The City of Spirits by Paul Bajoria

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The City of Spirits by Paul Bajoria

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Two twins must travel to 1820s India to reclaim the inheritance a most melodramatic family past might afford them. The soft touch to the high drama allows for an easily recommendable, if not perfectly realistic, read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's
ISBN: 978-1416917076

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London, the 1820s. Our main characters, Mog the tomboy, and her twin brother Nick, are returning to the city they were dragged up in – home to evil people who separated them almost at birth, and denied them their family, their birthright, their happiness. But, brought together by the first two books in this trilogy, they are a little upset to find their newly-discovered inheritance is worth nothing – an estate saddled with enough debt to mean their memories of poverty will stay with them much longer.

However out of the melodramatic murk comes news of a family link with a huge Indian gem, the Winter Diamond. Striding ahead of that news, however, is the horrid Captain, with his stumpy metal walking sticks. He is also on the trail of the precious stone, and is prepared to ignore the risk, the curse upon it, and the real claim of the children, in getting it. There is nothing for it for the twins but to go to Calcutta, where an awkward family secret will surface, and so possibly will the jewel.

The near Dickensian life in London – nice, quirky names such as the accountants Parchmold and Coot, the necessary foggy, dockside settings – are then replaced by a very visual and entertaining drama set in the heat of India, with a very gentle touch of the mystic about it.

The setting and a pleasing subtlety to the main characters were for me the main attractions of this book. I didn't know it was the third in a series when the review gods handed it me, but it was perfectly self-contained, and allows for a good read for the 9 year old and above. There is a bit of bluntness when eunuchs and the sexual nature of the family tree's shenanigans is given, but so little detail at the same time the younger reader will gloss over such occurrences with blissful ignorance.

I did agree with Mog once, however, when she declared the social faux pas they were inheriting were too complex to follow, for this book visits them a couple of times as the secrets are slowly revealed to all, and never successfully engaged me with who had been with whom at all. I don't think it will be a major problem for the younger reader, due to the quantity of things that are happening in the current plot.

The storyline is a most restless one, forever bringing mystery, odd characters, and rum events to our attention. If it isn't the midget benefactor they leave behind in England, there is the fakir, the eunuch, the bewildering young native girl and her elephant, and all the visiting baddies to keep to grips with, and just as with the visual splendour of the Indian scenes the book delivers all drama in high vivid detail. There is a strong case for saying the contrivances and chance reunions towards the end are too much, and unrealistic, but again the melodramatic nature of the book allows it to be forgiven.

The realism hits a couple of further question marks, especially when the twins are deemed interchangeable, for the sake of the plot. Nick therefore cannot have had his voice break, even though he is fourteen. It seems just a cropped haircut for Mog, and if she keeps gender-neutral clothes on she can pass for him. A smaller query is over Mog's narration, but certainly the mix of modern phraseology with only the rare antiquarian sensibility (There was a biting wind, whose Arctic purpose the bare trees did almost nothing to interrupt.) allows for the book to be accessible to all, and to zing through the drama to the satisfying conclusion.

A lot hinges on the pair of children, and a lot of work has been spent on creating a couple we can grow easily to like. They don't have to bicker over gender differences, they are never in too much peril, never too smart or winning over circumstance (well, not too often), and as such are more grounded and approachable. The fact that they are easily dropped into society meals, of gentry, and roasted gamebirds and the right cutlery, is sketched over, but a lesser writer would make more of their worldliness – their past knowledge of the inside of a certain London pub, for one.

Also to Paul Bajoria's credit is the gentle nuance given to the spiritual side of the story, as befitting his title. It doesn't come across as a city of spirits, but certainly there is a lovely tinge to things as the past comes more to life for an innocent, ignorant Mog than it does for Nick. This is no fantasy, however, and with the snake-charming natives there are all the right boxes ticked in creating a wondrous, earthy yet ethereal, heat-haze-raddled India.

So why only four stars? Well the jester's hat never resurfaced; I'm sure yesterday meant earlier today at least once, and probably twice. There was a bit of laying it on a little too heavy with all the unusual characters – which one is the most likely to betray our heroes? Answer: every man Jack of them – which alongside the contrived ending didn't work as brilliantly as some of the rest of the book. I would certainly recommend the plotting and crafted writing elsewhere, and I should consider this whole trilogy a worthy investment. The cinematic scope of the scene-setting, exoticism and melodrama will be most novel to the right young reader, and more than welcome.

I would like to thank Simon and Schuster for sending the Bookbag a review copy.

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