Customer Reviews: The Servants
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on August 1, 2008
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I finished this a couple of hours ago, and I've been trying to think of how to review it without giving spoilers...because you do not want spoilers, you want to read this story and see it unfold like a flower in front of you until you smile and cry at the same time.

Mark is not a happy boy. His parents have split up, his mother has remarried, and he's been moved away from his London home and the father he loves. Every day, he does all he can to make the people around him as unhappy as he is.

One day he meets an elderly woman who shows him a secret area underneath his house, a group of rooms that at one time were occupied by the household's servants. Mark senses that there is more to be seen here, and he comes back again and again, each time finding out something more. Clearly there is some supernatural component to the mystery he wants to unravel, some message that is critically imporant for him to understand. As this happens, he discovers additional things about his life that might just make him rethink his opinion of what has happened to him.

At some point I realized what was happening, and it was just slightly before Mark did. It is always so important for the servants to work together for the good of the house they love, isn't it?

What a wonderful book. What a lovely story.
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VINE VOICEon August 7, 2008
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a gripping story that started a bit slowly for me. It took a while for me to get really interested. But after a number of pages, things started getting much more interesting.
The main character is 10-11 years old, and I wondered, Can I really identify with a main character that is that young? The answer is, Yes.

Years ago I learned in my literature classes, and as most of you know, in great literature, as well as poetry and even the graphic arts, there are symbols. The thing about symbols is that they are not simple but instead are usually very complex; what they symbolize and their meaning usually cannot be precisely defined. That is their strength: they leave room for the reader's interpretation, which as with poetry must often be an intuitive one. A right-brain thing.

This story has symbols like that. Who and what exactly is the old lady? As I read, not only did I get drawn into the narrative and the boy's experience, I sensed meaning at the heart of the events. I found my understanding of the characters became clearer and deepened. Yet much of the mystery tantalizingly remains--those symbols and some of the action sequences. Meanwhile, I came upon gems of wisdom that read almost like poetry:
Why was the old lady watching the starlings, since there were so few of them? Because "Somebody must...or they might just fly away. Never come back."
"Sometimes things do change, and that's okay. You go from one place to another, become different to what you were..."
"He thought maybe that was the best you could do with memories, with the way things had been. You couldn't expect to actually walk in them again....Most of the time."

Highly recommended, and intriguing read that becomes part of the reader's experience, and gainfully so.
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on September 2, 2014
I would have given this 3.5 stars, if possible. The story deals with an 11 year old boy who has been uprooted from London and the family he thought he had, to live in Brighton with his mother and new step-father. He feels isolated both from friends and from his mother, who seems to be always ill, and initially blames his step-father for this change in circumstances. While trying to escape his boredom and rebel against his step-father, he makes friends with the old lady who lives in the basement flat, and she introduces him to the servants' quarters below the house. There he finds a different world, which he gradually comes to realise reflects the reality around him upstairs. I found the story interesting and well written, in particular the voice of the young narrator. Smith cleverly shows the narrator's gradual realisation of what is going on both around him, and below him. It was a good story and worth reading, but didn't set me on fire, hence the rating. I think perhaps I was also expecting something a little more sinister to develop, given who the author was, and was a bit disappointed that it was a more mainstream, fantasy story.
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VINE VOICEon August 1, 2008
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Mark has a new stepfather, a new home in Brighton, and a new skateboard. He hates the first two; the skateboard was a present from his biological father. His normally exuberant mother is lethargic and getting worse. There's never enough Diet Coke in the house. His stepfather is too controlling.

Life sucks.

Then he meets the old woman living in the basement apartment. She gives him a tour of the old servants' quarters. Strange things begin to happen.

I can't discuss these "strange things" without giving away some significant plot issues. Suffice it to say that it involves the servants' quarters and servants from the past, and their representation of something in the present.

The Servants, by author Michael Marshall Smith, builds slowly. Mark continually finds ways to criticize Brighton, the new house, and his stepfather. But there are glaring holes in the story. Just who is that old woman in the basement? Is she Emily? Why doesn't Mark have any idea why his father divorced his mother, and why his mother remarried? Why would he sneak a key from a sleeping old lady to tour her apartment? Why can't he buy his own Diet Coke? Why don't Mark's parents tell him about his mother's medical condition? What do the servants have to do with this medical condition?

Why? What? Who? Smith doesn't "fill in the gaps" here. This makes the story less sophisticated than it could or should be.

