Title: The Madness Underneath
Author: Maureen Johnson
Release date: February 2013
Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Name of the Star, the first book in the Shades of London series.
With The Madness Underneath, Maureen Johnson takes the Shades of London series in a different direction than The Name of the Star. The Madness Underneath begins with the American heroine, Rory, living with her parents in Bristol, far away from her picturesque London boarding school called Wexford. Rory was sent to live in Bristol to recover from a traumatic injury that occurred at the end of the previous book. In Bristol, all Rory has to do is tackle some of the work that her Wexford teachers are sending her, and frequently talk with her therapist. Bristol is a nice, quiet, and perfectly boring place to recuperate.
The problem is, Rory cannot tell her shrink what actually happened to her. The public story which the therapist believes is that a psychopath tried to recreate the Jack the Ripper murders from 1888, killing several people in an intriguing, tourist-drawing crime spree. When Rory witnessed one of the murders, the Ripper went after her as his next victim, attacking her in Wexford’s bathroom. Rory screamed for help and came out alive, though with a long and ugly stomach wound, and the Ripper drowned himself in a river.
That’s the official version. The truth is much scarier. The apparition of Jack the Ripper is actually an imposter, a ghost, which is why he was never caught on any of the closed circuit television cameras that constantly monitor London. But Rory acquires the ability to see ghosts, which can only be destroyed using a fancy piece of equipment called a terminus. So Rory spends most of the first book being stalked by a ghost who most people can’t see, aided only by a three officer task force which polices ghosts.
Finally, Rory’s therapist decides that she is well enough to return to school. She is delighted to return to her friends (both at school and in the ghost police) and her sorta-kinda boyfriend. What she is not prepared for is the months of missing work that immediately swallows her. And she continues to ignore this every growing piranha of schoolwork when crazy ghosts start haunting Wexford and the surrounding area.
While The Name of the Star is a suspenseful thriller, Madness definitely has a different purpose. Most of the novel deals with Rory’s complete failure; she loses her boyfriend, has an ugly scar covering her torso, is agitated by memories of the Ripper, and is afraid of being kicked out of Wexford because she is failing her classes. Even her friendships start to unravel because she cannot be honest about what happened to her. Rory is not like other heroes, who seemingly instantly rebound from prior ordeals. Instead, she is hindered by her past experiences, and much of the novel is concerned with her recovery.
While trauma and failure are much more real issues, they are also less exciting than what is dealt with in The Name of the Star. Madness is not at all frightening, and the suspense does not pick up until more than three quarters of the way through, when the action really begins. I was a little disappointed in this sense, since I had picked up the book expecting to be frighted to the point of locking my windows, as I was while reading The Name of the Star.
What really carries this book is Maureen Johnson’s witty humor. Rory is constantly referring to her ludicrous and hilarious family members and neighbors back in the American south; they serve as both Rory’s motivation to get her life together and as a continual source of humor. I was constantly laughing aloud while reading, such as when Rory explains, “You cannot tell your therapist you have been stabbed by a ghost… If you say any of that, they put you in a rubber sack and take you to a room walled in bouncy rubber and you will never be allowed to touch scissors again.” Rory has a unique way of phrasing common actions that makes usually boring narration funny; instead of sitting down, she “pressed butt to bench,” for instance. The other fantastic part of both the Shades of London books is the alluring setting. Johnson describes a London that is both charming and mysterious, the type of place where every reader wants to live.
Overall, I found The Madness Underneath very enjoyable, although in a different way than the first novel in the series. Readers will love Rory’s humor and the enticing setting, even if missing the suspense of The Name of the Star. I eagerly await Johnson’s final two books in the Shades of London series.
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