open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
The Spook travels continue… and we have arrived in Ireland in the eighth book of the Wardstone Chronicles. As had been previously hinted at in the seventh book, apprentice Thomas Ward, his master John Gregory and the is-she-or-is-she-not-a-witch girl Alice Deane would leave the island of Mona. Not to go home to the County – because war still raged there – but to farther west to Ireland. That’s why some elements of Irish mythology appear in the book, in the same way as Greek mythology was present in previous books.
The series grew increasingly more hectic with this book. To begin with Master Gregory, Tom and Alice had to face a new sort of spooky menace called jibbers, malevolent spirits that drove people mad and killed them by speaking/whispering what sounded like gibberish in someone’s head. They managed to ward off the threat after discovering that jibbers were souls that were bound by dark magic to do bad things to living humans, and received plenty more jobs to do the same by the locals, but very quickly they were drawn into the feud between the Land Alliance, a league of landowners led by Farrell Shey, and their enemies the goat mages of Staigue.
Before anyone asks, goat mages are apparently not goats who become mages, but rather dark human mages who use goats as sacrifices in their ritual to invoke Pan, an Old God (the same one in Greek/Roman mythology). More or less.
In the midst of all this, Tom was also plagued with the nightmares of the kind that had plagued Master Gregory in the previous book. It was a kind of lucid dreaming that seemed rather prophetic in nature, as it kept repeating the scene, which clued Tom in that something Very Bad was about to happen to him. And if that wasn’t enough trouble for a Spook’s apprentice to deal with, the blood jar that kept the Fiend away from him and Alice cracked, thus putting them closer and closer in the Fiend’s reach. If only Grimalkin, the witch assassin that they’d sought out to help them, could arrive in time to help Tom and Alice… but, alas no! Grimalkin was held up somewhere and for the first half of the book the two teenagers were forced to struggle on their own.
The recurring dream that Tom was having was apparently the work of a wicked witch called Scarabek whose sister was killed by Bill Arkwright during Tom’s time as an apprentice to him. Scarabek worshipped the goddess Morrigan. She and her freakish husband Thin Shaun lured Tom away as his group attempted to escape from the siege in a castle during a battle with the goat mages. Separated from his master, Tom was at Scarabek’s mercy. (And this witch just happened to have a very freaky baby that climbed up Tom’s body, bit him with needle-sharp teeth and sucked his blood. Whatever that creature was called, it was definitely not a human baby!) The witch cruelly gave Alice to the Fiend, and then gave Tom to the goat mages as a human sacrifice.
The night Tom spent with the goat had to be one of the goriest and sorriest moments in our hero’s young life, but if you know Joseph Delaney then you would expect something of this magnitude.
Gladly, though, that was the lowest point in Tom’s adventures in the book. What happened afterwards was some of the coolest things that I’ve ever read in this dark series filled with so much misery and darkness that I often wondered whether there was ever going to be light at the end of the tunnel.
First, Tom met Pan, the old god, and made a pact with him (apparently the god with the goat legs weren’t too happy about being summoned by dirty mages).
Then he got himself sent to the Otherworld – again – by the persistent Scarabek and was chased by the Morrigan herself, but in the process he found a ‘sidhe’, a sanctuary, where he met the mythical Irish hero Cuchulain. This warrior gave him a blade – possibly forged by Hephaestus – that would aid him in his fight against the Fiend.
And finally, Grimalkin arrived.
So there’s that small bit of light at the end of the tunnel: despite his hardships, Tom got a new weapon. The Fiend was bound in a complicated scheme concocted by Gregory, Tom and Grimalkin, although not destroyed and still had to be. Alice was freed, although she was mentally compromised. They all got to go home to County but their safety was not entirely guaranteed. There were surely more dangers to come later but for now, they could go on with their life. If this series was a TV show, it reached that point in time of a mid-season break with a satisfying, if temporary, conclusion… but we must always bear in mind that this was not a finale and therefore should expect that things could unravel in the next episode.
Initially I thought that the ending was a little bit too neat, but after re-reading the final part of the book, I came to realize that the characters deserved this sort of victory. (Again, I remind myself that this victory is temporary.) Tom and Alice were so young and yet their lives had been extremely difficult, filled with trials and tribulations that no one that young should ever experience, so this ‘happy ending’ at the end of Book 8 was indeed well deserved. I don’t think I would’ve stuck with the series if Delaney failed to provide these silver linings. Sure, not everything was roses and rainbows, but Tom’s victory over the Fiend definitely counted as a shining moment.
