The Ruby in the Smoke, Book One of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, never gained the same fame as The Golden Compass and the rest of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, perhaps for good reason. It’s a cute story but doesn’t have quite the magical draw of epic world-building that bolsters his other works. From a feminist perspective, I appreciated the feisty female protagonist who demonstrates math skills and business acumen, but on an intersectional level, the book fails. The novel is meant to be a treatise against opium and the role England played in encouraging the opium industry, but it is rife with simplistic or downright racist depictions of Asians and the East.
Sally Lockhart is a recently orphaned 16-year-old girl living in Victorian England. The circumstances of her father’s death at sea are a mystery and Sally’s own life may be in danger if she cannot solve it. Hag-like Mrs. Holland is feared even in London’s dark underbelly, and she has set her sights on Sally. Fortunately, Sally finds allies in a young office boy named Jim Taylor and a handsome photographer named Frederick Garland, along with his sister Rosa and assistant Trembler. This series is geared towards a slightly older audience than His Dark Materials is, given the age of the protagonist and major themes of death and drug addiction.
As a role model, Sally Lockhart has several admirable traits (although some readers quibble with her experimentation with opium as part of her attempt to sort out her past). She is pragmatic and independent, unusually so for a Victorian girl. She knows how to shoot a gun and keeps her pearl-handled pistol with her at all times. Most importantly, she excels at the stereotypically male disciplines of mathematics and business. Hired as accountant and manager, she turns around Frederick’s failing photography business, thus maintaining her own financial freedom and funding the bohemian haven her friends have welcomed her into.
The Ruby in the Smoke reads like one of the action-filled penny dreadfuls young Jim is always toting about and has all the cultural sensitivities of one, too. Which is to say: none. While casual racism may have been exceedingly common in the 1800’s, there is no excuse for an author to perpetuate it in the 1980’s, when this book was published. Pullman lazily pulls on the trope of the “mysterious East” as a source of magic and danger and the Asian characters are tinged with stereotyped Orientalism. Much like the famous 19th-century novel The Moonstone, the plot of The Ruby in the Smoke centers on a cursed jewel discovered in the East, in this case having once belonged to a sultan. The squabbles over this gem then get tied into an opium-smuggling business involving the Chinese triads, thus laying trite trope on trite trope.
All of the Asian people who make an appearance are connected to this opium epidemic, even the immigrants Sally sees on the streets of England. Chinese pirates who attack her father’s death ship are described as “savages” and “Chinese devils” and the author never takes pains to counter balance this stereotype. While Mrs. Holland is the main villain for this first installment, the ending sets up for the next book’s bad guy: Ah Ling, a half-Dutch, half-Chinese pirate and personification of Yellow Peril. Does his mixed background and white-passing appearance discount him from this trope? Not in a non-visual medium, I would argue. We see the name Ah Ling and perceive it as “evil” and another grain of sand is added to our pile of cultural notions of Asian as Other.
All in all, if you love Philip Pullman and are desperate for something new to read or are specifically looking for fantasy works that encourage young women in STEM, you could consider reading The Ruby in the Smoke. Otherwise, don’t bother. It’s one giant cliche, not Pullman’s best writing, and overall doesn’t contribute much to literature while also engaging in some problematic stereotyping.