Book Review: The Elemental Detectives by Patrice Lawrence

Set in London in 1764, The Elemental Detectives tells the story of two children, Jonathan and Marisee, who must work together to discover why the poor people of the city are being struck down by a mysterious sleeping sickness that locks them into their happiest dreams and leaves them unable to wake up. 

Marisee’s grandmother is the keeper of one of London’s wells, but when she mysteriously disappears, Marisee must seek the Freedom of the City and try to save those who are most vulnerable to this strange new illness. On her quest for answers she meets Jonathan Strong, a boy who was enslaved on a plantation in Jamaica and brought to London by his enslavers to work in their home. He is trying to rescue his sleeping friend while fighting the sickness that offers him happy dreams of the family that he was stolen from.

The city that they explore is inhabited by elemental spirits who remain hidden from ordinary people, but something has changed and now those spirits, the Dragons, Magogs, Chads and Fumis, are unleashing their power and turning London into something different and frightening. 

But what, or who, is causing the sickness? And how can it be stopped? 

Lawrence has embedded an enormously detailed historical London into a fantastical world full of magic and mystery. The city itself is shaped by the magical elements of familiar landmarks. From Hyde Park to The Foundling Museum, so much of London is recognisable but she has drawn on the meanings of placenames and events to transform it into something new and mystical. This incredible version of London conceals an entirely different world which gradually reveals itself to our Elemental Detectives. 

I really loved this clever blend of the historical with the imaginary. The Elemental Detectives is immaculately researched and Lawrence’s passion for uncovering the details of London’s history is apparent on every page. She takes a wealth of ideas from places and things that are often hidden in plain sight from those who live, work and walk past them without a second glance. 

But this book doesn’t just bring the secret places into view, it also reveals the forgotten people. This is the story of Georgian London’s poorest and most vulnerable. Lawrence’s inspiration for Jonathan is taken from a real person who lived in Shoreditch in the 1760s. She has constructed his life beautifully and is enormously sympathetic to the cruelty he suffered. We also discover the children who were left at the Foundling Hospital by the parents who couldn’t afford to raise them and the servants who worked every waking hour for their cruel but wealthy masters and mistresses. 

The Elemental Detectives is cleverly written and Lawrence has built an extraordinary world that is inhabited by sympathetic and engaging characters. It is a wonderful combination of historical and fantasy fiction. I’m delighted that it’s the first part of a series and I look forward to joining Jonathan and Marisee on their next adventure. 

You can find out more about Patrice Lawrence and her books on her website and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Elemental Detectives is published by Scholastic who kindly sent a copy for me to review. The cover illustration is by Paul Kellam.

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