Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker – and she now speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children – leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honour bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.
She’ll dice with death (not part of her life plan . . .) as she calls on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets. And in the process, she discovers an occult library and some unexpected allies. Yet as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?
A gripping and fast-moving young adult alternative-reality fantasy novel with really effective world building, a (somewhat precocious) thoroughly engaging protagonist and a well-crafted plot. Comparisons with the Rivers of London series are both inevitable and, in general terms, justified.
What I Liked
- Ropa as a protagonist, her feisty attitude and her courage, balancing pragmatism with conscience.
- The world building of this alternate Edinburgh.
- The unrepentantly working class status of Ropa, in conflict with her more privileged mentors in the library
What Could Have Been Different
- I’d have liked more of the eponymous library and the magic systems in the novel.
- There is an episode in the middle of the book where Ropa is trapped that felt… laboured?
There are some books where you may not be entirely clear why you picked it up or were drawn to it. Others, you are totally clear about. Maybe you love that author. Maybe it was a recommendation from a friend or social media. With this novel, two things stood out: what a great title (the second in the series is even better, Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments!) and what a fantastic cover!
Yes, there are obvious echoes of the Rivers of London series in the cover design which gives me a chance to play with the image comparison slider block here! The use of the map of the city incorporated into the image, alongside the iconic skyline of Edinburgh is perhaps more striking, more stylised…
And we get thrown straight into the supernatural in both novels: here, our first encounter with Ropa – “What is she, twelve? She’s got green dreadlocks and black lipstick, for Christ’s sake. What is that even – goth, punk, I don’t know.” – is a full blown exorcism. We are screamed at by a ghoulish poltergeist, we get the whole nine yards: “curtains fluttering, the locked windows rattling, commotion and chaos, small objects flung through the air. An ethereal grey figure rushing hither and thither in the dimness, knocking furniture over…” to which Ropa responds wonderfully
‘I said, are you done, sir?’ I reach for my backpack and stand up. ‘This is quite the racket you’re making here.’
Ropa’s matter-of-factness, combined with her unrepentant disdain for the wealth of her clients, letting them “yak on” about the history of their home, created a wonderfully vivid character. A ghostalker, Ropa has been trained by her grandmother to liaise between the dead and the living, passing on messages, warnings or – critically – the recipe for the perfect Battenberg cake! Always for a fee – no freebies.
When she is confronted by a recently deceased spirit desperate for her to find her son who has gone missing, she turns her down because she does not do freebies… but then her conscience pricks at her. Her quest finds other disappeared children, appallingly deformed children, a terrifying milkman and a malevolent force in her midst. And all the while she is navigating this, Ropa is also fretting about paying the rent for her caravan, getting her little sister to school and avoiding having the police steal her earnings.
It is almost tangentially that the library of the title comes into play: one of Ropa’s friends from before she quit school – Jomo – has a job, arranged by his father, at it. And it is a magical, secret, arcane library into which Ropa sneaks – albeit at Jomo’s invitation – which is bound by somewhat extreme rules including “The penalty for trespass is hanging by the neck until you expire,” a sentence that they seem perfectly willing to carry out. Escaping the death penalty by the intervention of another somewhat enigmatic member of the library who also gifts Ropa with her first magical instruction – which comes in convenient later…
In terms of the plotting, there are a few too many “conveniences” for my taste – the one spell she learns is the one that she needs; the one friend she had is the one with access to the library… I might have preferred Ropa to have been reliant on her catapult, dagger and ghosts more than on the magic…
I did like Priya, though, whom she meets in the library – “a girl in a wheelchair directly above me, looking down with a Cheshire cat grin. She’s fully upside down. Like, attached to the ceiling upside down” – who exudes energy and is also a healer by both profession and vocation. Which is convenient later…
The world building here is fantastic, though: we are in a darkly dystopian version of Edinburgh after some event that seems to have plunged the city, the country into a new dark age. Small things like the ritualistic “God save the King / Long may he reign” – which sounds less out of place now than it did when I first read the book – and the fractured infrastructure of the society really painted a setting that was both familiar and unsettling at the same time.
Overall, this was a refreshing and engaging read, a great fun opening to a series which I am sure I will continue with!
T. L. Huchu (he/him) has been published previously (as Tendai Huchu) in the adult market, but the Edinburgh Nights series is his genre fiction debut. His previous books (The Hairdresser of Harare and The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician) have been translated into multiple languages and his short fiction has won awards. Tendai grew up in Zimbabwe but has lived in Edinburgh for most of his adult life.