Stephanie's Reviews > Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris by R.L. LaFevers
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's review
Sep 27, 10

bookshelves: middle-grade, fantasy
Read on September 26, 2010 — I own a copy

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We first encountered the precocious and sharp-tongued Theodosia Throckmorton in Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, in which our favourite Edwardian era eleven-year-old Egyptologist and polyglot found herself embroiled in all manner of dastardly issues relating to the theft of priceless (and sacred) artefacts, as well as a minor episode or two involving a secret society quite fixated on taking over the world. Unfortunately for Theodsia, despite her quite impressive investigative skills and her incomparable verve, her efforts to stop these villainous ragamuffins were not entirely successful: the world as we know it (or rather, as she knows it) might well have been kept from imminent destruction, but the criminal masterminds behind it all managed to get away. But now, it seems, they're back.

Theodosia is not exactly London's most sociable young lass, preferring the company of her cat Isis, dusty grimoires and well, anything that lacks the ability to answer back to her pertinacious commentary. Still, when she is invited to accompany her rather unforgivably neglectful parents to a night of curatorial glory at the abode of the Egypt-enamoured Lord Chudleigh, Theodosia can't help but be a wee bit excited. So excited, in fact, that she bites her tongue over the appropriateness of unwrapping an ancient mummy at a social event--well, at least until the mummy turns out to be less an ancient mummy and more the aged corpse of a dusty museum curator. Theodosia is certain that this rather gruesome finding is indicative of the Serpents' return, a feeling that is given credence when mummies from all over London start wandering about the streets at the siren call of the Staff of Osiris. Drawing on her extensive archaeological and mythological knowledge, and on her connections with a number of benign secret societies (honestly, doesn't anyone simply join clubs these days? she wonders) and a reformed pickpocket and his recidivist brothers, Theodosia sets about putting a stop to the evil plottings of the Serpents of Chaos. Only it's not easy being a young girl in the early years of the twentieth century, and Theodosia finds the most appallingly odd barriers falling in her path at every turn: pinching nannies, sartorially obsessed grandmothers, well-meaning cab drivers, and reverent cult members to name but a few.

I struggled with the first book in this series: although it was a book I felt like I should like given that it ticked a number of my usual readerly boxes (strong female characters with a feminist bent, a fun mystery plot, and zany historical facts and whimsy galore), I felt that the book as a whole felt rather unanchored and tedious, and Theodosia was, frankly, patently unlikeable with her lashing little tongue and her both smarter and holier than thou attitude. In this second outing, however, LaFevers has worked to correct a number of these failings, and Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris is a much stronger book as a result. Our villains are slightly more nuanced (there are fewer of Ze Evil Germans in this volume) and represent a wider range of backgrounds, with some even hailing from France and Russia, which is rather interesting given that this book is set at the eve of WWI. Theodosia herself is also stronger as a character in that she relies less on painful snark and wit to get her through the challenges she faces, and more on being an actual human: it's quite possible that the Theodosia of this second volume would pass the Turing test. She is more sympathetically portrayed this time around as a rather neglected and unfulfilled child seeking through her studies and adventures her parents' attention and approval, something we see in her dismay at being appointed a governess rather than being allowed to work alongside her often absent parents, and during her breathless outing at Chudleigh's party, where she feels as though she is an adult, a real person, at last. There's also a moving scene on a battleship where she is decidedly out of her element, and is rather more meek as a result. I must say that I'm also glad to see that Grandmother Throckmorton has moved from being simply a foil to someone who is also rather more humanised: in this volume we're treated to her displaying real concern (hidden behind a serious of petty concerns) for her son, as well as developing a crush on somebody who is very much one of the Bad Boys. The setting of the novel, too, feels rather more grounded than it did in the first, which felt as though it was set in the now with the occasional anachronism thrown in to complicate things.

It's not all good news, and the book does groan a little under some unnecessarily over-elaborated subplots, such as Theodosia's three prospective governesses, a Goldilocks-like plot that is rather belaboured, and the astonishing ubiquity of the aforementioned secret societies is rather hard to swallow. Why not simply a club indeed, gentlemen? The subplot-in-threes also appears with the reappearance of the walkabout mummies at Theodosia's parents' museum each morning, something which becomes tediously Groundhog Day-like given that it's given quite a bit of page time, with very little variation in the way that each episode plays out. The careful (or perhaps the ruthless) elision of a few of these scenes would have resulted in a rather more streamlined read. The criminal neglect of Theodosia's parents is also a little painful, and although I understand that the adults need to be got rid of so that Theodosia can solve her own problems, it doesn't quite work for me. Perhaps if Grandmother Throckmorton lived on the premises (a notion that would be anathema to poor Theodosia, whose rather lacking manners would surely not stand up to such a prolonged assault) this situation would be more believable. And while I'm a lover of puns and bad names, the lengthy lists of supposed historical authors such as 'Mann U Script' or 'Pappy Rus' (okay, so I made both of those up, but you get the idea) does grate a little after a while.

Still, young readers will no doubt find themselves revelling in the Egypt-related arcana here, and in the fun and fanciful mischief Theodosia gets up to. LaFevers again touches on issues of cultural appropriation and the respect of the rituals and norms of other cultures, not only through the way that she challenges notions of 'ownership' of relics and artefacts, but also through the way she depicts the treatment of these items. Both of these issues were prevalent during the early twentieth century, when Egyptology was at its height, so it's nice to see the author give a nod to this without being didactic. In addition, she provides us with a strong female protagonist who is surrounded by feminist role models (her mother, for example, is a well-regarded archaeologist, although she experiences her own professional troubles being a female in her field during the early twentieth century), something that I'm always delighted to see. On the strength of this second book, I'll be interested to pick up the third in the series.

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