Book time! ‘The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches’ by Alan Bradley

I am in the process of sorting out books, asking myself: “Do I still want this on my shelf? Will I reread it or will I enjoy seeing it standing in the shelf? Will the sight make me go “Yes, that was fun! Such a good book? Or will it make me roll my eyes and regret the puchase?”

I finally admitted to myself that Jasper Fforde has become boring to me, and I realized that the third volume of Clive Barker’s Abarat has enraged me so much that I don’t care for the series as a whole anymore, won’t read the sequel, won’t reread the start. Less so because of any specific thing that happened, but because the book was objectively badly structured and very frustrating to read. I think that it was very much the sort of bad book that an author ends up delivering when the story, the characters and the world are growing over his head. Perhaps there is a point to – what was his name? – Gazza, but he is not only pointless in this book, he’s inserted in a jarring fashion, just suddenly tags along and that’s it. If there were physical descriptions of him, I forgot them practically after his first scene, which didn’t help. I don’t remember any specific examples, but I sometimes wished for a reminder of what some side characters looked like again. Abarat is set in a fantastical world that is full of magical creatures! So give me lots of decriptions! It is as if Clive Barker lost the ability to take a step back and see just the story he’s put on the page, rather than the entire epos he’s got in his head. It also felt like he wanted to tie up certain subplots and move the story to a certain place, but this made the subplots feel pointless  – and that’s really frustrating for a reader. Especially when you’ve waited six years for this book. Then again, this is exactly the problems that arise when an author has spent too much time working on a sequel to a big, colourful fantasy series. I’ve read The Wheel of Time, I know all about authors getting lost in the minute details of their own creation. (“But no, it is very important that we know which colour emboidery Egwene’s dress is in this scene! And we must know the names of every horse! Describe all strategic meetings!” =P)

Right, erh. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is, of course, very different from this. It’s not fantasy, for one thing, but a couple of fluffy crime novels set in the English countryside in 1950, starring an eleven-year-old chemistry-obsessed girl named Flavia de Luce, who lives with her dysfunctional family in their decaying ancestral home, and who solves crimes! But who also tries to cope with her complicated family dynamics, which have been screwed up by her mother’s disappearance in Tibet ten years ago.

Here on be spoilers.

One thing that’s always impressed me about the books was that Flavia’s mother, Harriet, isn’t one of those vague, undefined “dead mothers” that heroes and heroines often have, representing nothing but a standard motherly warmth, who are clearly out of the picture and not directly relevant anymore. Harriet is still very present in the series. Flavia finds things in the house that she has owned, meets people who remember her, regrets that she has no own memories of her and thinks about her all the time. And Harriet was an adventurous, free-spirited woman with complexities, not just “a mother”.

The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches is the sixth book in the series, and this time it is actually all about Harriet. As a murder mystery, it is not very good, but I can hardly fault Flavia for not dedicating her time and attention to the mysterious death at the train station. In this book, Harriet’s body had finally been found and has been brought home for a proper funeral. Flavia is mostly coping with her mother’s definite death and with discovering a little bit about her mother’s secret past … which of course ties in with the death at the beginning of the book.

It turns out that Harriet was a spy – that the de Luce family has a bit of a history of being super spies, with Flavia’s aunt Felicity being a particularly important one and that Flavis is now essentially a part of this secret spy coven. I was very satisfied with these revelations, because I got the idea several books ago that Flavia would certainly grow up to be an amazing international secret agent during the Cold War. :D And now she’s actually set on that path!

More imminent is Flavia’s move to Canada, where she is to go to school. I am hoping that this means a proper murder mystery set in a boarding school, new characters and friends for Flavia, and that she grows and changes in her new environment. The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches takes place just days after the previous novel, Speaking From Among The Bones, and it does feel a bit like an epilogue to the five books before, concluding a chapter of Flavia’s childhood and resolving the core issue: her relationship with her mother and the rest of her family.

I read yesterday that the books are to be adapted for TV. They definitely deserve the chance, but of course it will all hinge on finding the right actress for Flavia and on finding ways to translate Flavia’s narrative voice into a visual medium. I can only imagine that this will be a huge challenge, since it’s a defining factor that Flavia doesn’t have a friend or sidekick with whom she could share her private thoughts and personal feelings aloud. It would be very un-Flavia to do that.

Right, so … While not every book in the series is brilliant, and some murder mysteries are a little too contrived, while others are much too straight-forward … and you can certainly find the “family of super spies” reveal a bit too much … these are really good books with vibrant characters, and they will forever have a place of honour on my shelf, once it’s been re-organized. (Have you ever tried to find “bookshelf organization” tips on the internet? It’s a topic deserving of its own ranty blog post. XD

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