open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
Four books in the Wardstone Chronicles and Tom Ward has finally met his match. Also, this was the one book that I nearly didn’t finish, mostly because of the gruesome, disgusting things that I found in it. I wish I could hate Joseph Delaney, but all I feel is grudging admiration for writing horror that could really freak me out since the days of Stephen King.
(For your information, I don’t read King anymore. It had something to do with the nightmares he gave me when I was a teenager. I don’t know if Delaney is going to end up the same way. I don’t want to give up on him. But wow, this book really challenged me.)
And the story goes like this: Master Gregory and his apprentice Tom Ward now must deal with the witch clans of Pendle. There were three: the Malkins, the Deanes and the Mouldheels. If the three of them should combine their forces on a witches’ sabbath, they could summon the Devil himself. Which, of course, is exactly what they were trying to do.
There’s a lot more politics involved, even to summon the greatest Evil ever known in the County. The Malkins and the Deanes were known allies – our beloved little witch that could Alice was born of both families, although predictably her parents hadn’t exactly got along. (When Alice described how they used to fight, butterflies flew – aggressively – around my stomach. The way she kept saying that the fighting wasn’t all that bad? It was gut-wrenching. Psychologically, that’s messed up. But that’s just me, perhaps.) Meanwhile, the Mouldheels were the enemy of the other two clans… and they weren’t exactly running toward the Malkins and the Deanes to help them raise this Devil. Behind them, there was an instigating figure that provoked the clans into taking action of the utmost villainy: a witch named Wurmalde, said to be Tom’s Mam’s enemy of old.
The Spook and his apprentice started out being helped by Father Stocks, a former apprentice of Gregory’s (on that note, I’m excited to see more of them showing up). Alice, too, pitched in and tried to spy on her relatives for information to give Tom and Gregory intel on the witches. She was very helpful but it soon became clear that getting rid of the witches from Pendle, as Gregory intended, was never going to be a reality. Their poor luck was exacerbated by Wurmalde’s ‘mind trickery’ over government officials who didn’t believe in ‘Spook matters’ but also didn’t want witches to infest the land. Needless to say, they became some of the casualties in this increasingly bleak tale.
As if Tom didn’t have enough enemies, the Malkins and the Deanes created a being called Tibb – a creature expert at scrying (which is a type of prophecy, telling the future, using mirrors) – that Wurmalde brought to attack Tom. It is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard. Ever.
“Last Halloween the Malkins called a truce with the Deanes, and both covens got together to make Tibb. Put a big boar’s head in a cauldron and cooked it. Boiled off all the pig flesh and brains and made it into brawn. Each member of the covens spat into it thirteen times. Then they fed it to a sow. Seven months or so later they slit open the sow’s belly, and out crawled Tibb. Ain’t got much bigger since, but he’s stronger than a fully grown man.”
Cauldron-cooked boar head? Spit-flavored brawn? And the sow had to eat all of it? Poor pig! And poor me, because I can never un-know this process. And poor Tom, because he faced this creature alone, without any adult to accompany him, and survived. If that doesn’t cement Tom Ward as the most badass teenage evil-fighter evr I don’t know what will.
But I think the greatest injustice done to Tom in this book was the betrayal of his own family. The Malkins and the Deanes launched their act of terror by stealing Tom’s Mam’s trunks from the room in the Ward’s farm that she had left for him. We know from the last book that only Tom and Alice were allowed to set foot in the room, and that using the room – although it granted the safest protection possible – had its cost. But not only did the Malkins and the Deanes managed to locate the trunks in the room, they were also able to make Tom’s brother Jack to do the deed. I’m still unclear as to how Jack managed to do it (an illicit copy of the key to the room was made, perhaps, and because Jack shared Tom’s blood, he managed to get in anyway?) but he paid the price because his brain stopped working properly afterwards.
Jack’s betrayal was unexpected. He was coerced to open the room and steal the trunks, yes, but Delaney also implied that Jack had already had a key made to open the room, because he was jealous of Mam’s preferential treatment to Tom. I tried to see it from his point of view – yes, Mam was rather single-minded in providing for Tom, but Jack should’ve known that she did it because of Tom’s trade, shouldn’t he? It didn’t help when Brother No. 2, James, appeared in the story and showed more understanding toward Tom’s situation and his relationship with Mam. Jack’s faults became even more glaring. I felt sorry for how his family suffered from the witches’ treatment but I couldn’t feel sorry for how he broke down mentally. What Jack did deserved punishment and the loss of his sanity was the right price to pay.
Then again, I relish these intricate web of entanglements between Delaney’s characters. It’s what makes the series a very adult one despite being geared towards a younger audience. There’s a huge grey area when it comes to everyone. I’m not going to point at Alice because she’s obviously still ambiguous at this point of the story but let’s look at Ellie. She was naive to think that by asking Tom and Alice not to come into the house, she would be safe from evil. I feel for her, especially since she lost her unborn baby (although that was never elaborated) and her daughter was also captured by the witches, but her fear made her unreasonable at times and I don’t like how she keeps Tom’s at arm’s length.
Another interesting example is Mab Mouldheel, the leader of the third clan who captured Tom for her own gains. She was first an enemy, turned ally, and finally ended up as a true villain… all because of a perceived rejection from Tom? I couldn’t decide if she was a ballsy and ambitious young witch, or if she was just plain stupid because she should know it would never be THAT simple between a Spook’s apprentice and a witch. But maybe that was how Delaney wanted the readers to see her: a person who’s clever, but definitely not sane enough to be liked, and yet, an entertaining character to read about.
Reading Spook’s Battle can be a challenge for anyone who wants a plain adventure story because there are so many lessons, actions and revelations packed in one binding. Added with those entanglements that I explained earlier, this is perhaps one of the most complex books in the Chronicles that I’ve read so far. You’d think that a book that pitched Tom against creepy creatures and bespelled bureaucrats was going to be thrilling. It is that, I admit, but it’s also hard to read. It never feels like we’re given any room to breathe by Delaney, who kept the plot tight and going at a running pace ever since the characters set foot in Pendle. It’s also unapologetic in heaping the horrors of a Spook’s trade, which makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to be one. Even a person with a high sense of duty (like Tom) would think – and they should! – more than twice to accept an apprenticeship to a master Spook if it meant dealing with these horrific things.
Tough book to read. Even the characters and elements that were set up to foreshadow the next books (witch assassin Grimalkin, anybody?) that usually excite me and keep me guessing didn’t stop me from feeling utterly relieved that this story was over and done with. On the one hand, it was an epic story that threw down the gauntlet for all other horror stories in a similar genre. But on another, it was also a challenging read that makes you wonder how Delaney is ever going to top this. Then again, I hope I don’t have to go anything as nightmare-inducing as this story ever again.