Rory’s mother has two jobs, is taking as much extra work as she can, and living cheaply, but they still have simply run out of money. With the landlord taking their last cash and still threatening eviction, it’s clear that the only choice left is for Rory to work – but town rules won’t allow him in a seafaring job for another two years. So when a position at Lord Foxglove’s creepy mansion is advertised, he doesn’t see any option but landing the position, even if it turns out to be not quite what he thinks.
I’ve reviewed just one of Smith’s books before, Hoodoo. That one takes place in the American South in the 1930s, so I was mildly surprised, and impressed, to find that this book takes place in an atmospheric near-Britain seaside town in a vaguely Victorian (but more progressive) time. Most of the women in this novel work in some form or another. Some wear skirts while others choose pants, and women are aboard ships at the harbor. In fact, while Rory is certainly capable himself, his friend rescues him from physical danger multiple times, in a pleasant turn on the normal damsel in distress storyline.
Smith has certainly worked out the bumps in his writing now – this is his fifth novel, and clearly I need to go back and read the other three. His format here is many relatively short chapters, exactly the style my sons most enjoy. While some segments understandably have more action than others, none felt slow or irrelevant.
The grimmer aspects of the story are also well balanced with moments of hope, even joy. And of course, as this is a middle grade novel, it has a happy ending, even if it isn’t one Rory would have expected at the beginning. I think the generally happy endings and clear resolutions of books for this age is what steered me towards more and more MG reading lately. There’s a comforting aspect in knowing that even the darkest storylines will have some resolution by the end of the book.
Gloom Town is very atmospheric and would make a perfect spooky October read-aloud. It took me a second reading to recognize that this shouldn’t go under ghost stories in my notes because there aren’t any ghosts in the book. The magic is not lacking though. I won’t describe exactly what is magical and what just feels that way thanks to Smith’s poetic descriptions, because wondering along with Rory is part of what makes the story unfold so well. The people of Gloom Town live, mostly unaware, in a quasi-magical world. Many fear the unknown so that even rumored involvement with magic is avoided.
Rory is biracial – his mother is white with red hair, like many in their town including his best friend Isabella. He doesn’t know much about his father as his mother only says he was a sailor who died at sea before he was born, but he can surmise from his own dark skin and hair that his father was Black. Occasionally Rory sees other dark skinned people, a few sailors and a traveling performer, but he generally lives in a white world.
Like the other book, there are some dark moments, although a bit less scary and more of a magical adventure (similar to The Jumbies trilogy). The content warnings do include spoilers which I’ll keep to this paragraph: kidnapping, coercive contracts, poverty, beatings, getting chased by a gang, stolen shadows, witchcraft, fortune telling, abandonment, ancient evils, a human heart, cannibalism, knife fighting, strangling, servitude, near starvation, alcoholism, transmogrification, and eviction.
Most of the worst things happen off screen or are given as cautionary tales – for example, Rory pointedly remarks that he doesn’t drink alcohol or plan to because of the people he’s seen drunk near his mother’s tavern job. Also, there are some instances of swearing, but it’s all situationally appropriate made up oaths specific to this fantastical world, nothing that would be considered a swear by modern standards.
Smith is known for writing standalone books, which truly are needed. He brings this story to a satisfying close and it could stand alone. But I also see a clear path for a second book, and would love to see this become a series! Part of the reason to wish for a follow-up, is that there’s a thought I have about one thing, and I’m ever so curious to see if Smith planned something a certain way or was just throwing out one of his red herrings. Either way, this one earned a highly recommended from me.