open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
This review consists the first story in The Wardstone Chronicles by Joseph Delaney, with its American title, The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch (Book 1). The review for the second story, Curse of the Bane (Book 2), that is also included in this movie tie-in edition, is reviewed here.
For some reason, the American publisher (HarperCollins) released the movie tie-in edition with those two stories mashed in one book. I suspect it is because the movie Seventh Son (released in January this year in Indonesia) sourced several of the Last Apprentice books in its script. The film doesn’t help any publisher publishing the tie-in edition make sense of the sequence of the series; it includes part of the books but not in any clear order.
In addition, this review will also refer to the film and make plenty of comparisons between both. Be aware that there are probably spoilers for both film and book.
From the get-go it’s already very clear that the Seventh Son movie have no idea what it’s doing. The three names credited for developing and writing the screenplay for the film (Charles Leavitt, Steven Knight and Matt Greenberg) seem to miss the point of the book entirely and instead made a play for the most generic fantasy adventure film geared towards young adult audiences in the cinema. When this happens, the cynic film ‘critic’ in me always suspect the studio for interfering with the way a story is adapted and told on screen. Perhaps there was pressure from studio execs to make the story as accessible as possible for children and teenagers to keep the rating low.
It’s a bizarre move considering that Book 1 of the Wardstone Chronicle series is an actual full-fledged horror story about ghosts and witches. Thomas Ward, the 13-year-old seventh son of a seventh son, was apprenticed to a Spook named John Gregory, who ‘supervises’ supernatural happenings in the County (which, if you can bother to Google, is based on Lancashire in England). Tom, the latest in a long line of apprentices to the Spook, also happens to be the son of a (suspected) witch and his mother has high hopes on him. The apprenticeship and profession of a Spook already weigh young Tom down because of people’s suspicion and mistrust of their work, but for Tom, there’s additional pressure from his family. His mom means well but in the real world, her encouragement to Tom might seem like placing unrealistic expectations to a 13-year-old child.
That’s why the danger in the book feels very real. Told from Tom’s point of view, we can feel the character’s fears, anxiety and horror at the things he must face as a Spook’s apprentice. One of his first tests as an apprentice is to go down to a haunted cellar in an abandoned house and face the lingering spirits that inhabit the decrepit space. Author Delaney describes this haunting, and many other besides, very vividly, painting a chilling picture that would make your goosebumps rise. Everything feels more harrowing and urgent in this opening tale in the saga – most of the time I feel like I should rescue Tom myself because I wouldn’t want any child to suffer that way.
As the title suggests, the book is heavily focused on witches. Once Tom and his master go to Chippenden, where the Spook lives, he is plunged into the mad, sad world of imprisoning witches and boggarts by way of precise masonry. That he has to study Latin in order to read books on the Spooks trade is tough enough, but he then also has to deal with digging pits to make those prisons – an activity that has already cost the life of another apprentice. Master Gregory is no sunshine and rainbow on a good day at the park either; he is a surly companion for one so young, and a hard taskmaster. Like Tom, I find it hard to believe when Tom’s mother said that his teacher could also be his friend. When Gregory starts to warn him about girls with pointy shoes, however, well… you can bet that more trouble will follow.
Enter Alice. She who is Trouble with capital T – bold, italic, underline. A more inconvenient acquaintance there can never be for Tom Ward. Thanks to her, he faces even greater horrors than before, one that involves bodily harm, near cannibalism and possibly psychological trauma. For Alice led Tom to the attention of Mother Malkin, the titular witch of the story who was imprisoned by Gregory a long time ago but managed to escape her pit. Tom beat her once, but his first efforts weren’t even enough. She followed him home and put his family in danger. Granted, she finally met her pitiful (and gory) ending in a fitting manner that couldn’t be even more justified even if Delaney tried, but I have a feeling that she will come back to haunt Tom again.
Which is to say that the book successfully created a villain that the movie instead glamourized by hiring Julianne Moore for the role. Yes, the attraction of a big named actress will sell the movie, and Ms Moore is a wonderful artist, but the movie’s version of Malkin is not who she really is from the book… Movie Malkin is beautiful, whereas Book Malkin is terrifying. As far as villains go, the former can never hope to beat her literary counterpart. I could possibly forgive them hiring an older actor (Ben Barnes) to play Tom Ward but, now that I know what the witch is like, it seems like her movie portrayal is an insult to the book version. We all know that a good-and-evil story depends as much on the villain as it does on the hero, so clearly none of the filmmakers got that memo and completely bungled up this striking character so completely it’s embarrassing.
Delaney, however, never misses a spot in the book. For a first book in a chronicle of thirteen, this is a very good start. It’s an edgy fairy tale of the supernatural, with mythical creatures that sound familiar but originally crafted to suit this world, and a new world that competes competently with the likes of Hogwarts and Middle-earth. It doesn’t bring a lot of laughs and therefore readers have to expect a certain kind of gloom throughout the series, but the writing is engaging, the (non-detailed) period setting and dialogue convincing and the horror elements very disturbing.
I’m officially impressed and cannot wait for more.