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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars

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on 25 March 2010
If I had to describe The Servants in under ten words, I would say: "Coraline, but better, and I loved Coraline."

Michael Marshall Smith is known for his gritty science fiction and horror novels and short stories. I'm a fan and have read quite a few of his novels, such as Spares (plagiarized into the crappy film The Island) and Only Forward, and his collection of short stories, What You Make It, is one of my favourites. So I was interested to see how he would approach young adult fiction, and of course, he does it deftly and with finesse.

Mark is a young boy of 11 who has just moved to Brighton from London with his mother, who is sick with a mysterious illness, and his new stepfather, David. Mark resents his stepfather for moving him away from bustling London to the ramshackle, old house painted Brunswick Cream. An old woman lives in the basement flat, and she has a key to a door that he unlocks, where the servants are.

I would really like to get the opinion of a young adult who has read this and see what they think. There's a few layers of symbolism that is both blatantly obvious and yet subtle. Smith investigates the themes of family ties and family responsibility. The writing is deft and sparse, and the characterization is excellent for being such a short book. Michael Marshall Smith has turned out to be a talented young adult writer as well.
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on 16 April 2008
This is a clever, subtle, beautiful little book, somewhat reminiscent of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME, in that it's voiced by an engaging young protagonist and hides a dark, surreal and rather disturbing secret world inside what seems to be, very recognizably, our own. I won't spoil the surprise (which creeps up on you throughout the story) but must say I found it both haunting and touching, and it also made me laugh out loud from time to time. I recommend it for readers of any age. It's also a very beautifully packaged book, with head and tail bands, a ribbon and a classy cover, so it makes a lovely gift - and it's short, too, and SUCH an easy read.
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on 14 June 2008
I came across this book while I was reading the reviews in the Fortean Times - a great place to sniff out new fiction!

This book is about a young boy called Mark. He's eleven years old and is desperately trying to come to terms with the fact his mother has now married another man, David, who Mark resents. He feels that David is an intruder in their lives who is trying to come between him and his sick mother. They are living in Brighton, a long way from the London that Mark sees as his real home, and his real father. Mark discovers an old woman lives in the basement flat under their house (the old servant's quarters) and she has an interesting and spooky secret she wants to share with him that will open Mark's eyes and change the way he thinks forever.

I really liked this book. It is insightfully told from Mark's eleven year old point of view: how he feels about being taken away from his old life and thrust reluctantly into a new one and how he interprets everything his stepfather does as a plan to annoy him and come between him and his mother.

This is a traditional kind of ghost story but is also touching and very well written, keeping you interested right to the end.
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on 27 November 2008
Growing up in cosmopolitan London, eleven-year-old Mark would never have thought to find himself living in Brighton with his remote step-father David, and his rather delicate and solitary mother. A diffident boy, Mark has been lonely most of his life, his only real comfort his skate board, a recent present from his father, which he plays with along the long stretches of the asphalt promenade by the beach. Mark is taken back to discover that the cheerful summer chaos of the board walk has been replaced a few cold looking mothers, so he spends most of his afternoons virtually friendless with no one to talk to about his dreams and his disappointments. Even as he watches the other boys joke and toss each other around, Mark skates in silence, going home to the three story house on Brunswick Square that belongs to David but which does not feel anything like home.

From the outset it's pretty obvious there's something terribly wrong with his mother who seems content to sit at home all day staring silently out at of the living room window at the vast Brighton seascape. Within weeks of David coming into their lives, Mark's mother had started to get ill. David casually informed Gerald from the start that his mother needs rest and quiet, and that for the time being she can't even consider stepping outside the front door to go for a walk or have dinner in one of the many restaurants that pepper the promenade. Left to his own devices, David is forced to explore his surroundings, similarly repelled by David's heavy-handed attitude towards him while also concerned about his mother's failing health. Then a fall through his bedroom window jumpstarts a series of events that force him to question what is real and what is not. It is in the corridor below the house where an old lady lives, crammed into a tiny flat that David finally meets his nemesis even as a slightly damp brown smell surrounds while everything about the lady appears to be dry and white and grey.

The old lady seems to be a symbolic gate-keeper to darker secret of long-dead servants, inhabiting the gloomy recesses of the creaking house, the hallways and shelves empty, but thick with the dust and cobwebs from a generation ago. Perhaps it has all been a dream, that he had fallen asleep in the old lady's chair, then dreamed he'd woken, stolen the key from the drawer and gone to the back of the house. But surely dreams "do not leave dust on your hands or smudges on the shoulders of your jacket." As Mark steadily meets all of these servants, and these the players in a drama gradually unfold, he begins to realize the enormity of his position, the servants plight to clean up their rooms a powerful metaphor Marks own battles in his life so far. Up until now there's been the unspoken assumption that his mother and real dad were still married on some way, still joined, still remained tied to the fabric of the world. Now he realizes this belief has started to waver. The sad recognition is that deep inside of him, he wasn't always aware of what was going on.

