by Catherine Webb
When youthful thief Tess breaks into the house of Horatio Lyle, she gets more than she bargained for. Horatio is an inventor and scientist, and his house is full of gadgets, some of which are very effective at trapping would-be thieves. Horatio agrees not to turn Tess in to the police if she agrees to be his assistant for a week.
Horatio is also a special constable, and he’s called into duty when a supposedly impenetrable vault at the Bank of England is broken into. Among the items taken was one of little value but “cultural significance”: the Fuyun Plate. Lyle is commissioned by Lord Lincoln, personal aide to Queen Victoria, to recover it. Tess accompanies him to investigate the crime. The two are also accompanied by Thomas Elwick, whose father Lord Elwick was responsible for keeping the Fuyun Plate safe and whose vault was the one broken into.
As Lyle, Tess, and Thomas get deeper into the investigation, they discover that there is more to the mystery than they are being told. The Fuyun Plate is an object of power, and an ancient race known as the Tseiqin is trying to recover the plate for their own purposes. The Tseiqin are powerful beings, but their power is limited by iron. With the plate, their power will have no limits and they can rule the world and free it from the burgeoning industrial revolution, which they abhor. Lyle, Tess, and Thomas have only their wits, and Lyle’s inventions, to stand against these powerful beings.
I first read Horatio Lyle for the Cybils, and I had to read it rather quickly because I had a lot of books to get through. This is such a rich and complex book that I didn’t think a review based on a quick reading would do it justice, so I decided to read it again and take my time with it prior to reviewing it. Some books are just as good the second time around, and some aren’t. A rare few books get better on a second reading; The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle is one such book.
It’s a treat worth savoring, especially for anyone who loves words and language. The descriptions are rich and poetic, yet they don’t interfere with the flow of an exciting and suspenseful story. Webb has a masterful command of the English language. She also writes with a wonderfully understated wit and sense of irony; the book is peppered with pithy social commentary.
The characters are fascinating and delightful, starting with Lyle himself. the obvious comparison is to Sherlock Holmes, and indeed, there are some obvious similarities here. Lyle shares Holmes deductive powers and interest in science, but his personality is more human, although he does have a touch of Holmes’ arrogance about his own abilities. Tess and Thomas are much more interesting sidekicks than Watson; Tess in particular is quite likeable. Even the minor characters are well-drawn.
The many details of the setting give the reader an amazing sense of the Victorian era. I don’t know enough about the Victorian era to know how accurate it is, but it certainly has verisimilitude. (I did some Googling and found out that Webb is a history student, so I suspect the historical details are accurate).
Given my glowing praise of the book, I just wanted to make a comment about why I didn’t vote for it in the final vote for the Cybils shortlist. There were two overriding principles that we used in judging the Cybils nominees: literary merit and kid appeal. Were the books judged on literary merit alone, I would have voted for Horatio Lyle without hesitation. However, I worried that the complexity of language and plot would put off some teens. I think some teens will love that complexity, but others might find it too challenging. I opted to vote in the final vote for books that I thought had a wider kid (or teen) appeal. (I did vote for Horatio Lyle in an earlier vote).
The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle isn’t published yet in the U.S., but you can buy it from Amazon.co.uk.