The Wild Man by Mark Barratt

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The Wild Man by Mark Barratt

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The Dickensian escapades of the poor Joe Rat develop a quite different flavour for this sequel, which was never going to match the first. Enjoyable, but flawed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Red Fox
ISBN: 9781862302198

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A great man once said about Victorian London, 'f you haven't got it made, then you've got it hellish'. OK, he didn't - but I did, when I reviewed the prequel to this book. Joe Rat has survived that adventure however, and taken a step in life - perhaps not onwards as such but definitely upwards. He is now trying to have a second career as a sweep - one of countless boys brushing the muck of busy London from one scrap of pavement to the other and back again. And when you consider how much horsepower a busy city like London needed, you can imagine what muck I'm talking about.

Courtesy of two total rapscallions he finds a patch to call his own, an area totally alien to Joe's knowledge of London. Therefore, gone is the dark, claustrophobic underground of Joe's sewer work, and we're in a posh new square full of palatial new buildings. Surely under this clear, clean open sky there can be nothing dark to trouble Joe and others? So when Joe has cause to concentrate on one particular house, he can only wonder why the young man of the family gets thrown into the guttermuck by the footman, why the lady of the house's wordless, foodless, lifeless existence is ignored by everyone, and why said footman seems so against him.

The most memorable thing for me about the superlative first Joe Rat book was the brilliant way the author hung so many Dickensian quirks, styles and particulars on an adventure most suitable for the young reader of 2008, while never making it seem a parody. It stood out for me as one of the best books I've ever reviewed. Perhaps I was too naive to expect the sequel to match it, though - I'm now tasked with saying quite why this isn't quite on a par with it, and still convincing people to buy this, for it is a drama of merit.

The key word there is drama, for me - this reads as much less like an adventure. The open locale is much more familiar to us, as opposed to the alien underground of ordure previously. The social interactions of Joe with the other working boys and the posh household are very lifelike, but they're losing the spirit of the eerie mystery that I savoured so much last time. And while I still relished the Dickensian tropes I found - snatched identity, broken families, wasted lives under assumed names, cameo scenes set in America - they seemed too easily placed in front of Joe to provide a plot that will remain quite enjoyable for the target reader but seemed a little short of brilliance.

Also, while the original only seemed to get more Victorian, using other authors as well as Dickens to create an adventure for all ages, this starts with a dramatic idea and tries to peg Victoriana on to it. Not only that, where the revenge in the little Dickens I know of is righting wrongs, here - giving nothing away - it is likewise the inverse.

I'm not saying this series is jumping the shark - going beyond what it seemed set out to do at only the second attempt - but I think there's too much lost of Joe's prior style here. I think Barratt could just have easily created a different lead character for this volume, as however much we leave the first book caring for Joe, we could still have sympathy for a new hero given Barratt's prodigious talents.

Those talents have still created a dramatic book the right reader will find well worth buying. Their pocket money will give them a historical setting very well realised, a lad living a very edgy, dirty, risky life, contrasted with that of the mysterious young man in the house, and a book with intrigue building and building until it thrusts us into more dramatic escapades, to create a very readable story.

So if I seem very negative, and contrary when I give this four Bookbag stars, you should still consider this book for your nearest 9-13 year old, but also consider how much I loved the first Barratt book.

I must thank the Red Fox people for my review copy.

For a little extra spookiness, we also recommend the series beginning with The Haunting of Nathaniel Wolfe by Brian Keaney.

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