Lamplighter: Monster-Blood Tattoo, Book 2
by D.M. Cornish
Review by Drew Bittner
Putnam Juvenile Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780399246395
Date: 17 April 2008 List Price $19.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Rossamund Bookchild narrowly survived his journey to become a lamplighter in Foundling, book one of Monster-Blood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish. Now he's reached his destination -- but what new dangers await this orphan boy?
Training for a career as a lamplighter means a life of dull, physically demanding routine in the massive complex of Winstermill. Sent out along the closest (and supposedly safest) stretches of the emperor's highways to learn the trade of lighting and dousing lamps, one day Rossamund's training company comes upon a disaster unfolding. A group of bogles have attacked and waylaid a carriage -- but the ladies inside are no mere damsels in distress, they are warriors endowed with strange talents. Working together -- despite one girl's inability to control her sense-confusing powers -- they manage to fend off the monsters and help the women to the safety of Winstermill.
Once there, Rossamund receives a surprise. The errant girl, Threnody, intends to become a lamplighter!
Rossamund, having custody of the group's alchemical stores (and thus not expected to fight), also is given custody of Threnody and getting her settled in. He finds she is imperious, moody and bitter about many things, not least being her tyrannical mother; although he grows weary of her complaints and abuse, he is unfailingly polite and eventually begins to win her over as a friend.
Threnody becomes part of Rossamund's group of trainees. They are once again outdoors when they are caught in the rampage of a mighty monster. His comrades flee, but Rossamund and Threnody stay behind to help the stragglers escape. What has lured the monster so close to the walls of Winstermill? Could it be the wagon fleeing before it, carrying a stench Rossamund associates with the "dark trades" (more on those below)?
This round of violent attacks results in the Lamplighter Marshal's disgrace and removal to the Imperial sub-capital, paving the way for the Master of Clerks (an officious and pompous sort) to rise. Along with his toady, the surgeon Grotius Swill, his management style produces more problems than solutions for the hard-pressed lamplighters.
Rossamund makes an enemy of the two when, in the company of his new friend Numps, he finds a way through the depths of Winstermill -- and confronts a gudgeon (a sort of patchwork man assembled by evil surgical techniques). Rossamund bravely fights the monster, but earns only scorn and contempt for what the new Marshal calls "self-serving lies". Rossamund is sent to a remote outpost to serve as a novice lighter, one with a reputation for being exceptionally dangerous. Even his friends Sebastipole, Dr. Crispus and Europe, the noblewoman-monster hunter, cannot help him now.
However, he does have Threnody. She has arranged to go to the same posting, where they find an undermanned garrison struggling to do its duty. Warned in advance by the tiny bogle Freckle (whom he befriended many leagues and months from his new post), Rossamund and Threnody narrowly escape the destruction of the lamplighters' home by a small army of bogles. Once safely at the next post up the highway, they meet once again with Europe before heading back to Winstermill to answer charges.
Dark suspicions begin to come to light, even as mysteries swirling around Rossamund start to clarify. Is the Master of Clerks in league with those who create monsters, in defiance of Imperial law? And what is the secret Fransitart and Craumpalin, his old masters from the foundlingery, share regarding Rossamund?
A terrific final denouement answers many questions but opens the door to even greater danger.
D.M. Cornish continues to astound and delight in this second novel. It might be a bit intimidating for a series to jump from 300 pages (in Foundling) to 600 pages in Lamplighter, but the tale is engaging and the narrative compelling from start to finish. The summary above barely does justice to the extended subplots, engagements, elements and information-packed chapters; it is a lush tale, set in a deeply realized and refreshingly original fantasy world.
Cornish also liberally spices up the story with his own pencil artwork, as well as an elaborate series of appendices (which are greatly welcome, considering how many esoteric terms he creates). Readers truly get their money's worth in this volume.
Rossamund continues to grow as a character. A delightful young hero, he is always polite and steadfast, true to his friends and his convictions no matter how expedient it would be to bend or dissemble. He is clever and resourceful, using his wits first even in the most serious crisis, and his instincts are almost always true. He is in many ways a classic underdog, smaller than others and easily bullied, yet his heart is as great as any champion.
Although Rossamund is the central character, never off-stage throughout the story, there is a rich supporting cast, including Europe (a fan favorite), who has not yielded in her desire for Rossamund to become her factotum (or personal servant). New characters include: Threnody, who embodies the harsh yin and yang of adolescent girls, combining cruelty and kindness in equal measure; Sergeant Grindrod, whose flinty gruffness conceals a deep heart and fondness for his trainees; the Master of Clerks, a classic smarmy villain; the surgeon Swill, whose dark reputation even Europe has heard; and many more.
But it is not entirely new characters herein. Rossamund's former masters, Fransitart and Craumpalin, return at an unexpected moment following word of tragedy back in Rossamund's home city. Likewise, the boy receives word from his much-loved friend Verline once or twice, giving him strength when his spirits are at their lowest.
No review would be complete without mentioning the intricacy and depth of Cornish's world-building. The Half-Continent is a vast, sprawling landscape where human settlers are under nearly perpetual assault by nonhuman bogles and nickers; add in the dangers of those who ply the dark trades, creating monsters for various evil purposes, and this is a dangerous world indeed. The Empire's lamplighters are among the few who stand against that darkness, lighting highways to provide at least minimal safety, while vinegaroons (sailors) ply the bitter seas -- a career Rossamund desperately desired and still pines for.
There are fascinating folk peopling the Empire, many of them equipped by strange surgeries with uncanny powers. Although the technology, weapons and fashions of dress are like our own 17th century, the monster fighters exhibit abilities that wouldn't be out of place in a comic book, from electricity casting to mind-crushing to powers of keen perception. Truly, this is a book with plentiful fantastical elements on every page.
Cornish has devised an intricate mystery at the heart of the story so far, one that is playing out at a leisurely pace. What is Rossamund's connection to the bogles, such that one seems to recognize him? What is the secret of the dark trades, which undermine the law and order of the Haacobin Empire? And why is Europe so intent on Rossamund's service that she ... well, that part would be telling.
In any event, this delightful, adventurous and wholly original series is certain to please even the most demanding readers.