Now, however, I’d like to address the two relationships Tom had with the two witches: Grimalkin and Alice.
Does working with Grimalkin compromise Tom’s soul? John Gregory would definitely say “aye! And he should stop entertaining the notion!” In many ways, I have to admire Gregory for his principles. Mam definitely found his attitude admirable, if inconvenient. But whether I agree with him is another matter. I feel that working with a creature of the dark – in this case a witch – would NOT compromise Tom. Over the course of 8 books, I realized that the most admirable trait of Tom’s personality is that “I’ll do it, because if I don’t, no one else will.” He might have been reluctant to enter the Spook’s trade but at this point he had embraced that trade and would be willing to do anything to help people and protect the world. Fight boggarts? Yes, he’ll do it. Bury witches in pits? All right, no problem! Work with the enemy to fight a bigger enemy? This, he will do again and again because he’s the only one who can and will do it. Gregory himself couldn’t stand working with someone like Grimalkin, but Tom’s conscience was clear. He’d always come out of these scrapes with the Dark, even when he had to compromise things like his blood or his soul. I don’t find Gregory’s stance toward his apprentice’s choices grating, but I do wish the old man would appreciate the boy a little bit more.
Grimalkin seemed to provide a balance in Tom’s education. It was good that Tom had a teacher like Gregory, who was morally principled, highly disciplined, and intellectually sound. But having someone who used more action than words and ruthless in her ways could only make Tom stronger. After all, wasn’t that what Bill Arkwright had done for Tom? Now that Arkwright had passed on, Grimalkin stepped into his shoes. Of course she probably wouldn’t know the first thing about teaching Tom about Spook stuff – hint, hint! – but Tom was learning all sorts of dirty witch tricks, and that was valuable knowledge.
The Spook’s Destiny might have partially referred to that so-called ‘destiny’s blade’ that Tom received from Cuchulain to fight the Fiend with. But I chose to think of the ‘destiny’ in the title as Tom’s ultimate goal to become a one-man Dark-fighting force to be reckoned with. It was implied in the past books that Tom would grow up to be someone that the Dark feared… reading how he managed to survive in the Otherworld, made a pact with an Old God, harm a strong legendary witch and then bind the Fiend with the help of the devil’s own former lover? Yes, Tom Ward is on his way to becoming SUPER BAD ASS DARK HUNTER.
In the face of all that, what is a love story or two in the Wardstone Chronicles? What sets this series apart from other books targeted at teenagers is the lack of romance in the hero’s life. Gregory had a love story with Meg Skelton, Mam had Tom’s father John Ward, and even Grimalkin had the Fiend (although that didn’t work out, obviously) but they never took center stage in any of the books. Which was why Alice is an interesting position.
When she was taken by the Fiend, Tom cried and realized his feelings:
I loved Alice, and now she was gone.
That sentence, surprisingly, could be interpreted in many ways. It could be that Tom really did love Alice romantically and missed her now that he couldn’t marry her. After all, they’d kissed briefly in Book 5. They were always concerned with one another’s well-being, and they definitely had developed a strong attachment to each other. But the fact remained that they belonged to opposing sides… Tom realized this and he had often reminded himself of the fact. Whenever Alice started to do something suspicious, Tom would become her voice of reason and persuade her not to give in to the Dark.
To me, that situation read as love that went beyond romantic feelings. To me, Tom’s love for Alice was something closer to purity of friendship. She was the first person Tom grew close with after meeting in the very beginning of his adventures and she was special to him because she was always there for him. Even if one day – not knowing the ending of the series, mind you – Tom didn’t end up married with Alice, living in a cottage with a white picket fence and have babies together, they’d always be friends. I wouldn’t mind if they did (that would be ideal!) but I don’t think these two characters need that. The author doesn’t need to write such things for me to believe that Tom’s and Alice’s feelings for each other was real. That one line, and the emotion he showed when Alice was taken, was proof enough.
Alice is really an intriguing character. She is much harder to interpret than Tom, whose personality shone and grew with every book that I read. Alice, on the other hand, seems to be constantly mysterious and enigmatic, with just small bursts of clarity throughout the series. They are quite well-matched, I suppose, but at the moment – at the ending of the eighth book – they still have a long way to go if they want to cement eternal love or friendship with each other…
And, of course, that’s the reason why I keep reading. We shall see if Alice is another one that Tom was destined for. We shall see.