Written by: Maureen Johnson
Book # 1 / 4 in the Shades of London series
Review: 4 / 5 stars
Summary: Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London to start a new life at boarding school just as a series of brutal murders mimicking the horrific Jack the Ripper killing spree of more than a century ago has broken out across the city. The police are left with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory spotted the man believed to be the prime suspect. But she is the only one who saw him – the only one who can see him. And now Rory has become his next target…unless she can tap her previously unknown abilities to turn the tables.
“Fear can’t hurt you,” she said. “When it washes over you, give it no power. It’s a snake with no venom. Remember that. That knowledge can save you.”
Review: I’m starting to think it is physically impossible for me to pick up a book without it being a part of a series. I honestly don’t even remember how I found this book on ThriftBooks, but I am a sucker for historical fiction especially when it is revamped in modern day, so the Jack the Ripper references pulled me in for sure. Like always, though, I was surprised when the book ended and I realized there had to be more… and there is – 2 published books, and one still in the works. I always have very mixed feelings about this, but in this case, I was excited. The world of the Shades, basically a group of more legitimatized and secretive British Ghostbusters fronting as police officers and supported secretly by the government, is enticing to say the least. The story follows Rory Devereaux, a girl from Louisiana displaced to a British boarding school due to her parents’ new jobs, who begins her British life on the same day a Jack the Ripper replica begins his work. While she begins to worry about things like A-levels and learning British slang, the rest of London is caught up in the Ripper frenzy that eventually ropes in Rory and her friends as well as they become part of the mystery.
Johnson’s writing could definitely improve with a little more detail when describing scenes and characters, but every word still had me glued to the page. It takes a lot recently for me to read a book in a few sittings and wanting to cancel previously arranged plans to finish it, but I found myself doing so for The Name of the Star. Disclaimer: I love London. I’ve only been once, but it was the only place I’ve ever visited that I feel like I could live in for the rest of my life – and that’s saying a lot, considering I usually suffer from separation anxiety from my family when I’m away for too long. One of my favorite tourist-y things I did was the London Dungeon, an attraction where they take you through the murderous, bloody history of London and its most famous murderers, from Sweeney Todd to Guy Fawkes to, of course, Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper has always been such an interesting concept to me, due to the fact that so many people today are still obsessed with the mystery, and I loved how Johnson showed that hysteria in this book. I was a little disappointed the plot went a different way than what I expected in regards to this mystery, but Johnson still created an interesting plot. Perhaps one of the best things about the book is the ending, due to the fact there’s an unexpected hero and a strange sense of closure that allows the book to act as a standalone if you so wish it to be, but also encourages traveling further into the world of the Shades and new unfolding mysteries in the following novels.
Now, as I always say, the characters are what makes or breaks a book for me, and that’s honestly the main reason the book doesn’t get the full five stars. Rory, the main character, isn’t particularly likable, but that isn’t to say she’s unlikable either. She’s just kind of… there. She doesn’t truly become a heroine until the final scene in the book, and even when she does, I can tell it’s meant to be dramatic, but it just fell a bit short for me. Literally everyone attending Wexford, her boarding school, seems just as bland – her way-too-obsessed-with-murder boy toy Jerome, her somewhat shy and definitely careful roommate Jazza, her superficial arch nemesis and head girl Charlotte, and so on. Although three members of the Shades – Stephen, Callum, and Boo – are a little better developed, they still fall a little short for me. I don’t think it’s because they are plain people, but because there seems to be a disconnect between Johnson’s image of them in her head and how she portrays them on paper to the reader. But beyond all this, the one thing that bothered me about the book is the complete absence of Rory’s parents, who are living two hours away by train in Bristol. Sure, they’re mentioned as calling and originally wanting her to come home, but other than that, they’re not really referenced. I know I have a helicopter mom and all, but if there was a mass murderer around the same region of my boarding school, my mom would bring me home right away or set up house at a hotel in the city to keep an eye on me. Rory’s parents are described otherwise as being good people, so their response seems a little unrealistic to me. Ironically, the most interesting characters are – **** a bit of a spoiler alert **** – the ghosts. Whether it be angsty teenagers at Wexford, badass WWII heroines in parks, or mentally unstable ghosts (ahem), they are more easily imaginable, and innately more interesting, than any of the human characters. All of this considered, it is the first book of the series, so I’m trying to give some margin of error here in hopes that character development or Johnson’s writing in general will improve in the following books.
Ultimately, this book isn’t any literary feat, but it was definitely one of the more interesting books I’ve read recently. The idea of the Shades, and of the return of a killer as notorious and mysterious as the Ripper, is incredible, and Johnson does a really great job including a lot of the history surrounding Jack the Ripper that suffices my inner history nerd. And although it definitely took a few chapters for the book to pick up, the pace from there on out is relatively fast, and Johnson’s uncomplicated writing makes for an easy read. This is one of those books best read on a day when you’re locked inside on on a rainy day during the summer, as it’ll make you feel you’re in London right beside Rory at Wexford. It’s definitely not a book I’d recommend to everyone I meet, but if you look modern day historical fiction, mysteries, and/or light supernatural fiction, this is definitely the book for you! I myself definitely can’t wait to pick up the next book in the series.