When I went to Bookcon 2017 this June at the Javits Centre in NYC with my fellow blondie bookworm and friend Meghan we went to a panel called “The Magic of Worldbuilding!” That sparkletastic discussion was helmed by four leading ladies–including Marie Lu and Renee Ahdieh of Legend and The Dawn & The Wrath fame.
Author William Ritter wasn’t at TBC but his novel Jackaby the first in a quartet of books in the Jackaby series (I realize how confusing that looks. Will, what the heck man!) is a display of MAAAAGICAL WORLDBUILDINGGGG *cue the glitter and herds of ecstatically neighing unicorns* at its finest. This YA book was published back in 2014 and I was struck by a sudden desire to pick it up again because I was so impressed with it and taken with the characters and setting. Plus I’ve been in a bit of a book slump: having been disappointed with When Dimple Met Rishi and The Flame in The Mist. 💩
So I finished my re-read of Jackaby and I stand by my original love and enthusiasm for this saucy, supernatural story. It’s a marvelous read with A LOT going for it. To describe it in pop-culture terminology Jacakaby is Sherlock meets Being Human with a liberal dash of Gravity Falls and a nod at Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural.
Fans legends, folklore, and all things that go bump in the night will be over the moon with Jackaby. The unearthly beings that populate this world are numerous, and to mention just a few: ghosts, werewolves, and brownies as well as banshees, trolls, and a cursed man who takes the phrase “odd duck” to an entirely new level– wait ‘till you meet Douglas, trust me, my assessment of him is not “quackers”! Ha. I can’t resist a good fowl pun. The dynamics between all these supernatural beings is sure to excite fans of the show Being Human especially once readers meet the other residents of Auger Lane, an address that’s not quite as iconic as 221 Baker Street, but is pretty darn close.
Jackaby takes place in the fictional town of New Fiddleham in New England in the 1890s, and follows young twenty-something Abigail Rook. She was born and bred in England to an archaeologist father and prissy lady of a mother, and although she was given all the education she desired, her heart was really set on digging up dinosaurs and being a paleontologist! After running away from her boarding school she joined an expedition halfway across Europe and garbed like a boy, tried her hand at unearthing fossils, but instead her disguise snapped in a matter of moments, and the team turned up nothing but dirt and rocks. Refusing to return to London with her head bowed in shame, Abigail does the next best thing. She hitches a ride on a ship to America! With her trusty steamer trunk and a wallet that’s more than a little pathetic and dwindling by the moment, Abigail hits the cobblestone streets to seize her second chance at finding a job and a place of her own to stay. Anything but returning to London with her tail between her legs and her mum tut-tutting at her! Calm yourself, about spoilers because this is all explained in the first two chapters. Not as just a WALL OF TEXT but with plenty of description and Abigail’s emotions on display.
Fresh off the boat and out of the winter chill (this takes place in November. Anyone familiar with New England winters know how BRUTAL they are) in a toasty pub Abigail comes face-to-face…err well nose to nose with a odd young man about her age who seems to have the uncanny ability to recognize where Abigail traveled just by looking at her alone! With his massive coat full of pockets, humongous kooky scarf and a haphazardly knit cap and a fervent energy buzzing about him, he’s like a more manic Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Everyone at the tavern seems to have something to say about this bizarre man and Abigail herself is instantly intrigued. Her path collides with Jackaby again when she spies an advertisement for a new assistant leads her to 926 Augur Lane. The architecturally eclectic abode is home to a“Private Detection & Consultants Agency” specializing in “Unexpected Phenomena” and once again to R.F. Jackaby, who just so happens to be the man who met her at the pub!
Unwilling to be turned away and take no for an answer, yet completely unprepared for the paranormal madness that is about to descend on her Abigail embarks on racing about the narrow, winding, cobbly streets of New Fiddleham with this quirky detective, trying to uncover the gruesome killer of a journalist named Arthur Bragg at the Emerald Arch apartment complex: a man found just about entirely drained of blood. Egads! But he’s not the only one. There’s been a pattern of these victims all around the region with constant interference by the New Fiddleham Police Department, Abigail and Jackaby scramble to get to the root of the murders and apprehend the bloodthirsty creature responsible for it all. Jackby’s affiliation with the paranormal and the unseen world beyond ours is explained early on in the game:
“So what are you?” I asked. “A magician? A wizard?”
“The term I use is seer. It’s not a perfect title. It’s been used to define all manner of fortune-tellers and prophets over the centuries, but it’s simple and apt. I see. I am a seer. The Seer, in fact, in this usage. The one and only for the moment. There have been others in the past, but never two at the same time. It’s as though the ability leaves when one vessel dies and is reborn in another.”
