Barnaby Grimes is a Tick -Tock Lad, or messenger boy, so named because, "Tick- Tock, time is money." Barnaby is a Highstacker, delivering his messages over the top of the city, running and striding across the roofs, chimneys and smokestacks. Highstackers are the elite of the Tick-tock lads, as they make the most money because they can deliver faster than the purely ground-based boys, the Cobblestone Creepers.
Barnaby's first task is to deliver a series of links to a woman who makes grave chains. In this way, people who fear that they might have been buried in error, or buried a friend or loved one in error, can be assured of being unburied before they can suffocate, should they awaken in the grave.
His task takes him to a most uncanny area of town, known as Gatling Quays, which has gotten an unsavory reputation. It's a place where gangs make their home, and 12 gangs rule the area, overseen by a man known as the Emperor, elected from one of the gangs and with control over all of them. The Emperor has died, and a new man, Thump McConnell, head of the Ratcatchers Gang, has been elected to succeed him.
Barnaby runs into Thump when he races to rescue another Tick Tock lad, Will Farmer. Barnaby had met Will during his last adventure, and offered to teach Will how to highstack. Since then and now, months had passed, and Barnaby hadn't had the chance to teach Will, and now feels obligated to help the lad, since Will was caught on the ground. But when Thump recognized Barnaby, he called off his men, and invited Will and Barnaby to the funeral of the former Emperor, Firejaw O'Roarke, to be held on the morrow. He also learns that people in the Quays have taken to avoiding the cemetery at night, for fear of red-coated apparitions, But nothing will be allowed to interfere with the funeral.
Their invitation is more of a command to attend, but Barnaby and Will know that not to show up would be dangerous. Barnaby takes the chance to show Will some Highstacking moves, and the next day, they attend Firejaw's Funeral. Even though he was very nearly burnt to death, part of the funeral involves Firejaw being fitted with a fashionable grave chain before being interred, and afterwards, Barnaby goes to visit his friend the professor, who wants Barnaby to help him with a small project.
This involves checking the rocks near the docks for a specific type of barnacle that the Professor believes is taking over from the native Barnacles. To aid in this, he has constructed a primitive diving suit, complete with helmet, and a compressor to give Barnaby the air he will need below. Unfortunately for both Barnaby and the Professor, Barnaby is attacked by a gigantic lamprey, and bitten as he tries to fight it off. The fight cuts the rope securing Barnaby and enabling him to be pulled up by the professor, and he is pulled off by the current and nearly drowns when his helmet is stoved in. Barnaby manages to fight his way to the surface, and emerges in the Cemetary in Gatling Quays.
As he stumbles towards the Exit, he witnesses the bell on Firejaw's grave begin to ring, but before he can do anything but gape, Firejaw's body erupts from the ground, and walks off. Because of his wound and disorientation, Barnaby can scarcely believe what he's seen, but he manages to make it back to the Professor and tell him what happened before he collapses.
He awakens in a bed and finds he has been passed out for at least a day- and before he can think that what he saw was a hallucination, the papers are full of the story of Firejaw's body going missing. He wants to investigate, but with his body wounded, he's not in any condition to highstack for a while. But as Barnaby recovers, he knows he must find out what is behind the stories of the red-coated apparitions and the walking dead. Unfortunately for Barnaby, he'll be taking his life into his own hands to do so, and might just get caught up in the rampage of the Walking Dead himself... So how will Barnaby manage to escape the horror this time?
I have been waiting a long time for this book, and as soon as I received it in the mail, I settled down to read it. I really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I read it right through in one sitting. Not only do I love the words in this book, but the images that accompany it. Barnaby in his coalstack hat, or Barnaby in the diving suit, the images of the student nurse that Barnaby finds in the hospital or the menace of the Legion of the Dead.
The writing nicely conveys both the dreariness of the lower city, and the beautiful views available to the Highstackers, along with the menace of other humans, and the otherworldly creepiness and horror of The Legion of the Dead- many of whom come from the city itself. And the pictures only add to a depiction of regular villainy and otherworldly horror. I loved reading this and can't wait until the next book comes out in may. Well worth reading. Recommended.