I finished the first book of this series back in January and quite liked it, but wasn’t quite ready to pick up the rest of the series. Fast forward a few months and I decide to mainline books 2 through 5. I liked the rest of the books, though I think they may have suffered a bit for being read back to back. There is a definite structure that the books follow and by the third book I started to get a bit bored with it. That being said, I still really enjoyed the series and I think it’s worth reading.
The main premise of the series is that England is being troubled with a plague of ghosts. The only people who can really see or sense the ghosts are people under the age of 20. No, it’s never really explained why people lose their psychic abilities sometime in their early 20s, and yes it bothered me a lot; especially since the big bad doesn’t lose their abilities and they’re considerably older than 25. I mean, it allowed Stroud to tell the story that he wanted to tell, but I could feel the hand of the author manipulating things that way as opposed to it feeling like a natural offshoot of the world building. Anyway, due to this fact, the only people who can really fight the ghosts and keep England safe are children and teenagers. Enter Lucy Carlyle, whose strongest psychic talent is being able to hear the dead. This talent is one of the rarest talents, and is considered to be one of the weakest. However, she joins with the independent ghost hunting company Lockwood and Co and they have many adventures and slowly start to uncover the secret behind England’s plague of ghosts.
The Whispering Skull, follows the team as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of a psychically imbued object that was stolen from one of their recent jobs. This object kills anyone who looks directly at it, and needs to be found as soon as possible. Complicating matters is the fact that the skull George stole when he was fired from one of the major agencies has started speaking to Lucy, and not just the random whisperings that most ghosts do, but holding conversations. This skull seems to be tied to the investigation in some way. This book sets up a couple of things for the later series, the skull and the existence of spirit gates. The spirit gate in this book kills people who simply look at it. In later books there are spirit gates that the characters cross through, and look directly at, and there’s no death. This inconsistency is never explained, and yes it bothers me.
In the Hollow Boy London is troubled by an outbreak of psychic phenomena. This outbreak takes up the attention of most of the larger agencies, which leaves Lockwood and Co to pick up the slack. As they’re naturally a bit overworked by this, they hire an assistant. Unfortunately Lucy really hates the new girl, and the personality clash between the two of them ends with a rather large bang when the Lockwood agency goes to investigate what could be the source of the psychic outbreak. Because of this conflict, and her own doubts about her ability to handle her psychic power, Lucy leaves Lockwood and Co.
The Creeping Shadow temporarily reunites the team for the first ghost hunt. It doesn’t last. However, when Lucy finds herself in danger she goes to Lockwood for help. They look into the trouble Lucy dug up, investigate another psychic outbreak, and wind up taking down one of the larger ghost hunting agencies in London.
Finally, in The Empty Grave all the characters come together to take down the big bad. They put together all the pieces that have been dropped through the various hauntings they have investigated and learn exactly why England is experiencing this problem with ghosts.
As I said earlier, the books follow a very set formula. The books start with beat one, a preliminary haunting. This is only tangentially related to the main plot, but serves to set the scene for the characters. Beat two is the consequences from that first haunting, and the start of set up for the main plot. Beat three is a bit of an interruption as Lockwood and Co go on a second ghost hunt, this hunt is sometimes connected to the plot and sometimes not. Then beat four is the wrap up of that and more development of the plotline. Finally, you get to the main haunting and resolution of the plot. At this point, there are likely some hints about the overarching series plot as well, but honestly I’m not really sure how much Stroud actually planned out for the series and how much he made up as he wrote each book. Anyway, the repetitive nature of the books got a bit tiresome, and reading them back to back really highlighted their formulaic nature.
Despite some bumps, I still highly recommend this series. Lucy is a great protagonist, and the other characters are fleshed out well. One of my favorite supporting character is Quill Kipps who, and this is a bit spoilery, goes from moderate antagonist to loyal friend as the series progressed. He’s someone who can’t really do ghost hunting anymore, as his psychic abilities have left him due to his age, and his frustration at the loss is really quite palpable.
This series has a lot of similarities to Stroud’s other series, The Bartimaeus Trilogy. It’s been a while since I’ve read those books, but it’s very easy to see how the two books relate to each other. The sarcastic skull, a rare Type 3 ghost who has presence enough to hold conversations with Lucy, and djinni Bartimaeus are practically the same character. That being said, I quite enjoy this character type and so I don’t mind so much.
The first book spooked me quite a bit, unfortunately the rest of the books never quite managed to scare me in quite the same way. I still enjoyed them a lot, and I think they were resolved satisfactorily but they never quite reached that same “can’t get out of bed the ghosts will get me” level of spookiness. I do recommend these, despite my reservations. They’re fun romps with great characters, and a dash of spooky to keep it interesting.