The Madness Underneath / The Boy in the Smoke

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for The Name of the Star. You can read my review of this novel [here].

The Madness Underneath was written by Maureen Johnson and first published in 2013. It forms the second part of the Shades of London series and is preceded by The Name of the Star (2011) and followed by The Boy in the Smoke (2014) and The Shadow Cabinet (2015). The story picks up exactly where its prequel leaves off, with Rory coming to terms with her new power.

Ripper hype is slowly starting to die down. As far as the general public are concerned, the murderer is dead and his brutal killing spree is finally over. Rory is one of a small group of people who know the truth. The Ripper is gone, but he was not killed. He was never alive to begin with. Yet his defeat almost cost her life and now her overprotective parents have spirited her away from the city, determined that she will never return to her friends at Wexford.

For Rory, leaving London is far more distressing than her healing wounds. She misses her school friends horribly, and Stephen and his band of ghost hunters even more. To make matters worse, her battle with the Ripper has left her with a deadly power – the ability to dispel ghosts with a touch – and she has no one left that she can talk to about it. Luckily, it’s not long before her ability is discovered and the English government arrange for her to return to London.

Rory believed that this would make things easier, but it doesn’t. Stephen doesn’t seem to want her to be part of his team and her secrecy is damaging her relationship with Jerome. As things begin to spiral out of her control, Rory finally decides to seek the help of Jane, a local therapist. However, there is something very strange about Jane. The stories that she tells slowly begin to resonate with Rory’s own experiences. Could it be possible that Jane can see ghosts as well?

Before I begin this review, I just thought that I’d quickly talk about The Boy in the Smoke. This is a novella that was original published for World Book Day 2014, fleshing out Stephen’s backstory from his relationship with his sister to when he was first recruited by MI5. While this makes it technically a prequel to the series, I would advise reading it after The Name of the Star as it does contain some spoilers that could otherwise ruin some of this novel’s twists.

There isn’t really a lot I can say about The Boy in the Smoke. It’s fast paced and well written, and does a great job of making Stephen seem human (in the main stories he comes across as a bit of a robot). It’s not a necessary read, as a lot of information in it is also exposited in the first book, but if you enjoyed The Name of the Star as much as I did I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of it.

Anyhow, to return to subject of this review, I was unfortunately a bit disappointed by The Madness Underneath. The biggest problem that I had with this story is that it suffered from middle novel syndrome. Badly. The Name of the Star wasn’t the fastest moving of stories, but this book was a stage worse again. A lot of the early chapters were designed to bring the reader up to speed with the events of the previous book, and the true plot didn’t actually kick in until three quarters of the way through.

The tone of the novel was also entirely different this time around. The structure of The Name of the Star was surprisingly original. It started out as a straight-forward murder mystery and the twist that it was actually a ghost story didn’t really come into play until over halfway through. While this isn’t the sort of trick that Johnson could play twice, I wasn’t expecting The Madness Underneath to change genres again so dramatically. A couple of ghosts do appear in this novel but I wouldn’t call it a horror story and there is certainly no mystery to be discovered this time around (despite an early red herring that implies that there will be).

As the ghosts have taken a back seat this time, the story acts as more of a character study for Rory. Most of the novel simply follows her around day-to-day, detailing how she is coping (or not) with her stabbing. We see her struggle with her school work, go to therapy, and attempt to kick up her relationship with Jerome. In all fairness, these sections aren’t handled that badly. Rory is still a very likeable protagonist and her stream of consciousness is a lot of fun to read. Although she made a couple of questionable decisions in this novel, I still certainly didn’t want anything bad to happen to her and, really, she was the best thing about this story. I was also glad that her new ghostbusting powers were used sparingly within the novel. I was worried that the inclusion of these would make her a bit of a Mary-Sue, but thankfully this wasn’t the case at all.

Yet I couldn’t get over how disappointed I was by the lack of ghosts. This series already established itself as a ghost story. It’s what I signed up for. It’s natural that I felt disappointed by the fact that they barely factored into this book. The novel also ended on a very abrupt cliff-hanger, and you know how I feel about those. I’m not going to spoil it here, other than to say that this was especially jarring. As the villain’s motivation was only introduced over the last couple of chapters, it left this book feeling like an extended preview of what we can expect to find in The Shadow Cabinet.

The other big issue that I had with this story was that Rory’s development came at the expense of all of the other characters. Rory spends her time flitting between two groups of friends – her school mates at Wexford (including Jazza, Jerome and Alistair), and the ghost hunters (Stephen, Boo and Callum). Yet all of these characters only really exist to give Rory development. Take Jerome for example. The early novel focuses on how Rory wants him to be her boyfriend. When she succeeds in this, they go on precisely one date, have a little fall out, and that’s it. Jerome’s role is fulfilled and so he bows out of the plot, never to be seen again.

This is a reoccurring theme in this story. All of the secondary characters feel as flat as the paper they’re written on, and I found myself caring less and less about them all as the story progressed, purely because I wasn’t given a reason to care about them. This is a particular problem because in the final chapters, the novel throws out one last tragic twist and I didn’t care. Seriously, it should have had a massive emotional impact but I found that I was so apathetic towards the character in question by this point that it just didn’t resonate with me at all. This is a really serious issue that I had with the story, and I’m not sure that it’s something the author will be able to salvage in future books.

Anyhow, I think that’s all I have to say about this one. I’ll probably pick up the third novel at some point just to see if things improve, but I was pretty disappointed by this entry. The Madness Underneath is a really different novel to The Name of the Star, losing its creepy atmosphere and flair for the dramatic. If you came into this like I did, hoping for another ghost story, I think you’ll be very disappointed.

The Madness Underneath can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

The Boy in the Smoke can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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