The Servants by Michael Marshall Smith
Published: Earthly Publications, 2007
Awards Nominated: British Fantasy Society and World Fantasy Awards
“For young Mark, the world has turned as bleak and gray as the Brighton winter. Separated from his real father and home in London, he's come to live with his mother and her new husband in an old house near the sea. He spends his days alone, trying to master the skateboard, while other boys his age are in school. He hates the unwanted stepfather who barged into Mark's life to rob him of joy. Worst of all, his once-vibrant mother has grown listless and weary, no longer interested in anything beyond her sitting room.
But on a damp and chilly evening, an accident carries Mark into the basement flat of the old woman who lives at the bottom of his stepfather's house. She offers tea, cakes, and sympathy... and the key to a secret, bygone world. Mark becomes caught up in the frenetic bustle of the human machinery that once ran a home, and drawn ever deeper into a lost realm of spirits and memory. Here below the suffocating truths, beneath the pain and unhappiness, he finds an escape, and quite possibly a way to change everything.” ~WWend.com
This is the first book I’ve read by Michael Marshall Smith, and it fits into my ‘Second Best Reading Challenge’ for 2014. The review comes a bit late, but I finished reading the book in 2014. Here’s hoping that I can catch up on reviews in the next month or two!
The Servants seems focused toward a middle grade or young adult audience. Approaching it as an older reader, I was interested by the portrayal of the young main character’s perspective in the story. Mark has a very limited view of his world, and there are many things he does not understand or which are not explained to him. I liked how the story started with only Mark’s view of events, which was incomplete but made internal sense to him, and how hints throughout the story revealed to the reader a more accurate picture. Mark himself reminded me a bit of the boy from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Mark’s actions make him seem like a real brat sometimes, but he’s really just a confused kid trying to cope with a situation that is beyond his control.
Even so, Mark does find a way to make a difference in some sense with the servants, phantoms that appear in the abandoned servants’ area beneath the house. Despite the presence of these phantoms, I would not classify this as a ghost story—they are neither creepy nor do they seem intended to be so. They always appear on cue, bringing their bygone era with them, and Mark is able to interact with the as if they were simply human beings. For most of the story, they seemed to be a symbolic representation of other things, serving as an external way for Mark to come to terms with the situation. I appreciated them in this sense, and enjoyed the things Mark learned from interacting with them. However, I was not a huge fan of how they were eventually incorporated with events in the mundane world.
In the end, I was not very satisfied with how the story wound down at the end (vague spoilers ahead, mostly on the sadness/happiness of the ending). I didn’t feel like everything was tied together as well as it could have been. I think the ambiguity was intentional, but I felt like it didn’t fit very well with the otherwise straightforward writing. Also, the conclusion seemed both too abrupt and unrealistically happy for the story that preceded it. I know many readers would probably prefer the happy ending to the alternative, but it just felt to me like it didn’t follow naturally. Even though I didn’t much care for the ending, though, there was still plenty that I enjoyed about the novel.
My Rating: 3/5
The Servants is an interesting young adult/middle grade story featuring a troubled young boy as a protagonist. Mark’s life has taken a turn he didn’t expect and can’t change, and he is having difficulty coping. I enjoyed Mark’s young perspective, and following him as he struggled to understand his new situation. I was less interested in the supernatural elements of the story, though, except as they were related to Mark’s growth as a character. I also felt that the ending was a little too abrupt and out of tone with the rest of the story. Altogether, I enjoyed this short novel and its interesting portrayal of a child whose circumstances force to handle some serious ideas.