Friday, June 16, 2023

Read What You Love, Part 3 by Karen S. Wiesner

            Read What You Love, Part 3

by Karen S. Wiesner

In this three-part article, I talk about what conditions, if any, cultivate or discourage a love of the written word as well as about the importance of reading what you love, regardless of your age, the genre or content appropriateness, your gender, or what's considered your "level". In the last two segments, I'll also review two of my favorite Young Adult book series that any fan of the supernatural should love as I much as I do.

In the first part of this article, I talked about how, in the general sense, people should read what they're interested in. It doesn't matter if someone else dubs it above or below your proper reading level, too mature or immature, if it's in a genre that social convention says adults or kids shouldn't be reading, or if it's something most people think of as gender specific. A love of the written word transcends any boundaries. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Read what you love! In the second article, I provided an in-depth review of Brandon Mull's phenomenal Young Adult Fantasy series Fablehaven and its sequel Dragonwatch.

In this final installment, I'll review Joseph Delaney's Spooksworld, which is, in my opinion, the best Young Adult Fantasy multi-series in existence. Many people may have heard of this series based on the film adaptation that came out in 2015 called The Spook's Apprentice, which was adapted as a play script originally by the author's son. The film featured Ben Barnes playing Tom Ward (he also played Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia film series), Jeff Bridges as John Gregory, Julianne Moore as Mother Malkin, and Kit Harington (yes, John Snow from HBO's Game of Thrones) as Billy Bradley, among many others. My opinion (which may not mean a lot) is that this movie didn't even come close to capturing the magic found in the books. I find it difficult to watch, honestly, because it was such a poor adaptation of what could have been nothing short of amazing, had the books been followed much closer.

Spooksworld began as a dark fantasy novel saga written by Joseph Delaney. Three separate series comprise this "arc" that includes Thomas "Tom" Ward as a central character in each. In this fictional world, the seventh son of a seventh son (and sometimes the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter) is a unique being equipped above all other humans to sense the supernatural and become a defender against "the Dark", which can include all manner of beasties like ghost, witches, boggarts, and demons. Such a fighting master is referred to as a "Spook".

Before I dive into this unique world, I'll point out that Joseph Delaney is a British author and all of the Spooksworld books were originally published in the UK by The Bodley Head division of Random House Publishing (which is now Penguin Random House). That said, it'll make more sense to explain that the three separate Spooksworld series have different names (for pities' sake, sometimes more than one for each!) in the UK and the US, and that includes the titles in the differing series names also being changed. So I'll start with a basic listing of the original series name and title differences between the UK and the US. You can find out more at the author's website:

In the United States, the original series that began with Tom Ward being apprenticed to the County Spook John Gregory is called The Last Apprentice Series, with the following titles available:

Revenge of the Witch (Book 1)

Curse of the Bane (Book 2)

Night of the Soul Stealer (Book 3)

Attack of the Fiend (Book 4)

Wrath of the Bloodeye (Book 5)

Clash of the Demons (Book 6)

Rise of the Huntress (Book 7)

Rage of the Fallen (Book 8)

Grimalkin the Witch Assassin (Book 9)

Lure of the Dead (Book 10)

Slither (Book 11)

I Am Alice (Book 12)

Fury of the Seventh Son (Book 13)

In the UK it's called The Spook's Series and the individual titles are shortened considerably to:

Apprentice (Book 1)

Curse (Book 2)

Secret (Book 3)

Battle (Book 4)

Mistake (Book 5)

Sacrifice (Book 6)

Nightmare (Book 7)

Destiny (Book 8)

I Am Grimalkin (Book 9)

Blood (Book 10)

Slither’s Tale (Book 11)

Alice (Book 12)

Revenge (Book 13)

Just to make this as confusing as possible, this same series has also been referred to as The Tom/Thomas Ward Chronicles or The Wardstone Chronicles. In French, strangely, it's called L'apprenti L'Épouvanteur, which means "The Scarecrow's Apprentice". Either that's poorly translated or "Spook's" is simply not a word that can be grasped in the French language. Go figure.

In any case, there are also several interconnected offerings to this original series that are occasionally included with further (seemingly conflicting) book numbers in the series. These include: A stand-alone story called Seventh Apprentice, which is an introduction to the series that has an earlier apprentice, Will Johnson, left to fend for himself while his master is away. Bestiary (also called The Guide to Creatures of the Dark), which is a practical record of dealing with the Dark and features John Gregory's personal account of "the denizens " he's encountered, combined with his lessons learned and mistakes made. Short stories are also combined with different stories with varying titles in the UK and US in collections, namely Grimalkin's Tale, Witches, The Spook's Tale and Other Horrors, and A Coven of Witches. Finally, a fun little scary story set in the same world is called The Ghost Prison.

Tom Ward is just a boy when John Gregory comes to claim him as an apprentice. Tom's mother promised her seventh son of a seventh son to the local Spook, who's more than a little cranky and irascible. Though Tom isn't sure about being apprenticed to a hard man like this, he dutifully leaves with the Spook, resigned to being apprenticed by him. Soon, he discovers that most of the man's previous apprentices failed, fled, or were killed in the process of learning the ropes of fighting the Dark. Not surprisingly, Spooks are feared and shunned everywhere…you know, up until ordinary people have need of their unique abilities.

Everything Tom faces as the plot progresses from one book to the next makes for chilling conflict and soul reflection. The uncertain but morally grounded boy grows into a young man changed not only by those he meets, the creatures he fights, and the mystical skills he possesses but by his own convictions about his place in the world.

