The Spook’s Apprentice – Joseph Delaney
A few weeks ago, me and two of my NaNoWriMo friends, Jacki and Angela, went to a writers’ event where various people gave lectures and readings. We all agreed that Conrad Jones’s lecture, which was full of useful information on self publishing, was worth the admission price on its own; but another particularly good part was Joseph Delaney talking about his young-adult Spooks series. He talked about the background of the books themselves, and how he came up with some of the ideas, and the fact that a movie based on his books will soon be released. Delaney noted that Hollywood had changed quite a bit of his original vision: for example, the title of the film is Seventh Son (does anyone else feel that sounds far less interesting than The Spook’s Apprentice?); the hero is considerably older than at the start of the book series; and the villainous witch Mother Malkin, who is wizened, ugly and barely human in the books, is portrayed onscreen by Julianne Moore. I was definitely left with a desire to read the books (Jacki already had, and recommended them). Now that I’ve both finished the first book and watched the trailer for the film, I understand why some more dedicated fans might not be happy. Obviously the trailer isn’t the final word, but it makes it look like a pretty generic fantasy film – which is a shame because the book certainly isn’t generic, at least for the most part.
The story takes place at some undefined point in the olden days, in an area that’s supposed to be Lancashire. Our narrator is a teenager named Thomas Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, a fact that gives him the ability to sense the supernatural. This qualifies him to begin training to become a Spook, who protects people from such threats as witches, ghosts and boggarts. Tom is taken under the wing of the local Spook – and as you might expect, events conspire to ensure he won’t have an easy start to his new role.
First, the good stuff. It’s definitely a very atmospheric story with a genuinely spooky feel; the scene where Tom is forced to spend several hours in a haunted house as a test for the Spook is especially good in this regard. It actually works better for being vague about when exactly it’s taking place; this not only makes it feel more like a fantasy, but adds some extra murkiness and isolation to the whole thing, which obviously fits in well for a series about things that go bump in the night. Delaney is very imaginative with his usage of various creatures (I particularly like the use of ghosts and ghasts, and the signs that the Spook uses to label a haunted area), and where any supernatural rules are concerned, he keeps it fairly simple and doesn’t get bogged down in details like some other fantasy books do.
The main character, Tom, is the best-handled of all the characters: he’s a nice boy who acts like somebody his age ought to act, and he makes understandable mistakes, though the Spook sometimes seems a bit too patient with him when he does. The Spook himself is also good, a mysterious figure of authority with some hidden depths that occasionally make their way to the surface.
Not everything works, however. The plot as a whole feels disjointed: there’s one or two points where it feels like it should be coming to a close but then keeps on going, with the result that the “climax” feels rather anticlimactic. There are three primary villainous characters, and the story doesn’t spend enough time on each of them: it’s not really clear what they want, except to kill the hero. Then there’s Alice, a sidekick to one of the villains, who’s supposed to be a conflicted figure caught between good and evil: Delaney tries hard with Alice, and the conflict is there, but some of it feels quite forced and cliche – maybe it’s better in later books. Some of the prose feels unnatural as well, although maybe that can be excused by the fact that a relatively uneducated teenage boy is our narrator.
I did enjoy The Spook’s Apprentice, but not enough to delve into the rest of the series right away. I’ve got quite a bit of backlog at the moment where reading is concerned, anyway. Rating: 3.5/5.