I may have unwittingly jinxed myself by suggesting in a recent review that, one day, I'll get to see a book from First Second that sucks. This one isn't that book and I enjoyed it fine, but it's definitely a weaker entry in their stellar catalogue. To be fair, it is aimed at middle grade readers, but even they may find it a little convenient.
The idea at the heart of it is sound enough. The Scarlett Hart of the title is, I'm sure you'll be shocked to find, a monster hunter and she's our heroine. She's only a monster hunter in deed though, because she's still too young to be licensed by the Royal Academy for the Pursuit and Eradication of Zoological Eccentricities, better known as T.R.A.P.E.Z.E. because that T for 'the' turns out to be rather important in a graphic novel for middle graders. In fact, a good part of this first volume (I'm not seeing anything to say this is a series but it surely has to be) has to do with the trouble she gets into trying to do the job that's hers by talent and birthright but not yet by license.
The birthright part of that is because both her parents were monster hunters too, very good ones, but they died four years earlier in mysterious circumstances which will surely become less mysterious as the series runs on. She's inherited their talent, their energy and their home, the imposing Ravenwood Hall, which she struggles to keep afloat with the money she pretends her butler earns from her monster hunting escapades. He's Napoleon White and he's a trusty sidekick, but he's also old enough to pop into T.R.A.P.E.Z.E. headquarters with the requisite proof and collect her rewards in his name. Quite why this intriguing organisation doesn't ask more questions about how Napoleon the mild-mannered butler can be so successful a bounty hunter of monsters, I have no idea, but we don't really get to see much of them.
What we get to see is Scarlett, Napoleon and a professional cad by the name of Count Stankovic, a villainous villain indeed, who has it in for Scarlett for reasons to which we're not immediately privy. The drive of the book involves him stealing her kills and threatening to report her for underage monster hunting. It gets more interesting when... ah, you'll need to find that out for yourself. Scarlett does discover something crucial relatively early, but that's only the beginning to a conspiracy that unravels a little further by the end and could still resonate in future volumes.
I'd guess that half the potential readers are going to be wondering about our heroine and the other half about the monsters she battles. Both are equally interesting.
Scarlett is a strong-willed young girl, trained from a very young age to follow in her parents' footsteps, and she ought to be an easy favourite for readers. I liked her a lot, but then I'm British and we have a habit of supporting worthy underdogs. She may well be British too; she's certainly both written and drawn like the talented child of a well-to-do family gone to seed who would happily cause scandal after scandal in the upper classes because of her inherent need to do rather than just order other people to do for her. The nobility wouldn't think much of her catchphrase either: 'We stink!'
The monsters are varied and wild. There's a sea monster on the very first page, catching its lunch and, in so doing, answering the old question about what we will do with the drunken sailor. Next up is the Black Dog of Suffolk County, a real place in England, I should add, and then the many mummies of the Theatre Royal. There's never a dull moment in the Scarlett's world of monster hunting, which makes us wonder from whence all these monsters came. I was born a county south of Suffolk and I don't remember a single mummy, black dog or sea serpent anywhere in my vicinity. Then again, I wasn't the child of monster hunters, which would have rather livened up my youth. I was initially unhappy at how emphatically the origins of these monsters were avoided but there is a reason for that, namely that there shouldn't be this many and... well, we're back to that spoiler again. Let's just say that we do end up with tentacles. Even middle graders like tentacles, right? Who doesn't?
The author, Marcus Sedgwick, is highly regarded, what with a collection of six Carnegie Award nominations to his name, but I felt that Scarlett's story deserved something more than he was able to bring to it. Again, this isn't a bad book and I'd recommend it, but I'd recommend other books quicker and more often. Maybe part of that is due to the book's length; a longer book would have given Sedgwick more opportunity to give his characters and their stories equal attention. As it is, it feels shorter than it should be.
I was more impressed here by the artist, Thomas Taylor, whose chief claim to fame is that he created the cover art for the first in a series of which you might just have heard, 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone'. I liked his work here, not just because it's action-packed and he's particularly good at catching action from exactly the right angle, but because he's able to endow the heroine with a great deal of character that the story isn't always able to provide.
His Scarlett is notable for big eyes that aren't drawn in the anime style. They're more wide-eyed with adventure than large for cuteness's sake, and her outfits lean towards a steampunk aesthetic. This certainly appears to be a period piece, though we're not given a timeframe, with its gaslamps and box brownie cameras and Dorothy, the gorgeous Hart vehicle, one of only eleven Machen roadsters ever built. With her fashionably unkempt shock of red hair and girl-next-door beauty, she reminds of Lindsey Stirling, which isn't a bad thing.
Napoleon is a generic sort of English butler, but Count Stankovic has a little elegance to him. Not much, I must point out. He's not a villain's villain like Terry-Thomas, but he's a step in that direction, a sort of cheap version, a latter day John Carradine, which actually works rather well. An early John Carradine would have been too far in the wrong direction and not so easy to battle.
And, really, that's about it because we don't have enough pages to build more characters than that and give due prominence to the succession of monsters, which collectively make more of an impact than the humans. This is a fun read, but it's a quick one and a relatively simple one. The target audience of middle graders may well get a kick out of it but they're going to leave it wanting more. ~~ Hal C F Astell