The devil's in the detail

9th July 2004 at 01:00
The Spook's Apprentice. By Joseph Delaney. Bodley Head Children's Books pound;8.99.

Goldkeeper. By Sally Prue. Oxford University Press pound;4.99.

The Star of Kazan. By Eva Ibbotson. Macmillan Children's Books pound;12.99. Jan Mark reads tales of ghouls, gods and great expectations.

Gregory the Spook is an exorcist. His business is with spectres, boggarts and witches, but no matter what forces are pitted against him - comprehensively designated "the dark" - he tells Thomas, his apprentice:

"We don't use magic. The main tools of our trade are common sense, courage, and the keeping of accurate records." Be that as it may, Thomas, seventh son of a seventh son, has, in addition, an uncommon sense, inherited from his mother. He sees what others cannot, but initially all he can see is that his future livelihood will be hard and thankless.

Gregory and Thomas operate within "the County", otherwise unnamed, although Pendle lies to the east of it. Ghosts and boggarts are small beer; the clear and present danger lies in the prevalence of witches, whom Gregory deals with by burying in his garden, dead or alive.

All the witches are women; in the light of what has been inflicted upon real and imagined witches over the centuries, the story can seem misogynistic at times, and dourly violent most of the time.

The book, illustrated with David Wyatt's miniature chapter heads, is beautifully designed, and the first of a series, The Wardstone Chronicles, which may account for the impression that the story has broken off rather than ended.

Sebastian, hero of Sally Prue's Goldkeeper, is also an apprentice (to a high priest) chosen by supernatural selection, to the fury of his enemy, Horace Meeno, the gangster's nephew. Sebastian moves into the temple with his pet rat, Gerald. His only duty is to collect offerings, but reasoning that people will give him more if he puts on a floor show, he fills the temple with big production numbers and dry ice. In return, his every wish is fulfilled by the attendant Turnville.

The only flies in Sebastian's ointment are his unfeasibly frequent brushes with death. Eventually it dawns on the lad that someone is out to get him.

Could this be connected to the fact that Meeno Senior is building a casino next door to the temple?

Alongside the slapstick, Sebastian learns the story of the God Ora, from the Sacred Texts. Sebastian may be having the time of his life, but no one else is. How can there be a God in the midst of such suffering?

The Ora stories are profound and moving, Ora and his avatar camply charming, but Sebastian resembles William Brown in speech and demeanour, the gangsters are out of Damon Runyon and most of the supporting roles come from Central Casting. It's an interesting mix and an interesting premise - that even God needs a pet rat - but the ingredients don't cohere.

Eva Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan, set in the first decade of the 20th century, tells the story of Annika, abandoned as a baby, found and adopted by cook and housemaid to a Viennese household. Raised to the life of cookery and housework by people who regard these as honourable professions, Annika is loved and cherished and loves in return, but can't help fantasising about the aristocratic mother who will one day return to claim her.

Against expectations, Mother shows up. She is everything Annika has dreamed of, and takes her home to her dilapidated German estate and needy relatives. Annika had unknowingly come into a great inheritance that will restore the family fortunes - although this is not her family at all, as her friends in Vienna suspect.

This is a solidly traditional piece of story-telling; orphans, heroes, villains, horses, a gripping plot; satisfying and as reassuring as a goose-feather duvet, but under it all is an unspoken threat, the knowledge that the sunny serenity of Vienna will be swept away by the militarism that festers throughout the narrative. There is more to the book than a good story, expertly told.

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