Book Review: City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab, is the first in a new fantasy fiction series aimed at middle grade readers. For those in the UK this is the younger end of YA fiction – not that I like to pigeon hole any book for particular readers. As an adult I enjoyed the story for what it is –  a tale of ghosts and eerie happenings set in a city alive with atmospheric history. Edinburgh is the perfect setting for the tale of a young girl who can step between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The protagonist is twelve year old Cassidy Blake who suffered a near death experience when she fell into a frozen river a year before the story begins. Somehow she was rescued by Jacob, a ghost who subsequently becomes her best friend. Since that fateful day, Cass has been able to travel beyond what she has named the Veil and observe other ghosts in the space they inhabited at the moment of their death. She attempts to photograph them on her vintage camera but remains unobserved by all other than Jacob.

When Cass’s parents, who write books about ghosts and paranormal happenings, are offered a TV show, the family travel to Edinburgh to shoot the first episode. Here Cass meets a girl who can also step through the Veil – she describes herself as an in-betweener. Intrigued that there are other people like her, Cass is dismayed to learn that they have a mission. Before she can process what this means she must face a dangerous ghost who wishes to harvest power from the living as well as the dead.

I picked up this book after reading The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab – the first published work from this author, written while she was still at university. Although not entirely impressed I recognised potential. City of Ghosts justified my decision to read more of Schwab’s books. It is much more tightly plotted with well balanced tension and a smattering of humour alongside the spooky adventure.

The differences in American and British expectations and experiences is just one facet that adds interest, viewing an accepted culture through fresh eyes. Being familiar with the key locations in Edinburgh added to my enjoyment. Mostly though this is a story of a young girl who does not feel she fits in amongst her peers and whose parents support but do not understand. It is a universal theme granted a satisfying twist involving peril and bravery. A story in which Cass has power but is still learning how this should be used.

An action adventure involving the lingering dead who, like the living, may be benign, hostile or seriously dangerous. For those who enjoy fantasy fiction, such as the Harry Potter books, this is a recommended read.

City of Ghosts is published by Scholastic. 

Book Review: Traction City / The Teacher’s Tales of Terror

2017 is the first year since I became aware of the event’s existence that my children did not return from school on World Book Day eagerly clutching either their choice of book or a voucher to be exchanged at a bookshop. My youngest is now in sixth form and is presumably no longer a part of the target demographic.

Recently, however, he has urged me to read a series of books that the rest of my family have already enjoyed – the Predator Cities Quartet by Philip Reeve. Having posted the reviews for these over the past few weeks I decided to pick up an associated, former World Book Day publication to see how it slotted into the fantasy world.

Traction City is a short story set in a time shortly before the first book in the quartet. London is on the move and a young boy, Smiff, is creeping through the city’s bowels searching for dropped or discarded items that may be saleable. Instead he finds a dead body. Smiff then witnesses a violent attack on the outlaw men who roam this abandoned area. A tall, human like figure with glowing green eyes allows the boy to escape. Despite his aversion to the police, a terrified Smiff reports what he has seen. He finds a sympathetic ear in Sergeant Anders.

Anders rarely has much to do during his shifts at the lower level police station where he was assigned when his home town was eaten by London. This evening, however, he has a prisoner to process. A young girl has flown in and been apprehended carrying a small amount of explosive. Her shabby airship is named the Jenny Haniver.

There follows a chase, the discovery of body parts, and a run-in with the Guild of Engineers. As ever in this series, where a potential weapon exists, all sides vie to harness its power for their cause, whatever the cost to the wider population.

This was an interesting add-on but was not as compelling as the excellent quartet. I will now need to decide if I wish to read the prequel trilogy starting with Fever Crumb. These are set around the time cities first started to move.

As with many of the World Book Day offerings, a second story is included on the flip side of the book. In this case it is an addition to Chris Priestley’s chilling Tales of Terror, not a series I am familiar with.

The Teacher’s Tales of Terror is appropriately set in a school on World Book Day. A supply teacher has been called in to cover for an ill colleague. The head teacher is pleased to note that Mr Munro, the rather austere looking gentleman who presents himself for this role, has got into the spirit of things and dressed for the chosen theme, celebrating a Victorian heritage.

Mr Munro soon takes control of his rather unruly class and informs them that his lesson will be to read them some stories. What follows are a series of deliciously creepy tales. These are short and spine tingling but not too scary.

The denouement was unexpected and added an extra dimension to the overall story arc. This was an engaging, nicely constructed, and satisfying read.

