The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal: British steampunk mystery
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
1st book in the Section 13 series
See also The Fourth Ruby, The Clockwork Dragon
Overall rating: 9/10
Quality of writing: 9/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): less
Age level: 10 and up
Thirteen year-old Jack Buckles has a strange ability: he can find things*. Simply by touching stone or metal, he can experience fragmented visions of the past called “sparks,” which help him to locate missing objects. Unfortunately, now his father is missing, and he can’t find him.
When Jack gets lost in London while following a man who looks like his father, he stumbles across the eponymous Lost Property Office—which he discovers is actually a front for the secret society of detectives known as the Ministry of Trackers. As Jack learns, his father was a “tracker” himself, and went missing after going to hunt down the mysterious and malevolent Clockmaker—now, the Clockmaker is demanding that Jack locate the dangerous artifact known as the Ember (which caused the Great Fire of London) and deliver it to him, or else he will kill Jack’s father. This sends Jack and his friend Gwen on a frantic journey across the city of London, unraveling a series of clues concerning the Ember’s whereabouts before time runs out.
This book is an engaging mystery-story with a fun cast of characters and a very creative premise, and I recommend it highly to any reader who enjoys action and mystery.
*James Hannibal based this ability on the mental condition synesthesia, which he himself has. Synesthesia is an overlapping of the senses in which one sensory input can be processed as another (e.g. “This cake smells blue.”)
The plot of this book centers around Jack and Gwen’s search for the Ember, a mystery which leads them across London as they trace the artifact’s path through history and learn how it caused the fire of London. However, they have only one day to find the Ember and save Jack’s father, or else the Clockmaker (a villainous Frenchman with a penchant for machinery-based weapons) will kill Jack’s father. With the Clockmaker demanding the Ember as ransom, Jack and Gwen must not only locate the artifact, but also figure out how to avoid giving it to the Clockmaker, as it would allow him to re-create the Great Fire of London.
The plot of this book balances mystery with action, alternating between conundrums being solved and tense action sequences. There are a number of minor plot twists, and Hannibal also incorporates a surprising amount of British history, particularly involving the Great Fire of London. Overall, this book’s plot is nicely balanced with its various elements, but also exciting and engaging. (9.5/10)
The characters in this book are creative above all else—Jack, for example, has the particularly unique ability of merging his senses in order to locate clues or missing objects whose locations aren’t immediately visible (as mentioned above, Hannibal based this ability on his own synesthesia). Jack gets some nice character development over the course of the book, as he learns to accept his role as a hereditary member of the secretive Ministry of Trackers. In addition to this, the secondary characters, even though they get less development, are still fun to read about (for example, Jack’s friend Gwen, a rule-quoting clerk from the Ministry of Trackers). Hannibal’s characters in this book are nicely fleshed-out (and have great dialogue), and overall merit a 9 out of 10.
This book is not overly difficult, although it’s a little longer than some (387 pages in my edition). The style of writing itself is not convoluted or oblique, and the dialogue is interesting and easy to follow; the characters are distinctive and easy to keep straight. The only potential concern in this area is the number of historical references and clues which the characters uncover over the course of the book, which could be difficult for some (particularly younger) readers to keep straight, but which are necessary to remember in order to understand the characters’ solutions to the mystery. (3/10)
Quality of writing
The most notable element of Hannibal’s writing in this book is its meticulous correspondence to history—with a storyline based on a historical mystery, The Lost Property Office incorporates countless bits of information from the era of the Great Fire into the protagonists’ search for the Ember, reflecting a great deal of research on his part. This accuracy is blended with fiction to produce an engaging alternate history in which the Fire was actually caused by the mysterious Ember, setting up a mystery for Jack Buckles to solve in this book.
Hannibal’s alternate reality also extends to the “Ministry of Trackers,” a fictional branch of the British government for which he’s created an entire history and background. This is one of the most creative aspects of this book, and provides an interesting background for its events, particularly since Jack discovers in the book’s early chapters that he belongs to it (which arguably sets off the entire story). (9/10)
This book is largely unconcerning in this regard, and only a few points bear noting. Gwen kisses Jack once at the end of the story (it’s in the middle of a fight, so the narrative’s focus is mainly elsewhere at that moment). There’s no problematic language, but a few fight scenes might be a bit vivid for younger readers (although objectively speaking, they’re not too terrible). For example, in one of Jack’s “sparks,” he sees what appears to be the Clockmaker killing his dad with a flamethrower (it’s actually less graphic than it sounds, and it turns out later that Jack was mistaken and his father is alive.) The other main point od note with regard to violence is at the end, when Jack severs the Clockmaker’s hand, but that, again, is not overly graphic. To conclude, while this book does contain some fight scenes, they’re not depicted particularly graphically overall.
Based on this book’s level of concerning content and its readable style, I recommend it for readers 10 and up. Some points for parents of readers to consider in judging whether this book is right for their kids are the relatively large amount of historical detail included, the occasional fight scenes (as described above) and the length (387 pages). Based on these factors, parents and readers should (as always) exercise their own good judgement in this area.