As Mark and his servant friends become ever-more trapped in the noisy chaos of the gathering storm, thrown away from each other by the cyclone of ash and blackness and fear. The swirl of smoke and ash starts to revolve faster and author Michael Marshall Smith swirls a unique and bitter-sweet tale out of the cinders of Mark's lonely existence. As the scenario plays out, Mark begins to move through parallel worlds of his own mundane existence and the strange life of the servants who seem to be trapped between past and present, between fantasy and truth. Surprisingly, it is David who eventually comes the kid's rescue, telling him the truth about his mother even as he faithfully urges Mark to grow-up in his mission to uncover the paths of understanding between them both. Just as the cold, the sleet, and the icy wind constantly buffets Brighton beach and its accompanying boardwalk, Mark finally grasps that he's taken too many things for granted for too long awhile. Times of course change and things do not remain the same, real life does not go on forever, just like London did. The reality is far more like Brighton: "Things changed and things stopped, and things eventually fall away into the sea." A coming-of-age story tied with a cleverly rendered ghost story, Smith writes a compelling tale that reeks of the most strangely symbolic spectral events as the servants cry out for help from Mark. Rich with moral ambiguity, this novel is all about the paths of understanding, and as it builds towards its climax, Mark journey is that he must come to a new understanding of the world and of the sad walkways of life. Mike Leonard 2008.
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on 8 July 2008
'The Servants' is around 230 pages long, but such is the modern preoccupation with length (oo-er missus!) that it's classed as a 'short' novel or novella, rather than simply the `novel' it undoubtedly is.

MM Smith has previously written novel length science fiction under his full name Michael Marshall Smith, and conspiracy thrillers under the shortened name Michael Marshall. Last year's excellent 'The Intruders' - containing supernatural elements - was also published under the latter moniker.

Now there's another variation on his name - MM Smith - which he's used for this modern-day ghost story. Michael himself has commented that this latest book is more akin to his excellent far-ranging short fiction than his longer stuff - hence the new name.

Enough of my preamble - is this book any good? Well, yes. It's beautifully told in clear, simple prose and it won't take the reader long to finish it.

Mark is an 11-year-old boy who's moved down to Brighton from London with his mother and new stepfather. Naturally he hates his step-dad, because like most boys of that age he clings to an idealised view of his birth father, that no other man could compete with.

Once in Brighton, Mark leads a loner's existence, practicing his rudimentary skateboarding skills, until he meets the old lady who resides in the basement of the big property he lives in. She shows her rooms to him, reveals what lies behind an old locked door, and explains that the whole basement forms the old servants' quarters. Immediately Mark's curiosity is piqued. At this stage his mother's health is also deteriorating alarmingly...

To give away any further plot details would be unfair so I'll leave it at that, but I will comment that the book unfolds at a perfect, just-right pace and has a very satisfactory ending - Michael doesn't believe in short-changing the reader!

The portrayal of Mark is very perceptive and touchingly told. We gradually see his viewpoint towards the step-dad shifting, and if it never achieves a volte-face, he at least comes to appreciate him a bit more. Naturally we, the reader, can tell the step-dad is a decent man almost from the very beginning, but then we're not emotionally attached to him.

Michael Marshall is a huge fan of Stephen King - another writer who has written the occasional subtle ghost story featuring a young protagonist. I hope he'll be flattered if I say this is almost a British equivalent of the lovely literary stuff King writes when in a certain mode. I wholeheartedly recommend this intelligent book to Michael Marshall Smith newcomers and old fans alike.
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on 14 September 2011
The Servants has long been a book I wanted to read. As with other reviewers here; my favourite books were from MMS' early years (Only Forward, Spares, One of Us, What You Make It) before the switch to the suspense/supernatural thriller genre he now writes. While The Servants does have some promise, sadly, this turned out to be an unsatisfying and mediocre book.

The prologue gave me hope that this was going to be a return to form with the description of an elderly woman going about her daily routine with an ending note of unease that MMS can write so well. The introduction of Mark, an eleven year old boy, sitting on the beach at Brighton is well done in giving his background and creating the depiction of young boy who has not come to terms with his family's break-up and move from London. The following chapters move the story along with Mark's increasing conflict with his step-father, his mother's obviously serious illness, driving him to meet the elderly woman seen in the prologue. The thought that this may turn into a story of a twinkly-eyed elder dishing out advice to a child with problems was not entirely accurate, but it wasn't quite far enough away either.

After being shown the servant's quarters that are part of the elderly woman's basement flat, Mark finds he is drawn to return to the decayed kitchen and pantries. All of which are located beneath the house he now lives in. It is here he has an encounter with the apparent ghosts of former household staff.

From this point the novel (or novelette, if you prefer) seems to lose its initial momentum. Mark initially disbelieves the experience but quickly convinces himself it is real. It begins to read as one long, repetitive sequence of Mark wandering around what seems to be half a mile of Brighton in wintery weather, having arguments with his step-father, getting annoyed with his mother, learning to skateboard and sneaking to the basement. Oh and lots of Chinese takeaway. It's with this kind of plotting that the initial tension finally gives up and leaves the room.

