On “The Boy in the Smoke” by Maureen Johnson

Image result for the boy in the smokeMy friends, if you haven’t already started reading Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, now is the time. I know I’m late to the game myself, but the long reigning “Queen of Teen” has delivered a well-written, suspenseful, page-turning series; It’s best to start reading now before some production company decides to make a film adaptation.

I was only aware of the three major installments of the series before I started reading. (I have yet to read the third novel.) But I found out that Johnson published a prequel novella for National Book Day in 2014. Naturally, I had to get my hands on it. I don’t know about you, but if a writer produces supplemental material for a series I love, I have to read it.

When I realized it was about Stephen Dene’s childhood and relationship with his family, I was thrilled. The Madness Underneath left me feeling some kind of way, so the novella partially placated my sense of loss. Since I have a ton of other books to get through before I can read The Shadow Cabinet, it also served as an excellent hold over until I can get to that last book.

In just over eighty pages, Johnson paints a deft, astonishingly complete portrait of Stephen’s life as a teenager (which makes me think she’d be an amazing short story writer.) His relationship with his sister is the only thing that matters to him. But after his parents cut off contact with her, sending money in exchange for silence, they see less and less of each other.

After her death, he continues to go through the motions of his life at Eton with everyone avoiding any mention of tragedy. Indeed, as far as his parents are concerned, his sister never existed at all. No use airing dirty laundry, as they say.

Plagued by a deep sense of loss and time wasted, Stephen is driven to despair, attempting suicide by hanging. Yet, he doesn’t succeed. He’s saved by a ghost–a student who threw himself in the river over unrequited love from another boy and has been stuck in the boat house ever since.

Thus begins the start of everything. Before Callum, Boo, and Rory, there was just Stephen, tasked with assembling a team of fellow ghost seers. Having Stephen’s backstory makes his romance with Rory all the more poignant in retrospect. Only time will tell how the rest of their story will play out.

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