A big part of the charm of Maureen Johnson’s first Shades of London installment was the very successful mix of humor (typically Johnson witticisms in the dialogues) and a scary story arc. As such The Name of the Star could almost have been a story on its own: good set-up, good story development, and a fitting ending to the main plot,… except of course some of the characters belonged to the Secret Ghost Police and there were oodles of possibilities to franchise this and make it into a series,… which Johnson did.
The Madness Underneath picks up just a few weeks after the very eventful finale of The Name of the Star. We find Rory in Bristol, and no longer in London, to recover from the Ripper attack. Because she can’t really come clean about what really happened (“Yeah, so I was attacked by a ghost, and now I have these really freak ghost-zapping powers.”) without being put in the loony bin permanently, the therapy sessions she has with her therapist aren’t really that successful. Rory feels the need to open up, but there really isn’t anyone. However, for a reason that will become clear later on, her therapist decides that the best for Rory might be to go back to London and pick up her old life again, have some sort of “normal” routine again. The entire first half of the book is actually a very convincing rendering of Rory as a victim of a violent crime (even though she doesn’t really want to be considered as a victim) and her having to come to terms with what happened. Once she is back at Wexford she (consciously or not) pushes away her old friends. That means that this book is a Jazza- and Jerome-light book (not to mention that also Boo and Callum are well…afterthoughts really). I totally believed “Rory as a victim” the first 150 pages of the book. I bought it. It made sense why she’d be the whiny talkative Rory rather than the funny talkative Rory. Hey, if you’d been stabbed by the ghost of a serial killer you might be whiny too! Unfortunately, this aspect of characterization might also be a reason for this book to be accused of suffering from “middle book syndrome” (of a 4-part series, that is), though.
Anyway, I can pinpoint exactly where Johnson lost the cat…. Actually, there were two things. The first occurred when it became clear that she is basically setting Wexford up as the Hellmouth (Like, the cracks? Really?). Still, that in and of itself could have worked, when done right, and more importantly exclusively… Sadly, that doesn’t happen. Let me explain. The book starts with a murder. This murder plotline is abandoned for about 150 pages to focus on Rory and her settling back into school but not really being able to just resume her “normal” routine of studying for exams and all that school stuff because of all the shit that happened to her there. Now, one would hope that the second part of the novel were about that prologue murder right (that’s also how the first book was structured, btw)?
But is it? Mèh…not so much. There are a few hints here and there, but the main subplot is my second (and main) beef with this book: that totally lame-ass subplot involving a therapist and a cult. Had Johnson focused on just the one subplot – that of the murder and “the madness underneath” – this book would have been so much more exciting (without losing the victimization of Rory aspect of the book) and believable. However, as it is now, Johnson will have a hard time trying to reconcile the Buffy subplot with the True Blood subplot. I dunno, I can’t shake the impression that this books reeks of (dare I say it?) derivativeness …
In any case, this book is clearly not as developed as the first book. Maybe with some more attention to structure (and pacing! I hate it when all the action is crammed into the 30 or so last pages of a book!), it might have been possible to successfully “conclude” this “madness underneath” murder? This book is a mere 290 pages (as opposed to the first book, which was more than 370 pages), so it just really seems only half a book. The cat still gives this book 3 stars, though, because as always, Johnson’s writing style is very engaging, and she just has you going page after page. I’m not pleased with how half-finished this book seemed, but I’m definitely interested enough to continue with the series.
PS. Cover photo taken @ Soul Coffee (lemon-lime lemonade & cassis-lime lemonade)