In this second installment of the series, Thomas ward is now 13 and has been the Spook’s apprentice for 6 months. An unfortunate occurrence involving his estranged priest brother leaves the Spook an opening—a reason to revisit Priestown. There he hopes to tangle again with an ancient being that nearly killed him many years before. A creature that’s long been corrupting the city and seeping it’s influence into the surrounding region.
This book delved deeper into the supernatural medieval horror feel the first book had regularly hinted at. The Bane is technically a malevolent spirit, but via blood pacts it has gained in strength to the point where it’s begun taking on a corporeal form. It can read minds, see through the eyes of others, control those of weaker will, and “press” to death those it can’t control or bargain with (or, apparently, just for the fun of it.) It seems so overpowered an opponent, it has a sort of end boss feel--which honestly makes me wonder what could possibly match or top it in subsequent books.
While the writing style remained as effective for me as in the first book, I had a harder time with the characters this go around. Thomas was consistently bucking his master’s instructions, and his judgments regarding Alice trended past compassion and straight to foolishness. Side characters that were introduced often felt one-dimensional—serving a single purpose, and so not fleshed out any further than need be. And the Spook seemed completely outside his competency range for the entire book.
A highlight was learning the background on Thomas’ parents—how they met, and more in depth about his mother’s peculiar heritage. But that alone wasn’t enough to surmount my growing hesitations.
My biggest qualm with this book would have to be the blatant undercurrent of anti-Catholicism. (Please note: I am not Catholic.) In the first book, I had the impression of being introduced into a medieval fantasy in which all the British folklore comes alive. There was the barest impression of religion, and even of the idea of there being priests, but nothing specified. It could have gone anywhere from there with the worldbuilding. But it became pretty clear in this book that “priest” meant Catholic; and Catholic meant greed, corruption, and legalistic intolerance.
Allow me to justify my impression:
We open with a semi-graphic example of how arrogant and impotent priests are against the evils of this world. The Bane itself lives in the catacombs beneath the massive and opulent cathedral in the middle of Pristown. The Bane has corrupted the minds and wills of the priests, along with much of the countryside. (While it is offhandedly mentioned by a ‘brother’ that not all the priests have fallen under its influence, we are shown no examples of these at any point in the book. They are all presented as either treacherous—willing to make a pact with a demonic presence for their own gain—or as a thuggish army, enforcing injustice.) The secondary evil antagonist is the vicious and cruel Quisitor, who rounds up innocent people to torture and kill in the name of the church—and who operates unopposed by said church. At one point, there is even the over-the-top speculation by one of the priests that women don’t have souls.
Did bad things happen because of some within the Catholic church? Certainly. I’m not disputing that. But I am disputing this heavy-handed negativity being targeted at middle-grade readers regarding both the catholic church, and faith in general. Thomas makes note he was not-so-ironically named after the saint known as “doubting Thomas,” as he comes to solidify more of his perspective about the naive and uninformed faith his simple father has, but his extraordinary mother doesn’t share. The foregone conclusion comes across thusly: The church clearly has everything wrong regarding supernatural matters, and Thomas and the Spook clearly have most things right.
This is where I was hoping to be more drawn into a fantasy world, but alas… instead, I’ve determined my journey with this series is likely at an end.