(Apologies for the blockquote formatting in this post, I’m not sure why but they came out with no paragraph breaks for some reason)
Panic set in.
This feels like a clunker of a sentence to me–I tend to think of a phrase like “panic set in” as applying to something impersonal like a group (eg “Panic set in among the people of New York as the giant amoeba rose from the ocean”). Even something as bland as “Jack started to panic” feels like it would work better here.
What do you guys think? Sound off in the comments.
In case you’ve forgotten, panic is setting in because Jack’s sister Sadie has vanished into the terrifying bowels of central London, chasing a man who looks like their missing father. Jack chases after her, but is struck with some sort of sensory overload, which is apparently a thing that happens to him on a regular basis. He tries to use a white noise MP3 to fend it off, but:
Suddenly the phone flew from his grasp. It clattered to the pavement behind him. Above the horns and engines and the buzz of the crowd, Jack’s oversensitive ears picked up a heart-wrenching crunch.
This is probably in here because there’s some scene later on where it would be inconvenient to the narrative if Jack had a phone, but I’ll accept it since losing the phone also creates an immediate source of tension, as opposed to just being like “whoopsie lost my phone oh well I’m sure it’s not important gosh I’m such a butter-fingers.”
One direction. Of course.
I’m starting 2017 off with some real top-shelf material, folks.
Chapter 5 + Chapter 6
These two chapters are basically one long chase sequence where Jack pursues Sadie through the London underground, jumping ticket barriers and hopping onto trains. It’s quite well done as far as being a bit of a nail-biter– you can really imagine how nerve-wracking the situation would be in real life– but one thing annoyed me:
His eyes fell on another teenage boy with spiked blue hair, wearing red skinny jeans and a black leather jacket with studs all over it.
Well, two things.
The first is that I will forever and ever hate sentence constructions like “his eyes fell on”. The second thing is that this spiky-haired dude is emphasized throughout the scene in a way that made me assume he must show up again later as an important character, but a quick scan through the book makes it look like that doesn’t happen.
Chekhov’s gun, people. It’s not just for obsessively breaking stories down into TvTropes entries. If the story emphasizes something, the reader will assume it’s important even if the author never intended it.
The doors opened and Smelly-spiky-hair kid leaned out of the way.
Oh, three things: blue haired guy is referred to constantly as Smelly-spiky-hair kid, which got really irritating. Other unnamed characters later on are given similarly awkward designations.
As the revolving-door-Tube voice made its announcement,
For example, revolving-door-Tube voice makes frequent appearances (sometimes in ways that are very confusing, but we’ll get to that).
Anyway, Jack finds Sadie and they manage to escape the underground, but then there’s, like, a scary guy who they see in different places wearing different sets of clothes, but it’s the same guy each time? Or something? This book is so busy hurtling forward breathlessly that it sometimes forgets to make sense.
Like, I assume this gets explained later, but just the way it’s described is quite confusing.
They end up taking refuge in an old building, which turns out to be:
LOST PROPERTY OFFICE
BAKER STREET BRANCH
Baker street. Clever.
Chapter 7 – 9
This is the part where the story really kicks off, the scene where Jack goes down the rabbit hole/takes the red pill/opens his letter from Hogwarts/does the thing with the lightsaber, or whatever? It’s been a while since I saw Star Wars.
The book kind of bungles it, for a variety of reasons.
The fact that Jack and Sadie just sort of blunder randomly into this place feels very unsatisfying in a narrative sense–to continue the theme I started a paragraph ago, imagine if The Matrix started with Neo just randomly waking up in the real world one day, or if Harry Potter discovered he was a wizard by stumbling into Hogwarts by accident. I guess there could be some grander plot going on here– maybe that French guy from the prologue has something to do with it– but that’s evident at all at the moment.
The other reason the chapter failed to bring me into the story is that it’s just very odd and kind of confusing. There’s this woman behind the counter whose description is pretty amusing (“She enunciated each syllable of the short question with such aristocratic distinction that Jack was tempted to believe he was facing the queen herself—or worse, the queen’s English teacher.”), but whose dialogue makes her sound slightly unhinged, since she starts going on about filling out bureaucratic forms and doesn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to anything Jack says.
