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The Dead in their Vaulted Arches



I’m going to start this review with a protest.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Flavia de Luce series, the main character is a child chemistry genius/detective with a penchant for poisons. Her life is defined by the fact that her mother – a cross between Mata Hari and Amelia Earhart – disappeared into the Himalayas ten years ago and has not been seen since. Fair enough.


The last Flavia book, “Speaking from Among the Bones,” (Don’t you just love Bradley’s titles?) ended with the announcement that “Your mother has been found.” Now, I don’t complain about that. It’s a cliffhanger variation, made famous by the "Dallas" TV series with the “Who killed JR?” trick. Now everyone (including me) can’t wait to see what happens when the mother, whom apparently Flavia resembles to a T, comes home. So we all rush out to buy the new book.



However, the new story opens with the family waiting at the train station for her mother, and it takes the whole chapter for us to discover what we’ve been suspicious of all along; it’s the mother’s coffin. This stunt proves nothing, it has nothing to do with the story, and it has the suspicious odour of an author thumbing his nose at his readers.  I don’t mind perpetrating a spoiler, here, because I think it was a cheap trick, and my opinion of Alan Bradley as a writer takes a severe blow.



But on to the review.
All writers of “coming of age” serials have to make a choice. Does the main character stay the same age forever like the Hardy Boys, or does time take its toll; does the child, like Harry Potter, age at a similar rate to the readers, thus keeping the paying customers connected? Well, this is the story where Alan Bradley shows his choice. Flavia is growing up. This is the novel where she moves in new directions.



Unfortunately, the redirection doesn't happen until the end of the book, and Flavia spends most of the story meandering. And so does the plot. We are never very sure what mystery Flavia is actually trying to solve, and we’re not sure that she does either. She seems to wander off in a random direction, only to
suddenly discover a pertinent fact. Which may be very teenagerish, but too convenient to be good mystery writing.



This is also the story where she seems to be saying good-bye to old characters. They are all there in cameo roles, but none of them, including her loving/hating sisters and the indomitable Dogger, seem to have much effect on her or the plot. So we miss the magic that made the other stories work.



At the end, the mystery is solved, mostly, and Flavia launches off on a new life. Fine. I’m hoping by the next novel Mr. Bradley has settled his mind enough to give us a cleaner plotline and a new set of creative characters for Flavia to strike sparks from. It seems to me that in the ending of this novel the author has removed most of the elements that make Flavia such a quirky, endearing character. I hope he finds a new set in the next installment.



Recommended for people who have enjoyed the rest of the series, and want to get set up for the next sequence. Don’t try to read this one as a stand-alone.

Three stars out of five.
 
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