A heroic fantasy blending in just the right amount of horror for young readers to delight in.
Our young hero is the ill-fated, seventh son of a seventh son. Thomas Ward was born to a farming family living out in the countryside. His Mam has a little something extra going on with her, and planned quite an interesting and unique future for her youngest born. Through his mother’s influence, it has been decided that Ward will take on an apprenticeship with Mr. Gregory. This strange vagabond has the auspicious profession of being a sort of ghost-hunter or witch-finder. Dangerous, but necessary work for keeping the darkness at bay and insuring that the local people of the County can be free from unruly harassment or worse from the ghosts and ghoulies prowling about.
This is a Young Adult story that moves at a good pace (after it gets going). The words are easy to digest for young readers and the occasional big word that comes around gets explained succinctly and in context. However, all this is contrasted with dark tonal themes. There are a few more visceral elements and descriptions that “up” the horror meter into a more mature level. Fans of the darker genres will delight in the real risks at stake: cannibalistic witches, missing limbs, and the typical creepy ghosts born of horrible tragedy. Some of the antagonists are down right scary (Mother Malkin is straight out of Terminator 2).
Also, the creepy settings that are done very well; I could really picture Ward’s struggles as he tangled with the various antagonists. The author does a good job of bringing this element in without going over the top. More sensitive readers might not care for the imagery, but many of us enjoy a scary tale now and again. So, I felt this element added in abundance to the narrative.
Another thing Delaney does, is develop a nice perspective for the protagonist. Traditions, methods, outcomes are all questioned. Right and wrong are not so simple to figure out—even when dealing with ghosts and witches (blood-witches at that!). Ward and his mentor are always conscious of the possible consequences of their actions, they seek to avoid undue cruelty less they find themselves acting just like those they are fighting against. Some of this is typical “Saturday morning cartoon” morality, which gets wrapped up a little too easily. However, I felt like the horror elements balanced this out, so that it didn’t always feel like things were being resolved too conveniently. Perhaps the tone is just right for the YA audience?
A particularly great character is that of “Alice.” She is a girl around Ward’s age who has been raised by witches, but is not quite a full convert. Ward is warned about her, but he is also told to follow his instincts. Alice provides great elements of mystery as we go along for the ride with the protagonist as he constantly wrestles with how much he should trust her. This seems to be setting up a long-standing conflict for books to come.
The world-building elements were also a nice touch. At times, it almost felt like the author was establishing rules for a future role-playing or table-top card game. I enjoyed learning about the different types of monsters that populated the County and looked forward to encountering them. I could see looking forward to reading other books and discovering even more. Ward’s mentor and his mother fill in back story in just the right amount and at just the right times (Always fun exploring new worlds without being overwhelmed). I also really enjoyed all the folklore learned by the apprentice—especially when his mentor explained the different methods that were available with dealing with the creepy-crawlies and things that go bump in the night.
I feel that this story is great for fantasy fans and those interested in dabbling in horror. The elements blend well. The story doesn’t get so deep as other great fantasy authors, but there is something really good here. Perfect for a Young Adult Audience.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, YouTube or our website.