Barnaby Grimes's city is home to many private schools for children. Some are pleasant and reputable, but others take parents' money and lock their kids in, housing them in horrible conditions until they are shut down or the children violently rebel. When Barnaby, a tick-tock lad (or clerk errant), delivers a message to the headmaster at Grassington Hall School, he finds the students happy and healthy and the staff well-meaning. But a later visit to that very same school ends in bloodshed and disaster.
RETURN OF THE EMERALD SKULL is the second installment in Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's Barnaby Grimes series. Like the first, CURSE OF THE NIGHT WOLF, this novel is dark and gothic, a scary tale richly illustrated. Barnaby not only has a high adventure, but alludes to many he has had in the past. He doesn't seek out danger, but it finds him nonetheless.
Headmaster Archimedes Barnett sends Barnaby to the docks to pick up his latest acquisition, a stuffed bird called the catincatapetl, or emerald messenger of darkness. As he approaches the docks in search of the ship that brought the bird from its native jungle habitat, a deep and ominous fog rolls in. Barnaby finds the ship, but it seems ghostly and deserted, and he later discovers the crew has disappeared. Still, he delivers the package to Barnett and spends the rest of his summer studying an ancient and esoteric art called yinchido with a beautiful young Chinese woman. Mei Ling teaches him much and captivates him, but before he can finish his lessons, he learns that all is not well at Grassington Hall and that it has turned into a dreaded "lock-up academy." The students have gone wild, hunting animals and eating them raw, and abusing the faculty and staff. Can Barnaby stop them from committing a heinous human sacrifice?
Barnaby, a young man of indeterminable age, is brave, dashing, handsome and clever, and is the perfect guide through the chaotic unnamed city. Through a maze of streets to the wharf and highstacking over the roofs back to the richer parts of town, he knows the shortcuts and the people, the truths and the legends about the place in which he lives. He deals swiftly and easily with threats but always tries to avoid serious violence. He is cool and kind, a romantic realist, and his escapades are sure to thrill readers. Stewart's prose and Riddell's pictures are perfectly paired (the duo are also the creators of The Edge Chronicles).
Since Barnaby faces real terror and threats, this short book is not for very young or sensitive readers. There is less character development here than in the first book, making this one a bit flatter, but Barnaby Grimes is still a compelling and mysterious figure, and hopefully more will be revealed about him as the series progresses. What the book lacks in character development or plausible action, it more than makes up for in thrills and originality.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman