Joseph Delaney,
The Last Apprentice #1: Revenge of the Witch
(Greenwillow, 2005)

It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. A Spook lays ghosts to rest, traps witches and boggarts, and deals with any other supernatural threats that arise in the County. In return for his services, a Spook becomes a perpetual outsider, as feared as he is needed.

Enter Thomas Ward, the 13-year-old seventh son of a seventh son and the last in a long line of apprentices to Old Gregory. Taken on by his gruff new master, Thomas soon finds himself in a world filled with unexplained but absolute rules: Learn the difference between waking and dreaming. Don't come down to breakfast before the bell. And watch out for girls with pointy shoes.

Before long, Thomas gives a rash promise to Alice, a pretty girl with pointy shoes, and makes several interesting discoveries about the residents of his master's house and lands, benevolent and otherwise. Let's just say the learning curve is pretty sharp. By the end of his first few weeks with Old Gregory, Thomas is waist deep in supernatural trouble and beginning to understand why previous apprentices didn't make it.

Thomas is an engagingly imperfect protagonist and narrator with plenty of pluck, but he's outshone by the enigmatic characters around him. There's taciturn Old Gregory, with his speckled past; Alice, who makes an art of moral ambiguity; and even Thomas's own mother, who is more than she seems. Rather than heroes and villains, Joseph Delaney's characters are dynamic, complex individuals whose stories are only hinted at in this first book.

Subtlety aside, the pace is breakneck, the woodcuts genuinely creepy and the world considerably darker than the usual quasi-medieval setting. The writing is deft, descriptive and relies more on imagination than gore to send chills up the spine. I picked up Revenge of the Witch at bedtime, expecting to flip idly through and put it down after a chapter or two. I was up until 1 a.m.

There are some pleasures that carry over to adulthood, and a well-crafted, intelligent horror story that entertains while terrifying is definitely one of them. Unlike many series, Revenge of the Witch stands alone as far as its main story arc goes. It doesn't matter -- you'll be desperate for the next one anyway.

review by
Jennifer Mo

19 September 2009

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