Series: Jackaby #1
It’s 1892 and Abigail Rook is newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England after having run away from home in search of adventure. First, however, she needs a job. After scouring the city with little luck, Abigail answers an advertisement for an investigative assistant, the specialty of the service being the unexplained. Enter R. F. Jackaby, a detective of sorts who claims that he can see magical creatures no one else can. When the police cannot solve a crime, Jackaby follows the supernatural evidence to find the real culprit (even if the police don’t believe him). Abigail is skeptical at first, too, but her first day on the job finds her on the scene of a serial murderer, the villain whom Jackaby says isn’t human. Can the pair solve the mystery before the killer strikes again? Or will they be the next ones to lose their lives?
The cover jacket bills Jackaby as a cross between the BBC’s Sherlock and Doctor Who, but, as with most such allusions, I find the comparison a stretch. Yes, Jackaby is a bit of an eccentric and a tad unfeeling towards others and, yes, he investigates unexplained mysteries, but aside from that, the similarities are few. After all, I would expect a Sherlock-like book to include more convoluted clues and perhaps some fancy use of technology, and I would expect something inspired by Doctor Who to include, if not time travel and aliens, at least some of the joy the show used to have. I actually think it’s a bit of a shame the cover blurb would create such high expectations, for the story is solid on its own, but falters a little under the weight of the comparisons.
“Solid,” of course, is not a flashy description or one that usually has readers pulling a book off the shelves, but since this a debut book, I use the term in what I mean to be a complimentary way. It manages, in a reasonable amount of space (as in, it’s not one of those books that’s 400 pages just so it can feel like it’s Harry Potter), to create a fascinating and original world full of magic and mystery, to introduce a cast of likable and often amusing characters, and to provide a plot that, if it admittedly lacks complexity and surprise, at least holds the interest of the reader all the way through. It’s not my favorite book of the year, but I would still like to read the sequel.
Some parts of the book admittedly still reveal the story as a debut. Abigail Rook, for instance, reads very much like one of those cliche and anachronistic women who flout all the social conventions of their time for no apparent reason other than that readers are evidently supposed to be unable to connect with a female from the late nineteenth century if she could plausibly have lived at that time. Furthermore, most of Abigail’s character description comes from forced speeches she makes about how she longs for adventure and read more books than her father’s graduate students. I would not have known any of this, however, from Abigail’s actual actions.
I also regret that the romance proves sort of vague (though I applaud the complete absence of a love triangle. Jackaby is not a suitable romantic interest at this time, thanks to his inability to connect with people, and the author knows it). I like that the romance is not sudden and fast, that’s it’s being allowed to develop naturally. However, at this point the two romantic interests barely know each other, so it seems rather odd that they’re treating their romance as something more than interest or a crush, when it really is still at that level. I wish their status had been more defined in this first installment, just so it isn’t so weird and awkward.
These slight criticisms aside, Jackaby is a fun, original novel that will have readers engrossed in its magical world and clamoring for the sequel. I am sure that, as William Ritter hones his skill, the results will be incredible.