Book Review: A Darkling Plain

A Darkling Plain, by Philip Reeve, brings to a conclusion the author’s Predator Cities Quartet, and what a conclusion it is. Like the earlier books in the series it is filled with action and adventure, humour, a touch of romance, and some difficult truths about the predilections of mankind. All this is set on a future earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval and changed the manner in which survivors may live.

When the story opens, Theo has returned to his family in Zagwa but cannot forget the kiss he shared with Wren. Tom is travelling the Bird Roads with his daughter, both keeping busy in their attempts to put behind them their break from Hester. At a trading post Tom spots a face he recognises from his time in London where he thought everyone had been killed by Medusa. With his health deteriorating Tom mulls the possibility of revisiting the wreck of his old home city.

The Green Swarm and the Traction Cities have embarked on an uneasy truce but there are many on both sides who are unhappy with this peaceful acceptance of alternative ways of life they have been raised to regard as detestable. Rogue elements are determined to quash their enemies by whatever means necessary. When Tom and Wren are chartered to take a wealthy young mayor-in-waiting, Wolf, on a reconnaisance flight to what is left of old London, they get caught up in violent intrigues where trust is scarce.

Hester has been reunited with Stalker Shrike and is travelling on a sandship, intent on not allowing herself to care for anyone again. When she encounters captive slaves, recognising them from her previous life, she becomes embroiled in rivalries from both sides of the war.

Fishcake has done what he can to repair Stalker Fang who is eager to return to Batmunkh Gompa that she may avenge all who have failed her and, alone, turn the world green. Despite her deadly focus, she becomes the closest thing the abandoned young Lost Boy has to a longed for parent.

When a fearsome new weapon starts attacking from the sky, old grievances risk destroying what progress has been made in this violent and increasingly fragile new world. The race is on to prevent mankind’s annihilation.

This is an engaging and fast moving romp through an imaginatively constructed if somewhat violent fantasy world, but I would recommend reading the full series to gain the most from the story told. The quartet is proof, if anyone still needs convincing, that young adult fiction can be enjoyed by competent readers of any age. The final page is as satisfying as any I have read.

My reviews of the previous books in the series may be found by clicking on the titles below.

  1. Mortal Engines
  2. Predator’s Gold
  3. Infernal Devices

 

Book Review: Infernal Devices

Infernal Devices, by Philip Reeve, is the third book in the author’s Predator Cities Quartet. This is a series of fantasy adventure stories aimed at young adults but enjoyable for all competent readers. I reviewed the first two books here and here.

In this instalment, Tom and Hester have settled in the now static city of Anchorage where it came to rest on the Dead Continent, presumed sunk by all who knew of its existence. Their daughter, Wren, was born here and has known nothing but a peaceful if rather lonely existence in her fifteen years. Having grown up listening to the tales of her parents’ adventures she dreams of experiencing some excitement for herself.

Caul, the former Lost Boy, inadvertently presents her with opportunity when she stumbles across a secret meeting he attends in the dead of night. She turns thief in exchange for passage away, but when events turn deadly, ends up being sold as a slave.

Appalled by this unexpected reminder of their past, Tom and Hester set out to rescue their child. Assuming that she will have been taken to the Lost Boys’ hidden headquarters at Grimsby, Caul goes with them. He wishes to be reunited with Uncle, the closest he has ever had to a parent. This desire the young burglars feel to belong to a mum or dad has been their undoing. Wren is not the only freshly captured slave.

The action moves to the pleasure city of Brighton where the wily Pennyroyal continues to spin his web of deceit. Unbeknownst to all, just as Tom and Hester launch their rescue attempt, powerful forces are about to be unleashed. The Green Storm has set its sights on Brighton, although its stalker leader is not telling her minions why.

As with the previous two books, there is plenty of action and many imaginative contraptions that playfully mock the terms and technology we enjoy today. Beneath this humour lies an unavoidable dark truth, that man’s greed, selfishness and lust for power overrides any semblance of sense.

An entertaining romp that plays fast and loose with coincidence, bravery and luck, not that this detracts from the enjoyment of the tale. Amidst the carnage there lies much for the reader to consider. A fun but also poignant read.

Book Review: Predator’s Gold

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Predator’s Gold, by Philip Reeve, is the second instalment in the author’s quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. Aimed at young adults, the story is set in a post apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval. I review the first in the series, Mortal Engines, here.

