When 11 year old Jon Whitcroft is packed off to boarding school in Salisbury, England (a consequence of having made himself utterly disagreeable to his mother's boyfriend, aka "the Beard"), he is naturally hurt and angry. But soon Jon realizes that boarding school will bring a more pressing problem that will make the possibility of a new stepfather the least of his worries. And it's not the boarding school food, the close quarters, or the boring drone of his teachers.
Nope. Jon's new problem is a ghostly medieval warrior, Lord Stourton, who wants to kill him. Turns out Jon's ancestor was instrumental in getting Stourton hung (deservedly) back in the 16th century...and revenge is still sweet 500 years later.
Jon's classmates and teachers can't see this murderous ghost and his horrible henchman. But one person believes him--a girl named Ella, who has grown up with the ghosts of Salisbury. She leads him to the tomb of the one ghost who might help him--William Longspee, a knight from the 12 century who must atone for his own wrongdoings by helping those in need.
But can Longspee truly be trusted? He did some terrible things in life himself...and possibly in death as well. Faced with the vivid possibility of death at Strouton's ghostly hand, Jon and Ella have little choice--they must call Longspee to aid them. Or else.
It's a zipping, ghost-filled story. There are moments that made hair on the back of my neck stand on end, in perfect spine-tingly fashion, and I can imagine young readers utterly on the edge of their seats once the threat of ghostly violence enters the picture! There's a bit of a mystery to be solved, which takes some breaking of school rules on the part of Jon and Ella, and quite a bit of exploring Salisbury and environs (including Stonehenge and the must-visit ruins of the castle of old Sarum. There are also lovely descriptions of Salisbury cathedral, which is a lovely place to visit too).
And on top of that, it's a story of friendship (Ella's and Jon's, which maybe kind of might end up with young love in a very believable way), and coming to terms with unasked for and unwanted changes in life ("the Beard" turns out to be Ella's uncle, and not nearly the totally black villain Jon had painted him as). Sure, Jon's happy acquiescence at staying at boarding school at the end of the book might seem a tad abrupt, but Ella is there to sweeten the pot...I liked Ella lots--she's a strong-minded, free-thinking type, and she makes a good friend.
So story-wise, it's all very kid friendly, and the design of the book re-enforces this--lots of pictures (by Andrea Offermann) and fairly small amount of text per page. I read the ARC, so I don't know what the final pictures look like, but they look promising! Here's one I found on-line:
I like the look of them, but the paintings by Friedrich Hechelmann in the original German edition are even more stunning:
But in any event, this is one I'd highly recommend to the 9 or 10 year old reader of fantasy, but the confident 8 year old or the older reader in need of fun, light reading will enjoy it too (this would be me). I am willing to bet that this is a book that will stick in the young reader's mind all his or her life, and am thinking about getting a copy of it for my own soon to be nine year old--although I'm worried that it might be too scary. The dead evil dudes might be a bit much for him. Maybe I will just buy a copy in a general sort of way, and see what happens...
I'm counting this as a time travel book, a category that doesn't include straight ghost stories, no matter how firmly the ghosts interact with our reality. It's a bit of a stretch in this case, but Jon does on several occasions enter into the memories of ghosts, experiences flashes of their past lives:
"I felt my body grow. Now I was strong and tall, but there was even more blood. And even more pain. There were swords, many swords, lances, knives, and horses. I fought. This time the sword was so long, I had to hold it with both hands. I felt my arms ram it into another body. I heard my own breath, labored and much, much too fast....I slipped in the mud and fell to the ground. Something dug into my leg. An arrow. I screamed with pain, or was it rage? There was blood in my eyes. Was it my own, or another man's?" (page 136)
And that's about the extent of the time travel...I wish there had been more!
I am also faced with slightly conundrums regarding other categories--it's a boarding school story, which is part of the point, but not nearly THE point, and it's historical fantasy-ish, in that the events of the past are a large part of the narrative, so you almost feel that you've read historical fiction, but it's not actually set in the past, so I don't think I can count it...at least I can label it with certainty "book with ghosts."
Other thoughts can be found at Ms. Yingling Reads; if you've reviewed it, let me know and I'll add you!
(disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher)