You can like the first book in a new fantasy series. You can love a first book in a new fantasy series. You can compare that book to the works and worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien or Philip Pullman, if you've half a mind to do so. But no matter how much you love a book, when you see that its sequel is a whopping 711 pages long you may find yourself somewhat reluctant to pick it up. I'm a busy reviewer. I get sent a lot of books to read and I'm only able to review a tiny portion of them. If a book is 711 pages long then it better earn my trust. I'd better be sure that there isn't any needless information there. For all its length this had better be one heckuva lean, exciting, entrancing read. So I hefted this tome (there's no other word for it) around with me and found pretty quickly that not only is Lamplighter, the second book in the Monster Blood Tattoo series, good, it happens to be even better than its predecessor. If Cornish tackled the idea of creating an original world and laying down the foundations in his first book, the second speaks to human prejudice, ignorance perpetuated, and maybe even the author's Australian roots in this remarkable middle book in an increasingly multilayered world.
When last we saw of young Rossamund Bookchild he had successfully arrived at Winstermill, the fortress of the lamplighters. The boy is to learn the dangerous job of keeping the Empire's roads lit at all times, despite the omnipresent fear of monsters on all sides. Because he has arrived a little late Rossamund is considered a bit of a laggard by his fellows. His status changes substantially, however, after a young noblewoman by the name of Threnody also arrives to become a lamplighter (the first female ever, perhaps). She and Rossamund strike up an uneasy friendship and good thing too. Dark machinations are afoot at Winstermill. The Master-of-Clerks has taken over in the Lamplighter-Marshal's sudden absence. Rossamund finds a creature of despicable origins in the bowls of the fortress. And suddenly he and Threnody are bundled off to serve their first posts, but in a place as dark and dangerous as any in the Empire. Between parsing his own thoughts on monsters and trying to keep alive, Rossamund soon finds that the strange secrets from the past have a way of coming to light.
Generally the second book/film in any trilogy is going to be your weakest part. What percentage of people can honestly say that The Two Towers is their favorite book or The Empire Strikes Back their favorite Star Wars movie? But Lamplighter is surprisingly strong and engaging for all that it's a stepping stone to a conclusion. Maybe Cornish is helped by the fact that you never quite know where the storyline is headed until you're almost to the end of the book. If Rossamund was a mild sedorner (monster lover) at the end of the first book, he's made leaps and strides in that direction by the finale of the second. True, Lamplighter ends on a very "To Be Continued" note, which I usually despise. But in spite of this cliffhanger the book stands tall on its own two feet. Villains have been fleshed out and identified properly. Heroes are also named, though Rossamund is increasingly anxious over the moral complexities of people like Europe. And he finds himself wondering about his friend Sebastipole, "Could he be what Rossamund considered a good man and still do this? Could a man be wrong for doing what he thought was right?" And on top all of this, the book's theme has been polished and defined.
It took me a little while to realize it, but D.M. Cornish shares much in common with his fellow Australian writers. As I read this book I was reminded of John Marsden's remarkable "picture book" The Rabbits, as illustrated by Shaun Tan. In that book, a group of native animals are colonized violently by an invading species. Now look at the Monster Blood Tattoo books. Cornish has given us a set of assumptions and then turned them slowly on their head. In the first book you acquired Rossamund's own "learned suspicions" as pertaining to the "fact" that all monsters are evil and must be destroyed else they will destroy you. Now in the second book we get a glimpse of the true stakes of the battle. Humans, it seems, have been encroaching on the monsters' land for years. They destroy them regularly, even creating disgusting zombie-like creatures to fight them, and the monsters respond violently to this. As the book continues, you even got a glimpse of how little the humans even know about monsters. Their ideas about monster birth is a kind of spontaneous regeneration involving mud or maybe the buds on trees. These people know so little about their foes that they would rather kill them than learn anything about them, and it has been this way for centuries upon centuries.
You would think that this would mean that Rossamund was destined to do something to end all of this conflict. I'd like to think he could bring monster and man together in peace, but in truth I'm not sure if Cornish is really aiming that high. It seems like it will be enough for him to simply have Rossamund defeat the villains of the piece in the end. Then again, maybe it's all connected. Hard to say. I guess we'll just have to see what Cornish has up his sleeve in the last installment. One thing I will say (and this may be a tad spoilerish so avoid the rest of this paragraph if you care) is that I made a mistake in reviewing Lamplighter's predecessor Foundling. In that review I said something along the lines of "never have I had such a clear sense that a character's parentage is not the point of the series." I might have as well have said, "I believe the next novel in this series will be written with Cheerios rather than words", since that's roundabout how off-base I was with that assumption. It's not immediately apparent at the start, but Rossamund's parentage may be the sticking point on which this entire series hinges.
Second novels have the luxury of getting to begin with an already well-informed bang. Lamplighter begins with excitement, heroism, blood, and women kicking monster-butt. Because the book assumes that you've read Foundling, it brings up multiple references to the occurrences in the previous book. A word to the wise then, do not begin this series with this book. It may be stronger than the first novel, but you need to understand this world completely from the first book to get anything at all out of the second. As for the new characters you meet, they're fun. You can't help but love poor sweet Numps, the seltzerman who is no longer quite right in the head but turns out to be a good friend to Rossamund. Or Threnody, the young noblewoman who wishes to be a lamplighter and who has such a crush on Rossamund that it shows itself in biting remarks, snipes, and a lot of pouting (which he never catches on to, sweet boy). What's more, characters from the previous book are better fleshed out, which is helpful.
As in the second, Lamplighter retains Cornish's ear for a well-turned phrase in his world's particular vernacular. "Move your ashes, scrub!" sounds like a real enough sentence to me. Descriptions too remain sparkling and bright. Cornish isn't afraid to use delightful words in average sentences as with, "A susurrus of deep displeasure stirred about the boys." And then the names have multiplied here and become delicious. There's Sourdoor, Epitome Bile, Bellicos, and more.
It has been said many many times before regarding other series, but I don't think one more time is going to hurt anyone. Having finished this book at long last my sole regret is that I don't have the third. Perhaps Mr. Cornish will be kind enough to make the final book in the trilogy a good 1,000 pages at least so that I don't have abandon Rossamund and his world quite so soon. Someday I like to think that children's literary scholars will take some time to pick apart Cornish's histories and theories regarding conflict and how it is perpetuated by a society that would perhaps prefer peace if they considered the matter. Until then, you'll just have to enjoy the books on their own. It's a brilliant little number and hopefully will garner the fan base it so desperately deserves.