Wednesday 7 July 2010

Review: The Dream Thief (Horatio Lyle Mystery) by Catherine Webb

London 1865: Horatio Lyle receives a nasty surprise late at night. A young girl on his doorstep, passed out, dying - apparently poisoned - and she's not the first. Something very, very bad is happening to the children in the East End.

Which means there's a mystery to be solved, sending Lyle, Thomas, Tate and - naturally - Tess out into the wilds of east London. What they find is terrifying: Tess's old crowd of artful dodgers and ace pickpockets are now wandering the streets like zombies, drooling in the workhouses or plain mad in the asylums. And the only clue is a name, half whispered in fear: Old Greybags.

Are you a fan of Doctor Who? Do you like mystery stories? Love a healthy dollop of the supernatural? If so then the Horatio Lyle series may be just the thing for you. This is the fourth book featuring Horatio Lyle and his merry band of helpers, and every book in the series so far is well worth your attention.

I first discovered this series shortly after the release of the first book, The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle. How could I not pick up a book with a title like that, especially as it is set in Victorian times and part of the blurb on Amazon read '....when Her Majesty's Government calls, Horatio swaps his microscope for a magnifying glass, fills his pockets with things that explode and sallies forth to unravel a mystery of a singularly extraordinary nature. Thrown together with a reformed (i.e. 'caught') pickpocket called Tess, and a rebellious (within reason) young gentleman called Thomas, Lyle and his faithful hound, Tate, find themselves pursuing an ancient Chinese plate, a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of polite society and a dangerous enemy who may not even be human'.

My feelings on finishing this book were a little mixed - whilst I had enjoyed most of the plot, the fantastically written characters and the beautiful quality of the prose, I was a little unsure about the supernatural element as the synopsis hadn't really made this clear. However, there were more than enough plus points for me to pick up the sequel when it was released, with another catchy title - The Obsidian Dagger: Being The Further Extraordinary Adventures of Horatio Lyle. This book upped the creepy factor, expanded on the supernatural element, and developed the relationship between the main characters perfectly - and this time the supernatural element was not only expected, I was looking forward to it.

Now we are on book four (book three, by the way, is probably my favourite of the series so far, but that is probably the testosterone speaking as it features a massive underground super-machine, and being set in Victorian times it is all steam, cogs, pistons and so on). In case you have not yet heard about this series then first off we have Horatio Lyle - a Victorian scientist/inventor/detective/self-styled protector of all that is good in his beloved city. In the first book the sleuthing was carried out somewhat reluctantly, at the request of HM Government, but as the books have progressed Horatio has witnessed the evil that man will stoop to (especially those in power) more and more and now the investigating becomes almost second nature, although perhaps this time it is mainly because it is children who are being harmed. I mentioned these books as possibly appealing to fans of Doctor Who, and that is perhaps because Horatio Lyle's personality reminds me very much of the David Tennant and Matt Smith incarnations of this iconic character. Like Doctor Who, Horatio Lyle has a very strong sentimental side to his personality - he hates to see people hurt, whether it be his fellow humans, all the mysterious Tseiqin (don's ask me to explain - far too much risk of spoilers). Even when faced with extreme, life threatening danger at the hands of the most evil of foes, he would still rather incapacitate this foe rather then kill them. He is also somewhat eccentric - his passion for science and invention is what really makes him feel alive. Yes... the more I think about it, the more I can see him being played by Matt Smith, not that that would ever happen - far too similar to his current role.

Like Doctor Who, Lyle also has a couple of 'assistants' in his adventures - Cockney orphan Teresa 'Tess' Hatch and uper-class son of a Lord, Thomas Edward Elwick. Without these two characters this series of books would be sorely lacking in many areas. Unusually for a book aimed at young people, the main character Horatio Lyle is an adult but calling Tess and Thomas secondary characters almost feels like I am doing them a disservice. It is these two that bring life and humour to the story, through their banter with each other and with Lyle. In fact, the dialogue in these books is amongst the best you will find in a YA novel by any author. They also give Horatio's character far more depth than we would have seen in their absence, and in this book we find him questioning his role in their lives (and Tess's in particular) even more. Is he now a father figure for Tess? Should he be risking her life so readily? Does he actually have a choice when it comes to involving the two children in his adventures, or will they just involve themselves against his wishes?

This book is probably the creepiest of the series so far. There is no master criminal type trying to take over London or seeking destroy a whole race of people. Instead we have Old Greybags, and what he is doing to children is despicable. There can be little worse than putting children into a permanently comatose state so he can steal their dreams. And yet, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him at times. More I cannot say without spoiling the plot for you.

As ever the quality of Catherine Webb's writing is exquisite. This is, after all, the lady who writes adult fantasy novels under the name Kate Griffin, and brought us the stunningly written A Madness of Angels and The Midnight Mayor. She certainly doesn't dumb down her writing for this younger audience, and I would guess that this book is most suitable for the 13+ age group, or very confident readers who are a little younger than this. This is not just because of the complexity of vocabulary, but also the style of writing in general. When the author is setting a scene, or describing the London she so obviously loves with a passion, she often switches to the present tense, a device that many young readers may find a little unusual, and maybe even confusing. These really are books for teens who love reading, those who will re-read a paragraph more slowly if they haven't quite followed it the first time and then savour the quality of the descriptions of people, places and events.

Oh yes.... and the action scenes are also as good as pretty much anything else out there, and there are lots of them. Enough said!

At a push, this book could be read as a stand-alone, but you would be ruining your enjoyment of the other three books. I would therefore recommend you read them in order and enjoy the way the characters develop as each adventure unfolds. All four books are available in stores, with The Dream Thief having just been released on 1st July. My thanks go to Atom Books for sending me a copy.          

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