open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
Just when I thought I’d read it all…
After The Spook’s Battle – fourth in the Wardstone Chronicles – I thought, “Well, there you go. Tom’s life as he knew it is over. This is the most horrible, terrifying situation anybody could deal with and let’s hope things get better for him.” In my review of that book, I wrote that I hoped to never read anything as nightmare-inducing as that book ever again. Two books later, Joseph Delaney is making me eat my words.
It’s not that The Spook’s Sacrifice – sixth in the series – is all that terrible. No, really, when you compare this one to The Spook’s Battle, there are still more terror and horror to be found in that one instead of this. The story of Tom’s journey in Battle was tougher to read, the changes in his life more sad and all situations seemed more dire. But Book 6, especially with a title like that, is definitely the game changing one.
If there’s a way I would liken this book to anything that would be instantly relatable for the mainstream audience, this is the Avengers Assemble edition of Wardstone Chronicles. That is, if the Avengers were made up of Spooks, Spook apprentices, a non-witch, a group of real witches, a dozen or so mercenaries and a mythological creature with one of the saddest life stories ever. In short: Mam is back in the County and she needs all the help she can get to conquer her archenemy, the Old God(dess) Ordeen, in her homeland. So not only does she call upon her own son and his Master, she also calls upon the witches of Pendle that had nearly killed her firstborn and his family in the fourth book. Ah, the Ward family saga continues…
The Spook’s Sacrifice is a book laden with grey. Nothing of the fifty shades kind, but we’re talking about grey area the size of, well, an entire continent. Everywhere you step, everything you read, it’s all happening in a grey area that could send John Gregory to his early grave. And it nearly did! Although, luckily, it wasn’t nearly so bad as that… it just nearly severed his relationship with Tom Ward.
Poor Tom (I say that a lot, don’t I?) had to deal with torn loyalties. On the one side, he still wanted to become an apprentice to the Spook. So he understood what his Mam was doing was questionable at best and “are you out of your f*cking mind, Mom?!” at worst. And yet, Mam was family and Tom – raised with the best of manners by his parents – needed to be loyal to the woman who gave birth to him.
You’re probably wondering about what it was that Mam was making her son do. She asked Tom to give a cup of his blood to the Ordeen so he could gain an audience with the Old God while Mam prepared to fight her off to the death. Essentially, she was asking her son – a ‘warrior of the Light’, as one might call him – to give himself to the Dark. Less explicitly, she was also asking Tom to work together with witches – his former enemies, including Grimalkin and the Mouldheel sisters – in order to defeat the Ordeen. It was as if she was tolerating these creatures of the Dark for her own purpose and gain, and dragging her son into it. Which was why Mam and Gregory didn’t start this book by being friends.
I wasn’t feeling very friendly toward Mam in the beginning either. Alliance with the witches aside, I was pretty angry at the way she easily reentered her sons’ life (because of course she visited the farm where Jack, Ellie and James lived) and made terrible demands on them. It was bad enough that Jack was made to feel like he was the unfavored son (he is a flawed character) but the way she allowed witches to even come near Jack’s farm because she needed their favor, in my eyes, was nothing short of betrayal. No wonder Jack turned bitter and was often hostile at Tom – he had to deal with a crazy mother after all. But then the way she expected Tom to help her – and knowing that Tom couldn’t refuse her – made her even more unsympathetic as the story rolled.
It wasn’t until we discover her true identity (long story short: she was Lamia. The Lamia. The original one.) that I sort of changed my mind about the character. This is the first time in the series that I felt like Delaney turned the tables on me – by revealing that Mam was originally a murderous creature that turned good because of love and family. That she had finally achieved redemption. Or at least, that redemption was possible in this very dark saga about monsters and demons and the people who fight them. By making Mam the first redeemed character in the series, who was forced to then revert to Dark ways for ‘the greater good’, it showed Delaney’s ability to create characters that are not just two-dimensional. In fact, I admire the way he managed to write Mam as a character not entirely revealed in the end, but with just enough clarity to make us understand her, while retaining some of her mystique. That’s hard to do but Delaney pulled it off.
The rest of the book was more or less the story of Tom and his companions’ journey to Greece on a ship – which provided another fresh change of scene and a completely different terrain for Tom to adventure in – and how they dealt with the Ordeen’s threat. There’s a lot of lore involved here and I would never be able to fit all of them in one review. Let’s just say nobody wouldn’t want to be caught with a maenad assassin anywhere in the world and fire elementals are just as equally ghastly and deadly as water witches.
My only problem with The Spook’s Sacrifice was that the Fiend showed up again to steal the show from the Ordeen. There was a connection between these two evil beings but it was rather flimsy. And what the Fiend did to Tom – bargained to save Tom’s life in exchange for Tom’s soul – was infinitely more worrisome than what the Ordeen could have done. For all that Mam was telling us that the Ordeen was a formidable enemy, she was still not as evil as the Fiend. Perhaps it was intentional – the Fiend was at large and therefore it wouldn’t be out of place for him to show in Greece – but I still found myself wrinkling my nose at the idea of him showing up again and again. It just lessened the effect of the Ordeen’s threat to the world by having him appear in this book.
But in the end, as I said, this book was a game changer for Tom. In part it was because of Mam’s fate after the Big Battle. It had rendered Tom Ward an orphan… and you would think now: how could this boy survive the trials of his career now, without his mother to help him? For the first time, Tom’s mortality issue became a real issue. There was no more safety net for him. And thus the book ended on a complete downer.
I usually hate books that end bleakly with no hope for the future. But while it’s true that there’s a sense of gloom and doom at the end of The Spook’s Sacrifice – a title, by the way, that could refer to any of the three Spooks that appeared in the story – the very little spark of light of Tom’s survival kept my desperation as a reader at bay. In other words, there might still be more danger to come and his life had just become a lot more complicated, but at least Tom had finished one more adventure with all of his limbs intact. Knowing how hopeless things can get in a Delaney book, I’ll take THAT as a hopeful ending.
Besides, Delaney wins brownie points for mentioning Greek myth tales. Not exactly a Rick Riordan kind of tale, but it was still a bonus for Greek myth enthusiast like me.
Also, Delaney wins at EVERYTHING LITERATURE for writing this epic scene after Tom and Alice lost all hope:
The heart and courage had gone out of me.
I don’t know how long we’d have remained standing there, but suddenly I heard footsteps behind and turned to see a tall hooded figure carrying a staff and a bag emerge from the tunnel. To my astonishment I saw that it was the Spook. At his heels was Bill Arkwright, who looked resolute, as if in the mood for breaking a few heads. But there was no sign of his three dogs.
Arkwright nodded but the Spook strode straight past us without even a glance in our direction. Then, as he reached the gate, he turned and looked back at me, his eyes glitering fiercely.
‘Come on, lad, don’t dawdle!’ he growled. ‘There’s work to be done. And if we don’t do it, who will?’
And that, my friends, is why I read the Wardstone Chronicles.