Book: “Jackaby” by William Ritter
Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, September 2014
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny.
Review: This was actually a book club book that I read a few years ago, but I wanted to review it here on the blog since I’m currently reading the sequel and I’m a librarian, so I’m naturally a completionist! Gotta have em all!
When this book showed up on our bookclub list, I was very excited. It was marketed as “Doctor Who” meets Sherlock Holmes, and while I’m not a complete nut for “Doctor Who” all told, I do love its wacky take on fantasy and science fiction. So combining that with “Sherlock Holmes” (my love of which has been well documented), seemed like it should be something that would be right up my alley! Ultimately, while I did like it, it was a bit more on the “meh” end of things than I would have liked.
Abigail Rook, fresh off the boat with dashed dreams of being an archaeologist like her father in hand, falls into a strange apprenticeship with an even stranger man: Jackaby, a paranormal investigator. Story aside (I’ll get to that a bit later on), this book lives and dies on these two main characters and right here is where we get into the general feeling of indifference.
Abigail herself is a likable character. Her personality, drive, and ability to make her way, even as ineptly as she does here, did feel a bit out of character for the time period. Yes, we’re on the cusp of the turn of the century, but there would still be some harsh realities facing her as a young woman alone in a new country. There’s nothing egregious going on as far as anachronisms or anything, but Abigail did feel a bit out of place for the time. That aside, I did enjoy her as a protagonist. She serves as our eyes into this new world, and her confusion is our confusion. As the story progresses, it becomes clear what role she will play as the Watson to Jackaby’s Holmes. Jackaby is nothing if not dense when it comes to social clues, and here is where Abigail fits in this puzzle. It’s not a super creative take, but it works for the story and she plays her part well.
I especially enjoyed the way Ritter approaches the small amount of romance in this story. Even that sentence is misleading as any romance that is seen here is strictly in the foreshadowing category. But what is most relieving is the fact that it is clear that this romantic angle will decidedly NOT focus on Abigail/Jackaby. I had definite concerns that this was going to be the romantic couple of the series, or *shudders* one corner of a love triangle. But, thankfully, we are introduced to a new character outside of the primary duo who seems to be set up to play this role going forward.
Jackaby himself was…ok? Honestly, I think some of my problems with the book had to do with him as a character. He was a bit too “preciously wacky,” if that makes sense? He’s obviously a creation based on both Holmes and the Doctor, but the portrayal definitely falls more closely to the latter. It’s simply not unique enough. Jackaby could practically BE the Doctor, and it starts to feel derivative rather quickly.
To end on a good note, the world-building and the paranormal elements that were included were interesting and more unique. The villain character and several of the other beings were not the ones we’re used to seeing in this type of story, and I enjoyed diving into some of the history of these creatures. The supporting cast is also interesting, including the previously mentioned love interest who turns out to be more than he seems, as well as Jackaby’s current roommates, a ghost woman with unfinished business, and Jackaby’s previous apprentice who now lives an unfortunate, if still scholarly, life as a duck.
There were definitely strengths of the book, but it’s always going to be a struggle if the title character doesn’t live up to expectations. That said, if you enjoy “Doctor Who” and Sherlock Holmes this still might be a fun book to check out. Stay tuned for my upcoming review of the sequel “Beastly Bones.”
Rating 6: If I could, I’d give it a solid 6.5. Better than average, but rather underwhelming.
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