Are we meant to get that impression? Is everyone in the Lost Property Office the same? And she keeps calling for someone named Gwen for ages, then when she finally shows up (she’s the book’s heroine and Jack’s designated romance partner, which you can tell because the book keeps going on about how pretty she is) the older woman leaves and then Gwen gets freaked out by something and starts looking for the other woman… it’s very disjointed.
For example, here’s how Gwen reacts when she learns Jack’s surname:
“John Buckles.” Jack lowered his voice a little. “The Second.”
“John . . . Bu-ckles . . . the . . . Sec—” Gwen stopped mid-scribble, staring at the name for two full heartbeats before looking up at Jack. “And that would make you . . .”
Sadie hopped off the bench, dodging her brother’s already reaching arm. “John Buckles the Third,” she said, grinning proudly. “It’s a family tradition.”
“Of course it is.” Gwen stood up, suddenly lost in a fog. Her eyes drifted over to the empty podium and remained there several seconds, as if waiting for Mrs. Hudson to appear, but she never did. When the clerk finally returned her attention to Jack, she gave him another quick, awkward smile—another bounce of her freckles. “Cold, isn’t it?”
Jack had not seen that one coming. “Um . . . what?”
“Cold. You . . . Me . . . You, especially.” The clerk nodded at the street outside. “You know, blustery winter day meets drafty old office.” She snatched her scarf from the hook and clutched it to her chest. “Brrrr. You must be freezing. I know I am.”
I get what the book is going for here: Gwen clearly knows who Jack’s father is and is trying to get him to come into the office with her so she can confirm that Jack has inherited his magic bureaucracy detective powers (yeah, we’ll get to that in a second), and in trying to conceal this she’s acting a bit peculiar. You’ve almost certainly seen a dozen scenes like this in a movie (and just like the prologue, this really feels like someone transcribing the action of a film rather than writing an actual novel).
But it just comes off as awkward and weird. On my first read-through I had to go back over the exchange more than once before I was really sure what was going on or why Gwen was suddenly talking about the weather.
The chapter structure of the book doesn’t help; they’re all really short and cut off in odd places (chapter seven ends with Jack turning around and seeing Gwen for the first time), only for the next chapter to pick up immediately afterwards with no break in time or action, which makes me wonder why there was any need for a new chapter at all.
Things get even more confusing here. Gwen brings Jack and Sadie into a completely dark room for some reason, and while groping around for a light switch we get…whatever the hell this is:
The metal felt strange, almost malleable—another trick of the dark. Maybe. As Jack flattened his palm, his skin seemed to sink into the surface, like pressing an imprint into clay.
Then things got really weird.
Jack sensed vibrations. The individual molecules of the steel quivered against his skin, forming a uniform pattern, like Morse code but millions of times faster and infinitely more complex. And Jack could swear he was on the verge of making sense of it all.
The flood of input caused vertigo, threatening to knock him off his feet. To steady himself, he pressed even harder against the steel, and the vibrations intensified. An image snapped into his mind. Jack saw a hand pressed against a big steel door, palm flat like his. But it wasn’t his hand. It was bigger, older, with a reddish-brown cuff at the wrist.
The liquid metal seems to be some sort of security device, but why does Jack get a vision of a man (based on information we were given earlier it’s clearly meant to be his dad) putting his hand on it? Does Jack have some sort prophetic or psychic powers? Was the metal transmitting information into his brain?
Keep in mind, he only reason I know at this point that the detectives Jack is descended from have special powers is because the plot description on the back cover says so; apart from that, the only clue we’ve gotten was the french guy and his weather vane, which for all we know could have been some sort of super science rather than magic.
A big problem is that the book is just straight-up not good at describing things clearly. For example, upon entering the room Jack heard one of those mechanical beetles from the prologue crawling around; here’s how the book describes it crawling onto his hand:
Suddenly the skittering-bug sound broke through from the edge of Jack’s consciousness, accompanied by the sensation of something crawling across the back of his hand. He jerked his palm away from the metal with an involuntary cry. The image of the older hand evaporated.
This is incoherent.
I’m sure the author knew full well what all of this shit meant and what was going on here, but the reader sure as hell doesn’t. The book isn’t grabbing my attention by dropping little hints and presenting me with completely context-free imagery, it’s just making me feel frustrated and confused.
Like, why did Gwen bring them into a totally pitch-dark room without just turning the light on first? Did she mean to do that? Was it some sort of test?
