I’ve had a copy of Joseph Delaney’s The Spook’s Apprentice for a couple of years now, and only remembered it last week, when I was digging through my shelves of TBR books for some books to read for Halloween. I remember I looked through a list of books that other Harry Potter fans were reading post-Harry Potter, and this book, the first in a series called The Wardstone Chronicles, came highly recommended.
I hadn’t planned on a Halloween theme for the 24-hour Readathon, but I got home late that day from seeing the Galeón de Andalucía at the South Harbor and had no time to pre-select books for the Readathon. Since the pile of scary books was already sitting on my desk, I just grabbed a bunch of them so I could sign up in the nick of time.
As the farm is traditionally inherited by the oldest son while the rest of the brood are enrolled in different trades, Tom comes of age for his apprenticeship, but his Mam has a different career path in mind for him: a Spook, which in this book is an all-purpose exorcist that the whole county turns to for troubles with ghosts, boggarts, witches, and other supernatural elements.
“The Spook’s trained many, but precious few completed their time. And those that did aren’t a patch on him. They’re flawed or weak or cowardly. They walk a twisted path taking money for accomplishing little. So there’s only you left now, son. You’re the last chance. The last hope. Someone has to do it. Someone has to stand against the dark. And you’re the only one who can,” his Mam tells him enigmatically.
Being the seventh son of a seventh son (believed to possess supernatural abilities invarious folklores), Tom has the innate ability for the job: the gift of second sight. He has misgivings, however, when he thinks about the lonely life of a Spook ahead of him, as Spooks are feared as much as the elements they banish.
Despite his reservations, Gregory joins the Spook for a trial apprenticeship, and it is soon after he starts when he gets tricked into freeing the most evil witch in the County: Mother Malkin.
When Mother Malkin and her coven begin to wreak havoc in the County, Gregory finds himself alone to defend it. Gregory must put to use what he has learned from the Spook, and forge some unlikely alliances in order to defeat the evil witch and restore peace in the County.
I loved the old-fashioned quaintness of this book, based largely on ye olde English folklore, particularly the Northwest, with references to folk traditions — binding a boggart to a heavy slab of stone and using iron and salt to ward off malevolent entities — and legends — the coven in this book appear to be based on the Pendle witches of 1612, who were subject to the most famous witch trials in history! It’s definitely no cutesy fantasy; there are moments, especially Tom’s first trial as the Spook’s apprentice, that are so terrifying I had to read the book with a night light under the covers!
I liked Tom’s character instantly; it’s hard not to sympathize with a thirteen year old who can’t help seeing terrifying spectres. He flubs up big time when he unintentionally frees Mother Malkin and wins the sympathy vote when he is determined to set things right. The Spook himself is a pleasant surprise; despite his gruff exterior, he’s a pretty nice guy, and he has a lot to teach Tom in the matters of Spook-ing. The witches are an interesting bunch too, and I suspect they’ll make a comeback in the next books, but the most interesting character in the book for me is Tom’s Mam, who seems to have a lot of dark secrets of her own.
For a first book, The Spook’s Apprentice is quite compelling, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
After I finished reading this book, I remembered I had another Joseph Delaney book somewhere and found The Last Apprentice: The Witch’s Revenge in one of my TBR shelves. I’ve been seeing the Last Apprentice series in the bookstores last year and always thought it was a second series, but it turned out the US edition of the same book!
I love the stark simplicity of the UK edition (and it’s hardcover too), so I was ready to give up the US edition, but I looked through it and found that the woodcut illustrations of the US edition are pretty nice, too.
And then I saw the bonus section in the back of the U.S. Edition: Tom’s journal (from the story), in which he writes what he learns from the Spook!
I don’t think I’ll find the rest of the UK editions here in the Philippines anyway, so I’ll “do a Blooey” as my book club friends call it, and keep both the UK and US editions of this book. Hopefully I can hunt down the rest of the series, at least the US edition, by Christmas.
The Spook’s Apprentice, hardcover with dustjacket and The Last Apprentice, trade paperback, 4.5/5 stars
Book #134 for 2010