January 04, 2007


The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch. By Joseph Delaney. Illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.

The Last Apprentice: Curse of the Bane. By Joseph Delaney. Illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     When a first-time author produces something exceptionally good, it is reasonable to ask what he is going to do for an encore.  It’s hard enough to come up with one good book – harder still to create a second.

     So Joseph Delaney is an author worth celebrating. His first book – The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch, which is now available in paperback – was scarily effective both in words and (thanks to Patrick Arrasmith) in illustrations.  And it was genuinely unusual in many elements of its plot, since it was a book in which the spook – or rather the Spook – was the good guy.  Intended for ages 10 and up, the book managed to provide enough scares – and, what is more unusual, enough humor – to attract readers into their teens.  Delaney’s idea was that Spooks are protectors, human beings whose purpose is to get rid of the various evils stalking isolated villages.  Old Gregory is the Spook in Revenge of the Witch, but he really is old Gregory, and is aware that his time is drawing to a close.  So he must train an apprentice, and sooner rather than later.  And he tries to do so 29 times, but every would-be apprentice is too frightened or incompetent to become the next Spook.  Some, in the midst of their training, become too dead – this is not a job to be taken lightly.  The last apprentice Gregory tries out is Thomas J. Ward, and Revenge of the Witch is the story of the start of Tom’s education in the ways of Spooks and the things they guard against.

     This sounds fairly conventional, but Delaney’s strong writing and willingness to toss some humor about make the book a cut above similar ones.  Gregory, for example, warns Tom against all girls, especially ones with pointed shoes – but then Tom meets Alice, who is not only nice to him but also an expert in the uses of plants, some of which can be valuable in Spook work.  Also, Tom needs to learn some mighty interesting lore: the differences between ghasts and ghosts; what a boggart is, and how to bind one; and the symbols used to indicate various degrees of danger – for example, a witch is symbolized by a large O, with a subscript of M (malevolent), B (benign) or U (unaware, and thus potentially the most dangerous of all).  While learning all this arcane information, Tom helps Gregory deal with a truly malevolent witch, and Alice helps Tom – provoking Gregory’s statement, “some clever women are dangerous.”

     But the danger Tom faces in Curse of the Bane is more immediate than Alice’s possible future – she may become a witch herself.  Early in Curse of the Bane, Tom must defeat a boggart on his own for the first time, and a very nasty piece of work the creature proves to be.  Also here, Tom learns something about Old Gregory’s background, and the reasons the Spook warns Tom against pretty women.  But there is much more here: Delaney succeeds in this sequel by ratcheting up the fright level (abetted once again by Arrasmith’s excellent illustrations) and pulling in danger from additional sources.  The Bane itself is a creature living in the catacombs of a cathedral, but the church powers-that-be do not want the Spook – whom they deem evil – to do anything to dispose of it.  At the end of the first book, Tom worries that winter is getting longer and the dark stronger, and the tale of the Bane indicates that that is so.  The danger of the Bane is that it can take over and corrupt people’s minds, so Tom cannot be sure who is on what side.  So when a priest warns Tom against Old Gregory, who is supposedly in league with the Devil and can therefore conquer lesser devils such as boggarts, does this mean Gregory is evil?  Or is the priest evil?  Or is the priest wrong?  Or under the Bane’s control?  To make matters still more complicated, Alice resurfaces and is a big help to Tom once again – but at the cost of a desperately dangerous deal with the Bane.  Curse of the Bane is deeper and more profoundly frightening than Revenge of the Witch, which was plenty scary already.  And it clearly paves the way for a third Last Apprentice novel.  Joseph Delaney is proving himself a writer to be reckoned with – repeatedly.

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