This was a favourite when I was a kid: I loved the other books a little less, I think, but this one got very worn and tattered. I reread it during my exams mostly just because it caught my eye, and I wanted to revisit Sally and Frederick and Rosa and the smoky, sinister world of Victorian London which Pullman evokes in these books. I remembered almost every detail of the story, every step in the sequence, but it was still fun to read and think about how I loved and looked up to an independent character like Sally (her immaturity shows to me, now, as an adult, but she’s still pretty awesome all the same).
It was also nice to appreciate the details that went into some of this — Pullman did his homework in learning about the photography business, in painting a picture of that time and place which felt real, if sometimes a bit too squalid to be true. (Though Dickens was praised for realism, and Mrs Holland’s lodging house could have come right out of a Dickens novel, I think.)
The whole opium/India/ruby stuff was a little uncomfortable and felt like exoticisation, treating a troubled time in the history of a British colony like it was just a penny dreadful, but it’s hard to judge, and it still works when you lay that aside and embrace the penny dreadful feel — a thing I’m sure is intentional, because Pullman demonstrates several times in the story that he’s well aware of the kind of content of penny dreadfuls, and lampshades the similarities a bit through Jim’s reading of the whole situation.
Overall, it’s still enjoyable, even if I have more doubts now. I’d probably have given it five stars back then.