Anybody who follows Maureen Johnson on Twitter has witnessed just how weird and imaginative her persona is (which she has previously assured The A.V. Club isn’t much of a persona at all, and really just Maureen Unfiltered). One of the best things about Johnson’s Shades Of London series, which kicked off in 2011 with The Name Of The Star, is how much of that weird and imaginative personality shone through in protagonist Rory Deveaux. Much of the conversation around young adult literature centers on gender: of the author, of the protagonist, of the reader. Johnson has effectively knocked those walls down with Rory, who is effortlessly defiant in the face of gender stereotypes without ever seeming anything less than a real person. She might have once been called “plucky” or “a strong female character,” but that kind of gendered language doesn’t at all suit Rory, who is awkward and weird and hilarious and scared and stubborn, but isn’t singularly defined by those traits.
The Name Of The Star unraveled a fantastic Jack The Ripper ghost story, and The Madness Underneath further exposes Rory to the consequences of being able to see ghosts—an ability that one picks up by surviving a near-death experience. (Rory’s experience, written with typical Maureen Johnson humor, was a very un-romantic incident of choking on a piece of meat in the school cafeteria.) The Shadow Cabinet, book three (of an anticipated four) of the Shades Of London series, is more action, less reflection, and it feels very much like a middle sequence in a longer story. Blessedly, Johnson foregoes the usual YA-series convention of over-explaining the previous books’ plots in the first few chapters, but that also means that fans will want to at least give The Madness Underneath another skim, if not a full re-read; it also means that new readers have to start from the beginning (which is no bad thing). Unfortunately, some of Rory’s character is lost to plot in an effort to wedge a ghost story, a thriller, and a love story into 376 pages—never mind the setup of a battle against the greater forces of evil.
Without giving too much away for new readers, The Madness Underneath ended, infuriatingly, with the apparent death of a man named Stephen, whom Rory was close to. The Shadow Cabinet looks at the places between life and death from Rory and Stephen’s perspectives, and it also blows up a bigger picture of what seems to be a grand scheme to defeat death by the odd, cartoonish, and supremely fucked-up siblings Sid and Sadie, who could only have sprung from a mind like Johnson’s. The book’s final third is a fever dream of the mysteries of death pitched against a dangerous but vague ghostly uprising in Marble Arch in London.
Even with a few rough edges, the plot is so compelling that reading this book on public transit might make you miss your train stop (repeatedly); given just how much territory Johnson covers here, it moves quickly without ever resorting to cheap cliffhangers. There are places where a thread seems left untied, such as when Rory visits London’s Highgate Cemetery and meets the ghost of the Resurrection Man—a body snatcher who used to provide cadavers to medical schools—and the spirit of some shaggy, many-eyed creature. The scene is mostly a turn of plot to move Rory from Point A to Point B, but the entire encounter is rich enough to want more from it. And Johnson excels at the specifics—the strange humor, the first feelings of love, the ways in which a 19th-century ghost story becomes personal. It’s clear that Johnson has a grand plan for this series involving the occultish Sid and Sadie, and right now the narrative is hurtling toward a battle royal against the forces of evil—hopefully the cost of that won’t be the wonderfully weird and relatable characters she’s created.