HALLOWEEN 2013: BY RACHEL McMILLAN
In his pockets, he carries things that explode. His mind can handle the greatest chemical calculations known to late 19th Century science. At his ankles barks a perceptive hound named Tate, and at his side stands two children who drive him further and further into dark, dangerous and magical adventures. A kind of Doctor Who/ Sherlock Holmes hybrid, Horatio Lyle is unlike anything else you’ll find in contemporary Young Adult literature or, for that matter, in speculative fiction as a whole. There’s nothing quite like the tales of Special Constable Horatio Lyle in the literary world. Catherine Webb holds the distinction of possessing a voice that’d be impossible to emulate.
Webb’s series is part poetry, part ramshackle guide to dingy Victorian London, part fantasy-steampunk and all speculative sparkle. There’s a mechanical wonderment to Webb’s prose: her ability to plod words along on a rickety, speeding-up track, her parallel structure, her alliteration, her use of consonance and her thoroughly original grasp of Old London’s seedy, dank and colorful appearance. She also jostles perspectives so each of the main characters have a starring stage point of view. Indeed, even Tate gets a few chapters here and there, allowing the reader to see the world from his low, bedraggled vantage point. Horatio Lyle is sometimes police-man, often scientist, and all-times eccentric. Until Tess the pickpocket and Thomas the “bigwig” drop into his life, his only real companionship is found in his loyal, long-eared dog and the occasional innuendo-ridden conversations he engages in with his neighbor Mercy Chaste.
What makes Horatio Lyle so groundbreaking is that its first installment was written by Webb when she was still a teenager. What makes it even more remarkable is it’s one of the few young adult books with an adult protagonist. In his 30s, Lyle is not the typical figure in a YA novel. All gruffly distracted on the outside and soft within, Lyle isn’t pre-occupied with relationships until two children take over his time and his heart.
Webb’s brand of snide, sarcastic, knowing humor is a treat to those who prefer their narration with a bit of a winking edge. Some readers read for plot, for mystery, for deeper knowledge; I read for character. Part of my penchant for this series is because I love re-visiting old friends. Horatio Lyle and his young protégés Tess Hatch (“reformed” pickpocket extraordinaire) and uppity Thomas, Lord Elwick are three delightfully intriguing, fresh and humorous personages. For the span of the four books we grow and learn with them, laugh with them and hold them close.
Webb spins a sprawling yarn. Like the chime of church-bells or the rain-slicked contours of the London Bridge, or the soggy banks of Westminster lapping over the Thames, there’s a cadence of Nursery Rhyme to her musings. It’s well-paired with the fantastical and hovering, mysterious Tseiqin: green-eyed other worldy creatures pitted against the start of the industrial revolution, with their strange, ethereal way of materializing and controlling the city with magic. While certainly Lyle’s greatest enemy, they also become his greatest crisis of conscience, most potently with the arrival of Lin, a Tseiqin woman who captures his imagination, his conscience, and his heart with her artful ways.
When the entire species is threatened with genocide at the clutches of a Doomsday machine, Lyle, again, peels back another layer of his stout morality. He straddles both worlds: a middle class science man wedged between Lord Elwick’s magnanimous son and young Teresa Hatch whose thieves’ cant is one of the many distinguishing aspects of the books vernacular charm.
Someone’s always trying to kill Lyle, Tess and Thomas… either green-eyed creatures allergic to the iron of the industrial age, or those who would see them stopped for turning wrong on its ear and defending the right. But they get over it, charge ahead, mix a stalwart potion of particles and chemicals with their quick banter and powers of deduction, and make the most fun, fresh, lusciously vibrant and original trio known to historical YA fiction to date. ♥