After the opus of Gardens of the Moon, I was in the mood for a quick read. I had just picked up Attack of the Fiend, so I moved it to the head of the list. This book is known as The Spook’s Battle in the UK. It’s the 4th book in the Last Apprentice series (the Wardstone series in the UK), which I have become enamored with of late, so on to the review. I’ll use my list once more to demonstrate my different approach between a simple page turner like this book and the epic saga that is Gardens of the Moon, the previous review.
Pacing & Structure
Like the previous books in this series, you can blaze through this book in 2-3 days, maybe sooner if you’ve got lots of time. The story is told in first person (which is a perspective I have loved since I first read Zelazny’s Amber series), from Tom’s point of view (Tom is the protagonist). Since Tom is the lone protagonist, we don’t have to worry about other viewpoints. The chapters are not too long, so it’s easy to read to a stopping point if necessary.
It’s easy to care about Tom. He wants to help people (his primary motivation), and his loyalty to Alice gets him in trouble with the Spook. What I like about Tom is that he makes mistakes, and has to live with those mistakes. Sometimes emotion gets the better of him, such as when he gloats after betraying Mab, then immediately regrets it, but he has pissed her off and this has consequences later in the book. And Alice is a wonderfully complex character, clearly in love with Tom (her motivation) and walking the line between good and evil.
In this book we are introduced to the witch assassin Grimalkin, probably the most fascinating character Delaney has created. And speaking of Delaney, he is also consistent with the characters’ voices. They each have their own manner of speaking, and it hasn’t changed from book to book.
We’re not clear where exactly the County is, whether it’s our world or an alternate version, or for that matter when the story takes place. Although Delaney’s descriptions are sparse, they are adequate. The intention is to keep the story moving fast. For example, Here’s a passage regarding Tom approaching Malkin Tower:
“We entered Crow Wood, and I saw the tower when we were still some distance away. It rose above the trees, dark and impressive like something made to withstand the assault of an army. Set within a clearing, on a slight elavation of ground, it was oval in shape, its girth at its widest point at least twice that of the Spook’s Chipenden house. The tower was three times the height of the largest of the surrounding trees and there were battlements on top, a low castellated wall for armed men to shelter behind. That meant there had to be a way up onto the roof from inside. About halfway up the wall there were also narrow windows without glass, slits in the stone through which an archer could fire.”
Magic is presented the same here as in the previous books. Witches cast spells or curses, with their power drawn from rituals and evil sources such as demons or the devil. Tom has no magic, although it is implied that he has a kind of sixth sense. Most of his counters to dark magic involve things like salt, silver, or rowan wood. It’s not clear, other than when Delaney explains it, how far apart places are, and how long it takes to get somewhere. There are no maps provided, except for a rough map of Pendle Hill in Tom’s journal. As with previous books, Tom’s journal in the back provides more detailed information on creatures, places, and history.
Like previous books, the threat to Tom seems far more powerful than he. The methods in which Tom overcomes the opposition involve some smarts, some luck, and some help from others. But when Tom faces Grimalkin, he performs this miraculous act:
“What I did was not done consciously. I had no time to think. I made no decision. Some other part of me acted. I simply concentrated, my whole self focused on that spinning blade until time seemed to slow.”
I find this a little disconcerting. I realize that Delaney is establishing Tom’s “ability”, but it still feels like a Deus Ex Machina. The motivation of the opposition also does not make sense. The witches are trying to bring Old Nick into the world, despite the fact they will suffer just as much as anyone else. And I’m sure they could have thought of other ways to kill Tom that were quicker. The timing of the coven’s power is related to the absence of Tom’s Mam, which seems logical.
Plot and Overall Impressions:
There are definitely some twists I didn’t see coming. I was a little put off by the ending, due to the deus ex machina device I mentioned above. In fact, I counted at least 3 deus ex machina devices in the last few chapters. However, the ending is not really happy, as things are certainly looking darker for Tom and the Spook.
All told, I enjoyed the book and will read it again someday, probably several years from now. A final note: the hardback comes in at 532 pages, but these books are smaller than normal hardbacks, and the typeface is fairly large. It’s still thicker than the last book (457 pages), and much thicker than the first book.