Monday, August 31, 2015

A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson

There's this thing Diana Wynne Jones books often do: Magic in the everyday. Determined characters who remain optimistic despite the odds against them or the darkness lurking in the corners of their world. Characters like Eric Chant of Charmed Life or Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle.

R.J. Anderson's A Pocket Full of Murder is also one of those books. Steeped in magic in the everyday and featuring protagonists who have adventures and fun even though the stakes are high and their lives are far from perfect. In the city of Tarreton spells power the lamps and the economy, while talkie-plays air on the crystal sets and nobles ride about in carriages. It's a deftly-crafted world (based on Toronto) that allows for explorations into class and racial tensions around a well-constructed mystery plot with two loveable detectives.

Also characteristic of this style of fantasy, A Pocket Full Of Murder takes a few chapters to build the world and introduce Isaveth. Her small business of spell-baking (SPELL-BAKING!) provides a grounding counterbalance to the murder mystery plot while guiding the reader through this new world. Alternating between the adventure and her responsibilities helps pace the story and endear the reader to the other members of Isaveth's family. By the end of the novel, you'll feel less like you've read about someone and more like you've made a new friend.

As for the mystery: Isaveth's papa has been accused of murdering a prominent member of Tarreton's academia. The evidence is an old argument between the two and the use of Common Magic. She's certain her father can't be responsible, and she teams up with an eye-patch wearing streetboy named Quiz to solve the crime and bring the real culprit to justice.

I appreciated how Isaveth is a capable character with a keen determination to do her best, but she also faces self-doubt. She's more than a kid detective trope; she's a real person. She cares for her family, explores her faith, and hopes one day to be a famous author.

Quiz is... well, he's ridiculous. He's also my favourite, because I love a trickster character. Anderson has managed to write one that balances being mildly suspicious without ever being cruel, and that adds to the kindness and hope that underwrites the story. The way that he and Isaveth interact and the growth of their friendship is one of my favourite aspects.

Another is the Lady Auradia talkie-play that runs as a side-plot through the book—what serves as part of the initial bonding for Isaveth and Quiz—and acts as a quiet commentary on how characters (historical, fictional, fictionalized, or otherwise) inspire us. Anderson has sprinkled samples of the story Isaveth is writing about Lady Auradia  throughout A Pocket Full of Murder, and when things get tough Isaveth wonders what Lady Auradia would do. It's a great extra layer that adds to the story without detracting from the mystery plot.

A Pocket Full of Murder is perfect for young or young-at-heart readers who are looking for some magic to go along with their sleuthing. Find it at your local indie bookstore, Indigo.caAmazon.ca, and Kobo.

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