing the show from Lockwood.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Ghosts and ghouls, scary situations and imagery.

Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)

With the nail of my middle finger, I tapped the side of the glass; at once the smoke awoke, rippling outward from the point of impact, becoming thicker, more granular as it did so. As it separated, it revealed the object in the jar: a human skull, brown and stained, clamped to the bottom of the glass.

The ripples of smoke contorted, twisted; they took on the horrid semblance of a face, with blankly rolling eyes and gaping mouth. For a moment the features were superimposed upon the skull beneath. I jerked back from the glass. The face devolved into streamlike ribbons of smoke that swirled about the cylinder and presently became still.

Overall Review:

The Screaming Staircase has characters and a plot that are a little too generic for me to really love it, but despite that I still like the characters and what Stroud did with the plot. I really liked the spooky, ghostly atmosphere, though, and the world that Stroud has created. I wish he had done a little bit more to make the characters stand out, however.

You can buy this here: The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co.)