Before Jack could finish, Gwen took his right hand with hers, so abrupt and unexpected—so soft—that resisting never occurred to him.
GIRLS ARE ALL SOFT RIGHT, NOT LIKE BOYS WHO ARE HARD LIKE THE DENSE INNER CORE OF THE EARTH
Did I mention that the book really, really wants you to know right off the bat that Jack totally has a crush on Gwen? Because it does.
The familiar, revolving-door-Tube voice filled the small space. “Access granted. Welcome, John Buckles.”
This also confuses me. Is it meant to be the exact same voice from the Tube and the hotel’s revolving door, or just a similar-sounding voice? Because if it’s the former, that seems to imply a whole lot that I’m not entirely sure the book means to imply.
Jack presses his hand against a keypad thing, which recognizes his genetic marker, according to Gwen:
Gwen looked as surprised as he was, wearing a sort of I-can’t-believe-it-actually-worked expression, but she recovered quickly. “Your genetic marker, actually. You might say it recognized your bloodline.”
“But how did it—?”
The clerk stepped through the door. “This way, Jack. No dawdling.”
I don’t understand why Gwen doesn’t just stop to explain all of this. She acts as though there’s some sort of pressing urgency, pulling Jack and Sadie deeper into the building as quickly as she can, but as far as I can tell there’s no reason for this apart from the book’s insistence on maintaining a breakneck pace at all times.
“The Lost Property Office was the first public branch ever established by the ministry,” said Gwen, keeping her voice oddly low. “An agent named Doyle* founded the branch in 1887, as a sort of catch-all for information and requests. We call this part the Chamber.”
“What ministry?” asked Sadie.
For example, Sadie keeps asking her what ministry she’s talking about; for some reason she refuses to answer the question…but she keeps bringing the subject up anyway. Why is she doing that, if she doesn’t want to tell them more about it? You would think she’d either be comfortable with spilling the beans entirely, or she wouldn’t want to tell them anything, but instead she throws out little bite-sized chunks of mostly-inscrutable information.
Looking down over the rail as he jogged to catch up, Jack saw rows of great mahogany desks lining the floor space, each topped with a brass lamp and a rotary phone. A few workers—not nearly enough to man them all—milled about between them, dressed in vintage, nineteenth-century clothing. Despite the antique look of the clothes and furniture, holographic images hovered over several of the desktops.
This whole setup reminds me pretty strongly of Kingsman: The Secret Service. Except that movie managed to find time for a scene where Colin Firth’s character sits the protagonist down and explains what the Kingsmen are and how he’s connected to them instead of just yanking him into their base with no context or explanation.
Sadie stomped her feet. “What ministry?”
The clerk gave the eight-year-old one of her quick, freckle-bounce smiles. “Your father’s ministry, of course. The Ministry of Trackers.”
DRAMATIC CHAPTER ENDING
Oh gosh, really? Well that’s very interesting, except I have no idea what that is or how it connects to anything that’s happened so far. And no, a more in-depth explanation isn’t forthcoming, apart from this tid-bit in the next chapter:
Your dad was a member of a secret society of detectives that has served the Crown for centuries—one of Britain’s four Elder Ministries. He was looking for an important artifact when—”
That’s all we get before Jack loses his temper and tells Sadie that their Dad died in an accident (spoiler: he didn’t) and they’ve come to London to find his body, which was supposedly mislaid during a hospital switcheroo of some sort. Then the mechanical beetle from the prologue shows up and starts hacking the office and we get another breakneck chase sequence, and I got thoroughly fed up and stopped reading out of annoyance.
Look, the book is clearly trying to be fast-paced and action-packed, and that’s fine. But it also badly needs to slow the fuck down and explain what’s going on. It needs the equivalent of Morpheus introducing Neo to the Matrix, or Hagrid’s “yer a wizard” scene, or the Colin Firth bit in the pub from Kingsman.
And I’m sure we do eventually get such a scene, but it should have come far sooner. If you’re introducing a reader to your made-up setting, particularly a highly idiosyncratic one that doesn’t conform to standard genre conventions, then you need to ease them into it.
It’s a shame, because the idea of a secret world of feuding bureaucracies is off the wall enough to be interesting. I just wish James R. Hannibal had chosen to introduce that world through a medium other than constant chase sequences.