Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Joseph Delaney
Publisher: The Bodley Head
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Series: The Last Apprentice Book One
Pages: 325

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The first book in Joseph Delaney’s Last Apprentice Series (called The Wardstone Chronicles in Britain) doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table.  The plot lacks excitement, the protagonists are bland, the villain is a tired witch cliche, and the prose can get redundant.  Subtle expressions of misogyny creep into the story, too.

Revenge of the Witch may entertain some children, but I’d be willing to bet they’d be disappointed by the book if they were ever to come back to it as adults.  There are some tough life lessons, but a well written book for a younger audience will manage to throw in those lessons while telling a great story.  This isn’t a great story, it’s mediocre at best.

Thomas Ward is the seventh son of his father, who was also a seventh son.  Needing to find his place in the world, Tom’s parents send him to Gregory, the Spook, a man who fights witches, boggarts, and other evil beings throughout the county.  Gregory has had twenty nine apprentices and all of them have failed, Tom will be his last apprentice, and only through him can the knowledge Gregory possesses, survive.
Revenge of the Witch manages to do some things well. The world is built decently with clearly established rankings for the different magical creatures that are encountered.  Boggarts and witches can be both good or bad, which allows for some ambiguity to creep its way into the plot. At the same time this ambiguity never pushes the plot across the threshold of interesting.

Some of the decisions in the plot raise eyebrows – especially about the morals of the characters.  One of these involves how best to deal with the witch Mother Malkin, whom is captured by Gregory.  Delaney implies that witches are indestructible and can resurrect themselves if they are killed.  The only way to kill them is to burn them or rip out their hearts and eat them – pretty barbaric.  Gregory rightfully claiming both of these deaths are horrible – which is appropriate for a children’s book – ironically does something even worse: he buries her alive.  So instead of granting this immortal witch a quicker death, she must be buried alive, and suffer for eternity.  That’s messed up, it’s illogical, and it sabotages the story. It makes Gregory look like a torturer, it delays the inevitable question which will have to be answered: the witch will have to die in order for the world to be safe.

The prose is irksome too.  While Delaney keeps the prose simple, like a child’s narration, he manages to tell the story in a manner that lacks excitement.  The action sequences feel like their dragging, and there are lots of redundancies and unnecessary explanations.  Consider this example
“You see, rather than being filled with fear, I was all ice and fire. Deep inside I was raging, full of hot anger that was threatening to explode. While on the outside I was cold as ice, my mind sharp and clear, my breathing slow.”
This little tid-bit is thrown in during the final climactic battle in the story. Not only does it distract from the action, it’s also redundant.  A simple, ” I was all ice and fire,” would suffice, but no … Delaney must explain what that means, no matter how obvious the expression really is.

Delaney doesn’t have a lot of good things that can be said about the roles of women or their roles in society at large.  At one point Tom returns home and begins to help with house work, which is separated into the typical roles of a 19th century rural household. Men work in the yard, women work in the house.  This infers that the world is set in a patriarchal society, which is alright for a fiction setting.  The issue is that Delaney isn’t critical of his male dominant society, and it ends up looking like he subtly supports it. For example, Tom’s older brother Jack emasculates Tom for doing women’s work because he’s washing the dishes. Mistakes made by the men – nearly every Tom and Alice situation in the book – are usually the result of the man being manipulated by a conniving woman.

Men are the heroes while women are mysterious characters at best. The only two completely good women in the entire story – Ellie and Mam – fit the perfect mold of compliant house wife. The Spook has some decidedly misogynistic attitudes, but thankfully the author seems to be running with the idea that not everything the Spook does is right. I can only hope that as the books progress these issues are sorted out and the general attitudes conveyed towards women are all explained as being wrong.

There is also no introduction of a larger plot other than the main character’s apprenticeship, which is concerning because there are currently thirteen books in the series.  What’s the end goal for Tom other than becoming a Spook?  Delaney at the end of the story quickly rushes into a couple of anecdotes about how the world is getting more evil.  That’s the most readers get for a potential plot expansion.  By the end, I was not convinced to read on.

Score: 4.8

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