This book doesn't live up to its potential. That the reader can sense its potential says something positive about the plot.
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on December 3, 2014
I discovered this author after seeing the Intruders TV series on America BBC. I read the Intruders and liked the story and auhor's writing style. So I searched for his other novels. I chose this one with high expectations. Unfortunately, i didn't like the story as much. It must be an earlier work as I found the plot to be underdeveloped and the climax somewhat confusing. His other novels are stronger and better developed. I recommend this author but maybe not this particular work.
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on February 27, 2011
I have waited a long time for a new novel by Michael Marshall Smith and truly expected to love it, and although it wasn't a bad book, I feel kind of cheated. His previous novels were all paced at a 100 mph. The Servants is painfully slow to develope and feels like he tried to stretch a short story idea into a full length book. His previous novels were like Philip K. Dick, Steven King, Dashiell Hammett, and Douglas Adams all rolled together into some of the most engrossing prose I've ever read. The Servants is rather one note with almost a junior novel after-school special quality- that while well done, lacks the labyrinth of tists and turns I would have hoped for. But perhaps the most disappointing thing I found about this book was that it was predictable. Something that could never be said about Spares, One of US, or Only Forward. If you are new to Michael Marshall Smith, you might might want to try these novels first.

And Michael Marshall Smith, if you are reading this- I am still waiting patiently for that great new novel from you with baited breath. You've been just Michael Marshall for too long now.
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on November 20, 2012
I had to keep checking that this book was written for adults because it felt like I was reading something for kids in junior high. The story has a lot of potential but turned out to be predictable and not very interesting, and by the end of it I didn't care what happened to any of the characters. At least it's a quick, easy read but even that doesn't make it worth reading.
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VINE VOICEon July 29, 2008
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is not quite sci-fi, and could also be a childrens / YA book. The book follows a 11 yr old boy who has moved to a new city and also has to deal with a new step father and a sick mother. The author brilliantly captures the self centered, disconnected world view of a child facing these challenges. The book was tightly written and well paced through the first half, but the fantasy world which is initially beautifully imagined, becomes a tedious plod for the last third of the book. The book left me curiously unsatisfied. I did enjoy the book, and the spot on characterizations enough to consider seeking out his other works.
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on February 15, 2016
The Servants is the story of 11-year-old Mark, a deeply unhappy boy spending a solitary winter along the desolate shores of Brighton, a decaying British resort town. Mark's parents are divorced, and he lives with his mother and stepfather in a renovated townhouse along the old Brighton shore. When Mark befriends the lonely old lady living downstairs, she unlocks one of the old home's mysteries for him.

I'm going to be honest--I had high hopes for this book. And perhaps my sense of the abstract is not as refined as it once was, but I feel as though I completely missed the whole point of this book. I get the "ghost story" angle and I will be the first to say I love a good ghost story. However, I have literally no idea what happened at the end of this book. There was definitely some heavy-handed symbolism going on (a person is like a house, apparently), but there was also a run of several pages that I reread several times and still could not make sense of. Mark was a sympathetic character. The town of Brighton was interesting. Yet I was not that impressed by the book as a whole.
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VINE VOICEon July 30, 2008
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Eleven year old Mark is extremely frustrated and angry. He has been trying to master the skateboard his father gave him a few months ago and has not been having much success. It isn't for lack of time to practice because he has little else to do now that his mother and step father have drug him off to Brighton. Mark has many happy memories of Brighton, in the summer, with his proper family, including his real father, and definitely without David, his new stepfather. Who goes to Brighton in November and stays in a half finished row house and never wants to go anywhere or do anything? And it is all David's fault, he just doesn't get anything. He is also making Mark's mother change, she doesn't want to go out, or do anything fun anymore, she just lays around the house, resting because she is always tired. She wasn't ever tired before David came along....was she?

One day Marks meets the very old woman who lives in the basement apartment and ignoring David's repeated commands not to talk to strangers, not only talks to her but goes with her inside her home. There she shows him the old servants quarters and tells him about the seldom seen people who kept life going for those upstairs. As Mark's life begins to unravel upstairs he begins to escape to the servants rooms and discovers that they are not as vacant as he had thought. He also comes to realize that he may not have understood everything about what was going on upstairs either.

This is a very interesting twist on a classic coming of age story. Mark is in that awkward area right at the end of childhood, just before adolescence begins. He is quite old enough to resent changes in his life but too young to understand why they occured or to ask questions about them (why isn't he staying in London? why isn't he going to school?) and much to young to be able to do anything about any of it. It isn't really clear if Mark actually did meet the ghosts of the long dead servants or where they the result of a concussion or fever. Did his new understanding of what was happening to his life come from the supernatural or from within himself?

THE SERVANTS is an excellent choice for a book club or class in that it is open for many different interpretations, not only is it unclear as to whether the ghosts were supernatural or imaginary, it is also not clear on who is good or bad....why is Mark's father so absent? why doesn't his mother explain more? There are some rather annoying bits though, an eleven year old would question why he wasn't in school in November, there are quite unanswered questions about the old lady and the ending (which won't be revealed here) is also quite ambiguous. Still this is an excellent read, one that should be shared and discussed if possible.
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