open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
“What a surprise!” was my first thought reading The Spook’s Mistake, the sixth in Joseph Delaney’s horror series Wardstone Chronicles. It gave us – and its hero Thomas Ward – a huge change of pace and environment. Delaney transported us to ‘north of Caster’, where Tom goes on with life post-The Fiend’s entry into the world.
The biggest surprise for me, immediately upon reading the first chapter, is that the dangers in the life of a Spook’s apprentice doesn’t only come from beings from hell. If you think that we’re going to completely waddle in the terrifying waters of supernatural horror for the entire book, think again. The Spook’s Mistake begins with a terror of the most human kind: a press gang captured Tom in order to recruit him for the army and planned to desert afterwards. Tom’s career as a Spook’s apprentice could be over, not because of a witch or a boggart might drink his blood, but because he was a fit young man needed to lift weapons and fight against the enemy.
The opening should be taken as a warning: this book is another on in the Chronicles that dealt not only with the supernatural, but also with humanity. Fittingly enough, the reason why Tom went north was to train with another Spook – Bill Arkwright – who was once John Gregory’s apprentice as well. Master Gregory often sent his current apprentices to train with Arkwright, who had a different teaching style and an altogether different temperament from Old Gregory. This meant that Tom had to learn to adjust to a new living situation in Arkwright’s creepy mill, where ghosts resided and were not at peace and nothing was done about it. He also had to learn to adjust to learning things the hard way, because Arkwright was no softie. He even made the surly Gregory appear like the most cheerful and benevolent teachers!
The most interesting part of this new mentor-pupil dynamic is imagining how their relationship could be applied in the modern real world setting of our everyday life. See, in the real world, a teacher like Arkwright – one who pushed his student into the water so that the student could learn to swim on the spot – could get sued so fast before he could even say “guilty!” Whereas Gregory’s harsh ways never went into the real of physical abuse, Arkwright’s ‘teaching by doing’ methods would probably break the more indulged youth of today. Luckily, this story is wholly fictional and Tom survived his encounter and, although he would’ve loved to sue Arkwright’s arse right off the bat, he was only made stronger by the experience. Which was good, because he needed to toughen up to fight the Fiend.
Arkwright as a character is a very colorful one. As someone with a sad, bitter past, he became a Spook because he thought learning the trade would help him deal with the ghosts of his parents. When that didn’t work, he ran away to join he military. Delaney depicted that ‘drill sergeant’ side of his personality in the most entertaining ways – take a look his first lesson for Tom, for example. He joked about eating a water witch and then showed him a water witch in a pit under the house. His system was to give a number of years of prison sentences for the witch in a pit before finally killing his captives and having animals eat the witch’s heart so that the witch couldn’t return. It was brutal, of course, but Tom’s reaction to Arkwright’s ‘ruthless edge’, as he called it, made for a fun read.
Less fun, though, was when Tom had to deal with the reason for Arkwright’s demeanor. Halfway through the book, when Arkwright took Tom hunting for a water witch named Morwena that sounded dreadful (and disgusting), the Spook finally made his mistake: he drank too much and lost his sense and sensibilities (not that he had any to begin with). And once again we are reminded of the entirely human problem of alcoholism. Since there doesn’t seem to be any AA meetings in the County, Arkwright’s problem almost cost him and Tom their lives. There was a powerful scene Delaney wrote when Arkwright started drinking carelessly in a pub. The embarrassment Tom felt for having a master such as Arkwright was reminiscent of how, as children, we can be totally embarrassed by our parents’ behavior in public. That one scene struck a chord and convinced me that the biggest evil that humans can face is our own human nature.
On the supernatural side of things, though, Morwena still posed a great threat to Tom. It was revealed that she was the daughter of the Fiend and thus begins a new lore about the Fiend’s children.
The spawns of Evil is not just a major subplot in the story but it also becomes a foreshadowing of things to come in the next books. Grimalkin the witch assassin, as it turned out, had borne the Fiend a son. A human son, no less, but because the Fiend wanted a monstrous child like Morwena, he callously killed his own child. Shockingly – or not so shockingly (I wasn’t all that shocked, because I was expecting something completely f*cked up to happen when it came to this character) – Alice was not Alice Deane at all. She was Alice Fiend.
How Alice could be the daughter of the Fiend, I didn’t even want to know. I just felt that of course she had to be related to the Devil himself and Tom, you poor unlucky sod. It was inevitable that Tom would have a best friend/possible love interest that was bound to the Dark, in even worse ways than Mab Mouldheel was. The silver lining was John Gregory’s reaction was yet again a delight to read. He was apoplectic! And I simply laughed – and cried at the same time – at his reaction. The impossibility and the audacity of the idea… now that was shocking.
Still, all’s well that ends (relatively!) well for now. The dangers the Spooks, Tom and Alice faced passed, reaching a conclusion that once again could be described as “it’s over now at least”. I love how Delaney never stopped to make the story convenient or comfortable for anyone. Not for Tom, not for Gregory and not even for us the readers. I could say that I never read a series of books that is so enticing and yet so utterly repulsive at the same time. Reading the Wardstone Chronicles have made me question my taste in reading lately: why am I attracted to such miseries? Why am I invested in this universe where there’s almost no happy moments?
I think I can almost pinpoint it to how Delaney made his characters utterly relatable – mostly with Tom’s attitude. The way he often adopts the attitude of “I don’t want to do this but I have to because who else is going to do it?” (which is basically how all Spooks operate) makes him a very effective hero. Even more so than other heroic kids in young adult series, Tom is not smug, self-involved or over-confident. He’s just Tom Ward and he does what he can. And when he does make a mistake, he owns up to it… and comes out all the more heroic, even when he never said anything about feeling that way. That’s some subtle writing. And I adore it.
The Spook’s Mistake has entered my Top 5 favorites in the series. I can’t wait to find out which other ones can stay with it on the top of the list.