Jonathan Stroud is one of my favourite children and young adult writers working today, and the goodwill I feel towards him for writing the Bartimaeus books in the early 2000’s is still very much alive to this day. There is a “brand” I associate with Mr Stroud’s writing, and it is a brand characterised by 2 elements:
- A great sense of humour
- A dystopian, alternate version of Britain of some kind
Even before The Hunger Games (and its many copycats) exploded into the YA literary scene, Mr Stroud gave us a vivid oppressive version of Britain ruled by authoritarian magicians who enslave spirits and demons to keep the commoners down and colonise other nations. Imagine Harry Potter but Voldemort was victorious (and by Voldemort, I mean actual 19th century British Prime Minister William Gladstone). As a kid when Harry Potter was the vogue thing, I was that little hipster in the schoolyard who liked Bartimaeus better because it was more cynical and funnier. Then Mr Stroud followed that up with a different sort of dystopian Britain in Lockwood and Co. in which the nation is infested with ghosts, and agencies employing teenagers (who are sensitive to them) sprung up everywhere to investigate and exorcise them.
So after playing with magic and horror, Mr Stroud decides to show us yet another version of Britain: this time, some unspecified cataclysm had occurred, causing the collapse of modern society and turning the nation into an analogue of the Wild West frontier replete with outlaws, bandits, and six-shooters (along with giant mutant animals and cannibal zombies for good measure). London, as we learned early on, is now a lagoon, and the country was split into seven kingdoms reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy in the 5th century.
We are immediately introduced to one of Stroud’s familiar bullheaded stock heroines, Scarlett McCain, who felt like she descended from either Kitty Jones from the Bartimaeus books or Lucy Carlyle from Lockwood & Co. She is an outlaw of indeterminate age who chews gum and kicks ass, and is on the run from the militias of 20 towns for robbing banks across Wessex, Mercia, and Wales. In chance meeting early in the book, Scarlett found a pale, wide-eyed youth called Albert Browne who locked himself in a privy on a wrecked bus. He was, mysteriously, the only survivor of whatever calamity that had befallen the bus’ occupants (who had mostly been reduced to gory remains).
What I enjoy about Mr Stroud’s brand of YA is that while he does include elements of romance in his books sometimes, they are rarely overwrought or overly dramatic. His characters may have traumatic backstories but they are seldom broody or angsty either. His stories hit a sweet spot for me for having plots and themes which are complex enough for YA readers while retaining a children’s writer sensibility of fun and adventure. Like his alternate Britains in Bartimaeus and Lockwood & Co., I had a grand old time finding out how this Western-themed version of Britain works. In The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne, people are cloistered in defensible settlements called “Surviving Towns”. Horror creatures known as the “Tainted” roam the wilds. Meanwhile, a powerful organisation called the High Council of the Faith Houses rules over everyone with the twin iron fists of puritanism and eugenics. I particularly enjoy how areas in London had been reduced to a bunch of ruined archipelagic settlements like Bayswater Isle, Chelsea Atoll, and a plague island called Camberwell. I am sure there are a lot of jokes and allusions about London here which soared right over my non-English head.
For the most part, The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is a satisfying book on its own and it does answer the major mysteries of the plot like the nature of Albert Browne and the mysterious institute of Stonemoor from whence he came—but many of the greater world-building mysteries remain unanswered (presumably future books in this series will remedy that). Like all of Stroud’s YA series, the chemistry and banter between the characters just come naturally. Some of my favourite bits of this book are just scenes of dialogue between Scarlett and Albert.
The boy was watching her. “Why are you doing this? What is that thing?”
“I am setting out my prayer mat. I wish to pray.”
He nodded. “Praying? I have heard of that. So you do it on that old rag?”
Scarlett paused. “I use this fragile, sacred cloth, yes. And, by the way, once I’m sitting on it, there are rules. You don’t bother me, prod me, talk to me, or flick soil at my ears. You leave me alone and wait for me to finish.”
Albert Browne considered the matter. “So it’s like a toilet, then? Old Michael at Stonemoor used to express himself in similar terms.”
Scarlett clutched pre-emptively at her cuss-box, then took another deep slow breath. “I won’t strike you… Self-evidently you are a simpleton and have a head filled with clay. No, Albert, it is not like a toilet. Quite the reverse! This mat, when it’s unrolled, is holy ground.”
“Yet you plant your backside on it,” the boy observed. “That is a sorry act, and surely disrespectful to the sacred cloth.”
Scarlett gave a bleak half-smile. “It is not really so strange. When I sit upon it, I am in a state of grace.”
“So if I sat on it, would I be in a state of grace too?”
“No. You would be in a state of some discomfort, for I would beat you with a stick.
My only complaint is that there aren’t nearly enough of them. While it doesn’t quite match up to the laugh riots that are the Bartimaeus books, I still found myself smiling and chuckling regularly through it. The plot moves at a good clip, and before I knew it, I finished the whole book in just one day.
Jonathan Stroud’s books are like putting on a pair of old but comfortable socks for me. The story is rich, but not over-complicated. There is always a promise of a good few hours of discovery and adventure in a well-constructed alternate version of our world with fun charismatic characters. In a way, his writing is like a good theme park ride and this time, the theme is post-apocalyptic sci-fi western. It’s Stranger Things by way of Sergio Leone, and it’s awesome.