City of Ghosts, Victoria Schwab (Scholastic Press 978-1-338-11100-2, $17.99, 285pp, hc) August 2018.
The plot for Victoria Schwab’s City of Ghosts is delightfully straightforward: 12-year-old Cass sees dead people and that leads to many uncomfortable situations. Her life is complicated by the fact that her parents are successful paranormal investigators/authors and actively search out places full of ghosts. Her best friend Jacob also happens to be a ghost, but that makes sense since he is the reason she can see them in the first place. (This is all explained early on in the narrative.) In the opening chapters Cass is looking forward to the annual family beach vacation, a relatively ghost-free destination which offers her a much-needed opportunity to relax. Then her parents accept a job offer to host a new TV show all about haunted places and the three of them (plus Jacob) set off to Edinburgh which is, unfortunately, an actual city of ghosts. By page 50, readers know that something is going to happen in Scotland, it is going to be creepy, and Cass and Jacob are pretty much guaranteed to be in serious danger.
So City of Ghosts is practically perfect. Schwab does exactly what she sets out to do: she gives readers a plucky protagonist with an unusual problem who gets dropped smack into a location that forces her to deal with her problem 24/7. There is no vacation from ghosts in Edinburgh; there is actually near continuous exposure to ghosts in castle dungeons, cemeteries, and the Grassmarket, where hundreds of people were executed. All of these ghosts are unhappy and some of them are downright malevolent. Cass feels herself pulled into their realm, “crossing the Veil” in her words, against her will. Then she meets someone else who sees ghosts and she has a very different idea about what that means. She is a girl on a mission and she persuades Cass that she must be part of that mission as well.
As Schwab ticks off the suspense boxes with ease, readers will find themselves falling deeper into Cass’s world and becoming increasingly more concerned about the choices she has to make. Just because she can do something to ghosts, should she? Is it a bad thing to be stuck in a different realm, and what is out there beyond the Veil? Should Cass even worry about that? And what does all of her newfound knowledge mean for Jacob, who has a few secrets and is not ready to share them?
There is no romance in City of Ghosts (thank the gods!) and Cass’s parents are funny and kind, and serious about their paranormal investigating. The descriptions of Edinburgh will make anyone want to visit and Cass’s story offers a lot of possibilities for future adventures. She is a decidedly thoughtful protagonist and her banter with Jacob is equal parts snark and sweet. They are true friends, and their relationship is the novel’s heartbeat. What Schwab has in store for them in the future is anyone’s guess, however; what is certain is another haunted city and whole lot of more ghostly encounters.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2018 issue of Locus.
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