What does little to help is that Mark is a not very believable eleven year old. His character flips back and forth between being a manipulative, ignorant and angry child to having insights and thoughts that you'd credit to a mature teenager. That's not to say it couldn't happen, just that in this context it is not credible. It becomes a convenient way to move the plot onwards. Mark walks, skates, goes in and out of the downstairs flat with nary a moment when his family seem the slightest bit interested or concerned. Considering that he's eleven and his mother is in her final days of a terminal illness that seems a remarkably blasé attitude. The elderly lady (who, most irritatingly, is never given a name) is somehow knowledgeable that Mark, and his family, needs help but with no explanation at all as to why. Her role - which started with such interesting hints, seems to lead up to nothing more than being the main character enabler. The eponymous servants are given names but their role, which is treated with such heavy-handed symbolism it is telegraphed before the finale, is also never given the least explanation. It is because it is.

This could have been a much more powerful story. The depiction of a seaside town in winter does make for some serious atmosphere (which is why writers going back to M.R James and beyond have made use of it in ghost stories) and anyone who has read Only Forward knows with what skill MMS has used similar imagery. But this has far too many convenient incidents and unexplained character motivations to move things along to a happy but ultimately empty ending.
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VINE VOICEon 16 July 2013
This book had been on my TBR pile for what I'm sure was a number of years, but was always one of those put down to "maybe another time" when choosing a book to read. It was only after seeing a comment by another reader on Twitter that they found this book a good read did I think, why not?

So, I bought the book and put it next on my list. I now only wish I'd read it sooner.

Being a fan of Michael Marshall Smith, I was certain I'd enjoy this book, but being marketed at the young adult reader, wasn't sure how much I'd like it.

The story centres on a young boy who has just gone through a major upheaval in life following his parents' divorce and his mother's subsequent remarriage. Of course the Step-Father is going to be portrayed as the bad guy, even if we all know he really won't be in the end. The story was really well-written from the boy's perspective though, so we could see how everything unfolded for him.

The book did leave me with a lot of questions though, regarding the lady in the basement flat, and indeed the Servants - but I'm not sure I'm meant to ask them. Perhaps to everyone else the link between everything that happened was obvious, but to me it remains a bit hazy. Weirdly though, that didn't take anything away from my enjoyment of the book. I think the story could easily have gone on for longer, but where it ended did seem like a good choice.

Overall, if you've read any other work by this author, then you will enjoy this book. Possibly one of my favourites of his, I wholeheartedly recommend this.
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on 1 November 2010
Mark, his Mother and his Mother's new husband all move down to Brighton after his Mother becomes ill. Bored and frustrated at his new Stepfather (David), Mark spends his days learning to Skateboard when he's not trying to wind David up. One day Mar Mark meets the old Lady who lives down in the basemen of David's house, where the servant's quarters used to be. Fascinated by it, Mark goes there again and that's where everything changes...

I was expecting something good from his book, after being lured in by it's pretty cover, hardback and ribbon bookmark. I was bitterly disappointed. It's a rather bland storyline, focusing not on the Servants, as the title suggests but spoilt Mark's vendetta against his new Stepfather. It was rather like a Shivers book, very stereotypical and it was really easy to guess what was going to happen next in each scene. Also, the writing is quite big so the story wasn't the longest either, an afternoon read at most. Guess I shouldn't have judged this book by it's cover!
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on 18 January 2009
Such a sumptuous cover - such magnificent reviews - so I sat down and read this book in one day today.

It was a lovely idea - young misguided boy doesn't get on with his stepdad - worried about his ailing mother - moved down to Brighton - meets the old lady who lives in the basement, who shows him another world from the past, ghosts appearing showing him another time etc etc.
AND it should have worked brilliantly.
In my estimation it fell just short.....

Whether I was hoping for a more substantial link between the servants world and the modern one, I'm not sure, but I was left wondering at the end why I was feeling as though I'd been given the freedom of Harrods in one hand, but all the toys had been removed by another.

That empty old feeling that although I'd enjoyed the anticipation throughout the book, in the end I couldn't hand on heart race out and shout YOU MUST READ THIS!

But, hey, I'm in the minority here....read it and see what you think.
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on 26 April 2013
The Servants is the story of an 11-year-old boy, his mum and stepdad. They've moved from London to Brighton into a house with an old lady living in a tiny flat in the basement. Mark, the boy, accidentally befriends her and she shows him something quite amazing.

I love this book for two reasons. First it's a very simple tale told well. Most of the action concerns four characters and takes place in the house. It's told from Mark's pov so the writing is straightforward but that makes it clear, spare and elegant rather than simplistic. Second Smith does that thing of showing us things through the eyes of a character that the character himself does not see, at least at first.
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