Seeing Tom mature and become powerful, embracing his role of responsibility to the County he serves, his master, his family, and the world at large was a fascinating byplay of shades of gray. On the surface, as this saga progresses, a hero could easily be a villain while just as easily a former monster may end up becoming an ally. Light and dark coexist, and no one is really what they seem here. My favorite characters can't really be short-listed because there are so many intriguing ones, but those that stand out to me would include Tom first and foremost; his master; his parents and family; Alice Deane, the young witch Tom is warned early on not to trust; the former apprentices of John Gregory who serve in other parts of the world, Bill Arkwright and Judd Brinscall; Grimalkin, the Malkin witch assassin who has many faces, and her apprentice Thorne; and finally Meg, John Gregory's former lover, who lives in his winter house.

When I discovered the first book in the series, I bought all the subsequent ones in one fell swoop, including the miscellaneous bonus offerings. I read them compulsively over the course of about a week, barely sleeping because I was so enthralled, wanting to know what would happen to Tom and his master John Gregory. While there is a point where the books slow down and things are all moving in one direction (toward the defeat of the arch villain, the Fiend, which I didn't find quite as interesting as previous enemies), I've still read the series multiple times. After completing it the first time and feeling sad that there weren't more books about Tom Ward, I went searching for follow-up and discovered that there was indeed a spinoff series to be had.

With the conclusion of the original series in 2013, the author started a spinoff trilogy in 2014 with The Starblade Chronicles (the UK versions go by "Spook's" with the same individual titles) that follows the continued adventures of Tom Ward. The apprentice is now the master Spook, responsible for fighting the evil threatening the County and the surrounding world. The three books include A New Darkness (Book 1), The Dark Army (Book 2), and The Dark Assassin (Book 3).

Tom is now 17 but he never finished his apprenticeship as a Spook. Nevertheless, the County needs his unique skills more than ever and there is no one else willing or able to do what he can. To further complicate his life, a young girl named Jenny, a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, comes, asking to be his apprentice. Never before has a girl been a Spook, and Tom isn't sure how to feel about it. Yet Jenny has vital information and knowledge that he needs to defeat a new evil threatening humanity. Like it or not, he has to take a chance on her.

Returning to Tom's life after the events of the original series was a thrill for me. I wasn't disappointed, but I was very surprised by a lot of the changes in store that weren't ideal and weren't necessarily what I would have hoped for in a spinoff. However, I enjoyed these books very much, read them just as voraciously as the original series, but I will say I was blindsided by the events in the conclusion. As a tremendous fan of the series, I wasn't entirely happy with the outcome and resolution either. Luckily for me, it wasn't actually the end of Tom's story, though fans of the series did have to wait nearly three years before the author brought back our most beloved Spook.

In 2020, Tom Ward, Alice, and other series favorites returned in a new spinoff series, Brother Wulf, which includes four offerings: Brother Wulf (Book 1), Wulf's Bane (Book 2), The Last Spook (Book 3), and Wulf's War (Book 4, coming 8/17/23).

A young novice monk, Brother Beowulf, is being manipulated and sent by the church to spy on Spook Johnson, who takes Wulf along on his monster battles. After Spook Johnson is captured by one of the very creatures he was supposed to be eliminating, Wulf has no choice but to seek out Tom Ward's help. In this spinoff series, Wulf is the main character, while Tom is the secondary, though still a major protagonist. As with the young Tom Ward in the original series, I was charmed by Wulf, who isn't tainted by the evil that plagues the world around him. He remains pure and determined to do good in a world with so many contradictory players. But Wulf is more than he seems, just as this author's characters always prove to be in the end, and that makes him another hero to root for.

Those new to these books may not realize that Joseph Delaney was battling illness while he was writing the last few books in this series. I'd read all three of the first offerings in it. (Incidentally, I had to purchase Book 3 from Blackwell's booksellers in the UK because it wasn't available in the US, nor do I believe it is even now.) I went to the author's website to find out when the conclusion to the series would be released, and it was there that I was devastated to learn Joseph Delaney lost his battle. The third story ended on a cliffhanger with no satisfactory resolution. It took a long time to resign myself to the fact that I would never learn the conclusion of such a wonderful saga. But then, while I was researching for this review, I discovered that a fourth book would be released posthumously August 2023, on the anniversary of the author's death. Wulf's War was apparently the last book Delaney wrote. I hope this final book provides an ideal conclusion to the series, though I will be more understanding, given how hard it must have been for the author to write this one.

I've also read Delaney's Aberrations series, another dark fantasy sequence, that currently has two installments. I actually talked to the author several years ago (before the Brother Wulf series was published), asking him if more books would follow in that series. I believe he was writing more, but he said that the publisher hadn't yet committed to releasing the next. I'm strongly hoping this series will also be finished at some point in the future, but I don't expect that will be the case. I'll be devastated, since Crafty and his friends may never defeat the evil mist that brought the aberration monsters to their world. Naturally, I'll blame the publisher. I've written a note to those responsible for the upkeep of his website, requesting information about potential future offerings in the series. We'll see if I get a response.

As I said early in this article series, I discovered Spooksworld as a 30-something year old adult and would have missed it (and been the worse for it) and so many others if I cared a whit about maturity, appropriateness, genre, and level classifications when it comes to selecting my reading material.

Life is too short to read only what's expected of you. Instead, make the most of the remaining years you have exploring an entire universe of wonderful reading material available to you.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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