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The Madness Underneath: The Shades of London, Book Two

Review

The Madness Underneath: The Shades of London, Book Two

When Rory Devereaux left her Louisiana hometown for an exclusive English boarding school, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Her first few months at Wexford were eventful, to say the least. She played goalie in hockey and avoided serious bodily injury. She introduced her British roommate to the miracle of Cheez Whiz. Then she survived an encounter with a murderous ghost. In this sequel to Edgar Award nominee THE NAME OF THE STAR, Rory is just as goofily relatable, and the streets of London are just as haunted. But there’s more to the story of the new string of unexplainable deaths around Wexford, and Rory is determined to solve the mystery of THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH.

"In Rory, a reader finds a reflection of her own wacky, rambling, procrastinating, awkward, Cheez Whiz-loving, long leg hair-petting not-so-secret self. She is so entertaining as a narrator that a reader will slow down to make sure to catch all of Rory’s weird jokes and too-close-to-home foibles."

When we meet Rory again, she is languishing in her parents’ Bristol rental home. Resistant to the ministrations of her therapist and neglecting her schoolwork, she longs to return to London. In the aftermath of her confrontation with the bloodthirsty Jack the Ripper imitator, a little-known branch of the British government made Rory sign a vow of secrecy. She promised never to reveal to anyone that she had briefly been involved with the Shades, the clandestine government operation responsible for dealing with ghosts. Government officials deleted all trace of the Shades from her phone and apparently forced the group to leave their flat.

Although Rory claims mental health, her resistance to confiding in her parents or her therapist is more of a legal and ethical issue than a real assertion of psychological soundness. She is haunted by the memory of the ghost that tore the vicious scar up her torso, and the only people who know the real story are the very people who have been removed from her life. While walking by the waterside on another boring and lonely day in Bristol, Rory is interrupted from her wallowing when she sees the ghost of an old man sitting on a bench. She tries to start a conversation with him, but when he gets up to leave, she reaches out to grab his wrist. Just like the woman in the bathroom at the end of THE NAME OF THE STAR, the ghost vanishes. Feeling even more alienated after destroying a would-be friend, Rory mounts an internet search for her ghost-seeing associates with even more desperation.

But her efforts are not needed. Her therapist suggests that perhaps she is well enough to return to Wexford. Shocked by this diagnosis from the therapist she refuses to talk to, Rory maintains her cool and agrees that yes, she has been making great strides during their sessions. Upon her return to Wexford, she discovers that the Shades have pulled the strings for her return. Their instruments for dispersing ghosts have been destroyed, but Rory has imbibed that ability in her body. She is a human terminus. They need her.

While THE NAME OF THE STAR was fairly self-contained, THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH follows several central conflicts. Of course, there are vengeful ghosts to be dispersed and sad ghosts to help along to what lies after, but all of these feed into a larger plot that only bursts onto center stage in the final act. Even though the reader will probably see this coming far earlier than Rory does, that does nothing to diminish the quiet sneaking horror when it finally unfolds. The real focus of the story is Rory herself. She struggles to make peace with the trauma of her encounter with the Ripper imitator and weighs the ethical dilemmas of vaporizing ghosts, but she never comes across as self-pitying. Author Maureen Johnson accomplishes this by continuing to write Rory as one of the most compelling narrators on teen shelves today. In Rory, a reader finds a reflection of her own wacky, rambling, procrastinating, awkward, Cheez Whiz-loving, long leg hair-petting not-so-secret self. She is so entertaining as a narrator that a reader will slow down to make sure to catch all of Rory’s weird jokes and too-close-to-home foibles. One can’t help but fall in love with Rory.

The only downside to staying so close to Rory’s development is the sacrifice of some of the first novel’s most memorable secondary characters. Jazza (Rory’s sweet and stable roommate), Boo and Callum (two of the Shades) and Allistair (the Morrissey-loving, Doc Martens-wearing teenage ghost in the library) are all present and glorious in their brief appearances, but Rory’s relationship with them does not develop past the point at which they were left at the end of THE NAME OF THE STAR. Fans of these secondary characters need not fear; Johnson still has one book left in which to complete their character arcs.

Johnson’s handling of romantic subplots continues to play as both more realistic and more charming than many of her contemporaries. Rory grows closer to her sort-of boyfriend Jerome while texting him in Bristol. She is thrilled to have acquired this sort-of boyfriend, but she wonders what they really have in common besides both enjoying making out with each other sometimes. Is that enough? Is there more to Jerome? Or is there someone else who is starting to catch Rory’s eye? All of this uncertainty and lack of self-awareness will seem awfully familiar to readers.

THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH feels like a middle book because it is a good middle book. It chronicles the evolution of the events in the first book and promises a thrilling third book, while still establishing an identity of its own. After the tight plotting of THE NAME OF THE STAR, this less strictly linear sequel feels like just the thing the series needs before its dénouement. Even though character development takes a front seat, nothing about this book is ever slow. Pages turn at breakneck speed, and something sinister is always afoot. The final scene will shock and enrage and depress, but it guarantees a quick and urgent resumption of the story when the third and final installment is finally released. 

Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on January 2, 2013

The Madness Underneath: The Shades of London, Book Two
by Maureen Johnson