Review Detail

Middle Grade Fiction 195
Magical Boarding School with a Side of Horror
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Sebastian Wight has always seen ghosts, at least ever since both of his parents were shot dead in front of him. His memories of that are vague, and his Aunt Dahlia has taken good care of him, so he doesn't want to tell her about his alarming abilities. It's hard enough to have people at school look at him strangely, with his hair white from shock and his habit of behaving oddly while seeing ghosts. Lately, it's gotten worse, and he sees a figure in a porcelain mask following him around. His new friend, Aaron, becomes possessed by a demon in the school cafeteria. When the evil spirits get too close to the house and let Sebastian know that he is marked for death, Aunt Dahlia finally notices. She's not surprised; she has powers of her own. She isn't happy that the wards she put on the house were violated, and decides to send Sebastian to the Gallowgate school for his own protection. Willow, a ghost, transports him to the school, but not onto the grounds, and the figure in the porcelain mask gives chase once again. Sebastian barely makes it through the school's iron gate because he looks over his shoulder while he is being chased! Once in the school, he is matched with a roommate, Harold Watts, who was raised at the school. Since students are supposed to be 13, Madame Ardea, the headmistress, is reluctant to allow Sebastian to take classes, but Harold says he doesn't mind. The classes include the four pillars of summoning, conjuring, alchemy and necromancy, and the students learn how to vanquish ghosts. All of the students have some trauma in their background; the only way to continue seeing the ghosts after the age of thirteen is to have seen a violent death. Some students, like Andromeda, have this ability because their parents purposefully let them see one. All of the students dress in "post apocalyptic chic" that consists of a lot of Goth and Steampunk clothing; much black, cowls with raven feathers, belts, and buckles. Sebastian is glad for once that he won't be the odd one out, but even at a school where people share his powers, he has trouble fitting in. He does find out that he can't bring his parents back to life since they have been dead too long and will have been damaged by the experience, but he does find out secrets about their past, like the fact that his mother was a teacher there.

When Bastian starts his training, he finds that he has some powers he is not supposed to have, and the shadowman seems to have infiltrated the school even with all the wards that have been put up. Madame Ardea is constantly telling Bastian that he is imagining things, and dismisses all of his concerns, even though he knows he is experiencing odd things. When he hears his father's voice and finds a ghost named Virgil who offers to teach him the fifth pillar that Gallowgate is now suppressing, Descending, Bastian starts his training and tries to make sense of everything. His skills sometimes serve him well, as when he defeats the Snowbeast in the annual school games, but seem less than helpful when his Aunt Dahlia shows up at the school injured, in what was clearly an attack by the shadowman. Will Sebastian be able to learn the skills necessary to keep ghosts from hurting him, and will he be able to finally make some friends?

Good Points

Jonathan Stroud's 2013 Lockwood and Co. series has been super popular in my library due to the Netflix series and my continued love of it, and Gallowgate is an awesome ghost hunting school in the style of The Author Who Shall Not Be Named. This is very similar to Black and Clare's Magisterium series in that it has a school, special food and celebrations (Halloween is a big deal here!), and family secrets that have led Bastian to be called to the school. Not only is this a ghost hunting academy story, but it's heavy on the whole Goth aesthetic AND has Alexander's trademark terrifying spirits. That student who thinks it is a good idea to wear a nose ring, black leather jacket, and ripped fishnets to school with black boots with chains? They'll love this one. Sebastian always feels like the odd man out, which will also appeal to readers.

I'm not personally a fan of horror, and the idea of going to a sort of horror school doesn't appeal to me as much as fighting ghosts forLockwood and Co. did; I like the idea of suffering with an ability but being glad I can help the world. There was a little too much reveling in the dark side of things for my personal taste, which makes this perfect for the target demographic. Bastian's secrets about why he has the terrifying abilities make sense, and since this ends with summer break from school, I would not be at all surprised to see a sequel.

If you love horror but have not read any of Alexander's books, you need to do that right now. My favorites are Darkroom, Escape, and Vacancy. I'm not as big a fan of The Fear Zone or anything with creepy dolls, but my students will read anything Alexander writes. Unless they have a doll phobia. I always ask about that! Gallowgate is a new direction for Alexander, who also writes Young Adult fantasy under the name A.R. Kahler, including The Runebinder Chronicles and Immortal Circus.
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