Two years after their escape from the Medusa disaster, Tom and Hester are travelling the Bird Roads in their airship, the Jenny Haniver, ferrying cargo between remote cities. Whilst on a stop at an airborne trading post they are offered a substantial fee for transporting a passenger, a task they would not normally undertake. The journey turns troubling when they are pursued by a recently formed band of radical Anti-Tractionists, the Green Storm, who wish to reclaim the Jenny Haniver. It had belonged to one of their most revered members who is now dead.

The subsequent dogfight damages the airship forcing our trio to put down on Anchorage, a peaceful traction city that has been ravaged by plague. Its ruling Magravine, a teenager named Freya, is still finding her way as leader following the deaths of her parents. Bound by tradition she is reluctant to mix with the visiting ‘tramp avaiators’, but when she discovers that their passenger is the renowned author and historian, Professor Nimrod Pennyroyal, she grants them an audience.

Freya is immediately drawn to the handsome Tom. When he mentions that he trained as an historian on his home city of London she offers him a job at her personal museum. Tom is tempted, and Hester is incensed. Her disfigurment has sapped her self-confidence, but she will not give up her beloved without attempting to reclaim his affections.

Unbeknownst to all aboard, Anchorage is playing host to other visitors. Hidden within the bowels of the city are a team of Lost Boys, and their spy cameras enable them to watch everyone.

In the world of Municiple Darwinism, where resources are uncreasingly scarce, loyalty is a luxury few possess. Anchorage is at risk from bigger cities who covet its innovative propulsion system. The Green Storm are intent on acquiring the Jenny Haniver. And for reasons few comprehend, a price has been put on Hester and Tom’s heads. When Hester’s jealousy mars her judgement, and the truth about Pennyroyal is revealed, personal interests clash leading to powerful forces being unleashed.

This is an action adventure story set in a wondrously imaginative world. The author pokes fun at contempoary elements and our attitude to history whilst offering battles reminiscent of Robot Wars but on a huge scale. Characters are believably fallible with their ingrained prejudices and blinkered fight for self-preservation. The damage and death count may be high, but this remains a rollicking read.

Book Review: Mortal Engines

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Today I am posting a review of a book originally published in 2001. Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve, is aimed at young adults but has now been enjoyed by everyone in my household. It was passed to me by my sometimes reluctant to pick up a book younger son with the words ‘you should read this, it is very good’. I concur. It is the first intalment in a quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. At my son’s instigation, I will be reviewing the entire series in the coming weeks.

The story is set in a post apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes, and other instabilities, communities were established on Traction Cities which move around on huge engines and wheels. These behemoths attack and dismantle other cities for resources, citing what is known as Municipal Darwinism as necessary for survival. Although the world has since become stable, Municipal Darwinism has spread. Much technological knowledge was lost during the war. Because scientific progress has almost completely halted, Old Tech is highly prized and recovered by scavengers. Europe, some of Asia, North Africa, Antarctica and the Arctic are dominated by Traction Cities. North America was so ravaged by the war that it is often identified as the dead continent. The rest of the world is the stronghold of the Anti-Traction League which seeks to establish land based settlements and thus stop the intense consumption of the planet’s remaining resources.

The tale opens on London where a young apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy, abandons his tasks in the Natural History Museum to watch his city chase and capture the town of Salthook. Amongst the captives of this place is a badly disfigured girl, Hester Shaw, who attempts to assassinate a highly regarded senior member of London’s ruling Guilds, Thaddeus Valentine, who is Tom’s hero. In an attempt to impress both Valentine and his beautiful daughter, Katherine, Tom attempts to detain Hester when she flees. This results in both young people being ejected from the city and left for dead in the barren wastelands over which the city chase occured.

Hester is determined to return to London and kill Valentine, whatever this takes. Tom, having never before left the moving city, has little choice but to travel with her. Gradually he learns what happened to her and why she is seeking revenge. He begins to examine the tenets on which he has been raised.

The pair find themselves embarking on a series of daring adventures during which they are captured to be sold off as slaves, rescued by the pilot of an airship, hitch a ride with pirates, and visit land based settlements where Tom comes face to face with the barbarians he has been taught wish to destroy his progressive culture. Throughout they are pursued by a deadly, mechanised creature intent on Hester’s demise.

Back on London, Katherine is trying to piece together the mystery of why a young girl would wish to kill her beloved hero father. What she discovers causes her to question everything she has thus far known.

The action has many imaginative twists and turns involving a fabulous cast of characters. There are numerous amusing references to our contemporary world alongside traits of human nature which have not changed. The writing is polished and engaging, with sufficient depth to avoid moralising or schmaltz. The author is not afraid to kill his darlings.

An imaginative page-turner and worthy recipient of its many accolades. Recommended for competent readers of any age.