Written in first person, we’re intimately connected with Abigail, who is one of the best female leads, hell, one of the best characters period that I’ve had the pleasure of reading about in a book. She’s plucky and although she’s skeptical and rejects some of the popularly held customs at the time, she still fits marvelously into the world and feels like a real girl. I was astounded that a guy wrote this novel because of how much I could relate to Abigail and how fleshed out she was. Some YA heroines tend to be lumped into the “dystopian ass-kicker”, tough-as-nails gals that openly hate and defy what they see as wrong and unjust around them, and lash out with their physically aggression and get tangled into love triangles. Well I’m THRILLED to report there’s nary a love triangle in sight in Jackaby. Her observation skills are the bomb, and after she meets kindred spirit (literally) Jenny, she gets even more stylish AF than she already is. And Abigail, although feminine and totally confident in her femininity isn’t seen as a “damsel” or frivolous but is an intellectual. And she uses stereotypes to her advantage.
“That ridiculous performance of yours should not have worked,” said Jackaby.
“I’m actually a little offended that it did. I find most men are already more than happy to believe a young woman is a frail little thing. So, technically the deception was already there, I just employed it in a convenient way.”
The characters are living and breathing, rounded beings. From the quirky detective Jackaby himself, to the feminist sensibilities, resiliency and determination of Abigail, to the peculiar residents of Auger Lane, to loyal and . Ritter has a cheeky and playful way about his writing that’s similar to Ransom Riggs and Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children yet is still entirely his own. Jackaby is unlike any other young adult book out there today and downright enchanting.
The tension between the police force helmed by the bullheaded, skeptic, Chief Inspector Marlowe who is constantly annoyed and exasperated by Jackaby’s peculiarity and pesky investigation methods is hilarious and the constant banter between the men is compulsively readable. Joined by his dutiful, junior detective Charlie Cane, and with the ever present party-crashing politically inclined, ambitious jerk Police Commissioner Swift Abigail and Jackaby engage in more than a few madcap antics of their own.
Said Junior Detective, Charlie Cane has secrets of his own. Not to mention, eyes on Abigail. The crush that blossoms between the two is mutual and the romance is sweet and gradual and believable. The two obvi want to get to know the other more, but there’s no big epic smooching love-fest between them. It’s also crystal clear from the get-go that Jackaby and Abigail are just partners, associates, coworkers or what have you. Don’t fret about love triangle nonsense because it’s not here. YAAAAAY.
The setting, New Fiddleham is practically a character in and of itself. As someone who’s lived in the New England region my entire life I can handily say Ritter’s descriptions are right on target. It’s written in such a way that it has a personality and charm to it, but also a darkness–one that’s underscored by the paranormal tone at the heart of the book. The prose here is elegant but not overly grandiose. Ritter is the man at showing, showing, showing, and not telling! He taps into all the senses with his observations on the sounds, smells, and sensations that Abigail sees for the first time, to the point that even readers who are unfamiliar with this region will be able to imagine the locations — from the shady alleyways, to the fishmongers shops, to the Emerald Arch apartment buildings and even the constables station and prison cells– in an instant. As I read this I was completely absorbed by the prose and could see it playing out in my mind like a mini movie something that happens when I read Harry Potter and Diana Wynne Jones’ novels like Howl’s Moving Castle.
Although this has some scary elements and disturbing moments, Jackaby is not a horror story. If you’re looking for a more gruesome and chilling dark mystery, give Rick Yancey’s The Montrumologist series and Joe Hill’s graphic novel series Locke & Key a read. But be forewarned that both are quite violent, graphic and not for those who have queasy stomachs and frighten easily! 😱 They’re hardcore horror stories, more than a little unnerving.
Jackaby is at its essence a mystery. And the plot isn’t some over complicated, tangled mess riddled with more holes than a cheese grater. It’s a well-paced, well-crafted, thoughtfully written thriller. But one of the drawbacks of these whodunits is once you figure out the culprit, that’s it. The novelty value of Abigail and Jackaby creeping ever closer to their suspects is knocked down a peg during re-reads, because even though it’d been a couple years since I first read Jackaby I did vaguely recall what happened. The initial trepidation I felt was just a shadow of itself this second go around. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less worth more than one read. For me, the world is so well-defined with a core cast of irresistible characters and prose that is charming, descriptive and taps into the imagination from the very first page. Don’t let this treasure pass you by. Crack it open and delve into the mayhem and mystery of this madcap supernatural detective!