Jackaby by William Ritter
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release date: September 16 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A quirky yet charming main character, a puzzling mystery, some unexpected supernatural elements, and a lively and humorous story.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, sir—but that hat is a priceless finery?” I asked hesitantly.
“Silk is more precious than cotton because of the nature of its acquisition, is it not? Fine threads are collected from tiny silkworms over countless hours, whereas cotton can be pulled off nearly any farm in the States, and it ships by the boatload. My hat, Miss Rook, is made from the wool from one of the only surviving yeti of the Swiss Alps, dyed in ink mixed by Baba Yaga herself, and knit by my very good friend Agatha as a birthday present. Agatha is a novice knitter, but she put quite a lot of care into this hat. Also, she is wood nymph. Not a lot of nymphs take to knitting. So, tell me if my hat is not more precious than the finest silk.”
I had such fun reading Jackaby, which wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. This book is definitely geared more towards the young adult crowd, even though all the characters are adults. The story is mostly funny and light and issue-free, with lots of humorous moments, snappy dialogue between the characters, and only a smidgen of blood. Yes, it’s a murder mystery, and takes place in a Victorian-esque time period (although in the United States, not in England). But our clever and slightly off-putting hero Jackaby has a talent that is well suited to his job: he is able to see supernatural creatures that are invisible to other people. This was a great concept that made what would otherwise be a pedestrian murder mystery, something unique and interesting.
The story takes place in the late 1800s in the fictional town of New Fiddleham, a quaint and old-world town somewhere in New England. Abigail Rook has just arrived from overseas on a boat, and is trying unsuccessfully to secure work, when she sees an advertisement for a job as an investigator’s assistant. She answers the ad and meets the unconventional and mysterious R. F. Jackaby, an investigator with quite the reputation (and not a good one, might I add!) Jackaby agrees to “try her out” and immediately takes her to a crime scene, where a man has been brutally murdered. As Jackaby evades the unpleasant Inspector Marlowe, he notices some unusual things at the crime scene that lead him to believe that the murder in question was not committed by a human.
With Abigail in tow, Jackaby scours the city for clues, as similar murders begin to pile up. Jackaby begins to suspect that there may be a political reason behind the killings, and it becomes a race with the clock to stop the murderer before he kills again. In the midst of the action, Abigail is introduced to Jackaby’s very unusual roommates, taught the intricacies of being an investigator, and shown the scary yet fascinating world of the supernatural, all the while wondering whether or not she’s made the right decision in joining Jackaby.
Ritter’s prose was a delight and evokes the Victorian era perfectly. He has a keen ear for dialogue, and I especially loved the banter between Jackaby and Abigail. Jackaby himself was a joy to read, and although I didn’t always like him, I thought he was wonderfully drawn. He always says what’s on his mind, even if he unintentionally hurts others with his words (and he manages to insult Abigail over and over). And while I didn’t care for the way he treated Abigail, I could understand it as part of his personality.
One of my favorite parts of the story were the many supernatural creatures who made an appearance. Everything from banshees to trolls to werewolves crossed paths with our investigators, and without them this story would not have been nearly as fun. Only one creature seemed completely out-of-place in the story (and I won’t say what he is so I don’t spoil it for you), and for me, this side-story left me puzzled rather than charmed, which I think was the author’s intention. Abigail meets this character near the beginning of the story, and I kept waiting for some kind of explanation as to why he was in the story at all. Unfortunately, that explanation never came.
Strangely, Abigail seemed like more of an observer than a participant in Jackaby. Yes, she was part of the action, and yes, she did her part to help solve the murders, but Jackaby’s reactions to her bothered me, for some reason. Honestly, the story would have been just as good without Abigail, as she feels like more of a device to tell Jackaby’s tale than a character in her own right. Jackaby barely tolerates her presence for most of the book, and hardly seems to realize she’s even there most of the time. Their relationship, such that it was, felt stilted and formal, and I never had the sense that Jackaby even liked Abigail very much. A little more emotion between the characters would have gone a long way for me.
Despite this, however, I did enjoy Jackaby quite a bit. William Ritter’s writing alone will make me pick up his next book, and the character of Jackaby—in all his snarky, rude and quirky glory—will be someone I’ll remember for a long time.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
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