The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney
Greenwillow, US ARC, 2005
Genre: Young adult, juvenalia, horror, thriller
Synopsis & Review: Thirteen-year-old Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son, and his father has run out of apprenticeships in which to place his sons. And then the Spook arrives. Spooks protect people and places from being overrun by things that go bump in the night, from boggarts to witches, and as the seventh son of a seventh son, Thomas has special talents that allow him to see–and deal with–the things that lurk in the dark. With the blessings of his family, especially his beloved but mysterious mother, Thomas goes out into the wide world with the Spook. His first test is to spend the night alone in a haunted house–and confront the thing in the cellar.
Once the test is passed, Thomas accompanies the Spook to his Summer House, where something invisible–and angry–does the housekeeping. There the Spook begins teaching Thomas his business, such as the differences between the many kinds of witches, and about the witches buried in the eastern garden. As he learns, Thomas wonders about the Spook’s many other apprentices before him, and how so many of them died. When the Spook goes to Pelham to take care of a problem, Thomas is left alone, and that’s when things go terribly awry. Children go missing, the infamously evil witch Mother Malkin escapes, and Thomas’ only friend may be involved.
I do love a good juvenile horror, and this series promises to deliver. I saw the handsome cover and promising title, and plucked this from a random book of discards from my stepmother’s house (she was in publishing, and her place is literally overflowing with books), figuring it might make a fast, fun read. Last night I decided to start it, reading a chapter or two before bed. But then I couldn’t stop, and I kept reading till I finished the book. How’s that for enthralling? Delaney’s pacing is excellent, and the story rattles along at high speed all the way through to the admittedly exciting conclusion; by the climactic confrontation, I was anxious, wondering just whom Mother Malkin would possess for her vengeance upon Thomas. And Alice! I worried constantly over whether she was trustworthy or evil. But I needn’t have feared, for Delaney respects his characters. Despite the occasional overt chauvinism, Delaney’s female characters are strong and capable. Thomas’ Mam is widely respected for her skills, Ellie is noted for her strength and love, and even the ambiguous Alice is clever and learned.But that is something I am interested in seeing Delaney develop over the course of the series. Is it just Old Gregory’s issue, or is this a worldwide attitude?
Delaney pulls few punches, using the elements of suicide, murder, infanticide, and cannibalism to create an ominous atmosphere that is both gruesome and chilling. The child’s experience of horror and dread are perfectly realized in a way that will speak to young readers, and the story itself has a dark, brooding tone that reads like a classic horror tale, blended with traditional folklore elements. (Actually, the whole book has a somber tone with very little humor, which may be to its detriment. I was charmed nonetheless, but other readers may not be.) Besides the cakes made with child’s blood and the knuckle bones of another apprentice, the frightening elements often have their basis in the fears of childhood–the things that go bump in the night, as they are described elsewhere in the novel–things that are unseen to most adults, even in the world of the County. This adds to the authenticity recognized by young readers. This is no patronizing or cutesy world like some others I might name. All will not end well for young Thomas, for as a Spook, he will be forever shunned by ordinary folk. And then there is the matter of the world growing darker … .
Though sometimes slight and episodic, Revenge of the Witch is a worthwhile addition to any YA library, especially younger readers interested in what lurks in the darkness. I will be reading the rest of the series. I’m so glad I added it to my RIP IV list!
Read also: Witches’ Children by Patricia Clapp, The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs, the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling
Cover: Fantastic woodcut-looking illustration of the Spook Old Gregory. He’s striding through a wintery graveyard, and it’s all very ominous and creepy.
“How will you know when it’s midnight?” he asked.
I shrugged. I was pretty good at guessing the time from the position of the sun or the stars, and if I ever woke in the middle of the night, I almost always knew exactly what time it was, but here I wasn’t so sure. In some places time seems to move more slowly, and I had a feeling that this old house would be one of them.
Suddenly I remembered the church clock. “It’s just gone seven,” I said. “I’ll listen for twelve chimes.”
“Well, at least you’re awake now,” the Spook said with a little smile. “When the clock strikes twelve, take the stub of the candle and use it to find your way down to the cellar. Until then, sleep if you can manage it. Now listen carefully–there are three important things to remember. Don’t open the front door to anyone, no matter how hard they knock, and don’t be late going down to the cellar.”
He took a step toward the front door.
“What’s the third thing?” I called out at the very last moment.
“The candle, lad. Whatever else you do, don’t let it go out.”