The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan Stroud, 432 pp, RL: Middle Grade


The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne 
Review Copy from Random House Children's Books

As a bookseller in 2003, I got my hands on an advance reader's copy of The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in Stroud's superlative Bartimaeus Sequence. Already five books deep into Harry Potter and enchanted with the world of wizards, I was enthralled and impressed by Stroud's markedly different story of magic and power (and the socio-political implications of such), set in an alternate England. Four books later, in 2013, Stroud debuted his new series, Lockwood & Co. Both my son and I devoured The Screaming Staircase, anxiously awaiting each new book in what (happily) grew to a five book series. Also set in England, the ghosts of people who suffered violent deaths rise to haunt (and hurt) the living, the consequences of a violent culture literally coming back to haunt, and in some cases, destroy, the creators, consumers and perpetrators of this violence. In this world, children and teenagers are the only people able to see and sense the ghosts, and are therefore recruited/conscripted to work the front lines, cleaning up the messes made by adults. After Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials/Book of Dust trilogies, Stroud's Lockwood & Co. series is at the top of my favorites list - the first book is as good as the fifth and you can't wait to get to the end, but also never want it to end.
With The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne, Stroud envisions yet another alternate England. Where his first two series were firmly rooted in a recognizable, contemporary England, despite the djinn, ghosts and creative weapons for fighting them, the England of this new series is distinctly post-apocalyptic. A cataclysm has left much of the island, now divided into seven kingdoms, flooded and filled with oversized, mutant animals (river otters that eat humans!), cannibals, slavers, outlaws and bandits. Mirroring the bleak world that The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is set in, Stroud's writing (while still rich with description, especially of nature and the remains of civilization, and full of his trademark humor) leaves readers disoriented and grasping (in the best way possible) for clues to understand this new world where buses, trainers and bubble gum exists alongside a society that has an old fashioned, Wild West vibe.

Fans of Kitty Jones and Lucy Carlyle will be happy to meet yet another of Stroud's superb female characters in Scarlet McCain. With her sniper-like skills with a revolver and the ability to take out grown men with a swift punch or a knife, Scarlet seems a bit superhuman at first. But, she also carries with her (in a tube slung across her shoulders, evoking modern images of yoga moms) a much-used prayer mat. Around her neck, a cuss-box receives a penny every time she swears, which is often. Scarlet meditates to clear her mind as often as she can, but, the fast pace of the story and the non-stop action and suspense leave her little time or headspace to do so. Aspects of The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne, thus far, remind me of Pullman's England (of The Book of Dust, specifically) where the Magisterium (here it is the High Council of the Faith Houses) rules society and abuses children amidst continually rising floodwaters. In  Stroud's new world, the "religious" order works to ensure "purity" in a rapidly changing world where mutations about in animals and humans. Infants are routinely left in the woods and, in some cases, secreted away where their mutations can be studied and harnessed. And London is nothing but the sunken remains of a metropolis, skyscrapers emerging from the waters, making up the various isles where new societies have grown.

In one of the most hilarious scenes I've ever read, we meet the other outlaw of the title, Albert Browne. Scarlett is looking for valuables on a tour bus that she discovered, upended and with a curious hole burst through the undercarriage, when she hears a noise in the bathroom on the bus. After talking through the door, she convinces the voice inside to come out, which Albert does spectacularly, as the bathroom is now on the ceiling and awash in water. Albert, with his green jumper, floppy trainers and awed sense of wonder, is as curious as his entrance. Seeing that he is a babe in the woods, Scarlett agrees to get him to the nearest town, a journey that, between the wild beasts and wild men, would surely kill him. As it is, it almost kills the both of them anyway, but not for the reasons Scarlett anticipated. Despite being wanted for robbery and murder in all provinces, it is Albert and not Scarlett being pursued by the bowler-hatted men and the pale faced woman in black.

Why are they after Albert? You'll have to read for yourself to find out. From the wilds to the towns, then the river to the isles, Stroud's story unfolds at a breakneck pace and is impossible to put down. I devoured this book in two days, dreaming about it at night. The world building and character development unfold feel a bit sparse here, compared to Stroud's other two series. But, having read his work and knowing what he is able to deliver, I am confident that the all will develop and deepen as this series (trilogy?) unfolds.

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