Title: City of Ghosts
Author: Victoria Schwab
Age Range: Middle Grade
Genre: Horror, Contemporary
Cassidy Blake’s parents are The Inspectres, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.
When The Inspectres head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn’t sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn’t belong in her world. Cassidy’s powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.
Content Warnings: Violence, depiction of children being harmed
Just like Edinburgh, Manila is a city that is chock-full of the creepy and the macabre. Haunted streets like Balete Drive and Concha Cruz. The sites of tragedies and senseless death like the Ozone Disco and the Manila Film Center. Universities that were used as hospitals, prisons, and mass graves during like World War II like UST, Ateneo, La Salle, and UP, as well as bombing sites like Manila City Hall and Intramuros. Locations of brutal slayings like the Vizconde house. Graveyards. Old houses. Execution fields. If you’re looking for haunted, Manila has it in spades.
Because of this, I grew up loving ghost stories, and I especially love ghost stories that are connected to a certain place or city. So you can only imagine how excited I was when I won an ARC of Victoria Schwab’s new middle grade horror book, City of Ghosts. Since the book was all about the ghosts of Edinburgh, I expected it to be an atmospheric kind of ghost story – it was all that and more!
Like most psychics or clairvoyants, what opens Cass’s third eye is a near brush with death. After nearly drowning in a river, she finds she can see ghosts, not to mention the Veil, the metaphorical barrier between the living and the dead. It’s kind of funny when you consider that her parents are The Inspectres, the hosts of a TV show about the world’s most haunted cities – who, despite being open to the idea of ghosts, can’t actually see them.
Cass’s story gets a whole lot more interesting when The Inspectres get to do an episode in Edinburgh, a city rich with history, lore, and hauntings. One of the ghosts wandering the city is the sinister Red Raven, a beautiful woman who feeds on the lives of children. Aided by Lara, a local girl who can also see the dead, and her ghostly best friend Jacob, Cass must banish the Red Raven from the world of the living, or face eternity trapped in the Veil.
Before I begin this review, I think it’s important to remind you all to remember that City of Ghosts is a middle grade book. The writing is fairly simplistic, the plot is uncomplicated, and the horror is not very complex – you can’t expect adult calibre writing from a book that’s not meant for adults. However, even as an adult reader, I enjoyed the hell out of this book.
First of all, as I mentioned earlier, this book is atmospheric AF. As I read, I could see all the places in Edinburgh that Cass and her family visited. I could see the gray surroundings of the world beyond the Veil, the lost souls drifting mindlessly through the mist, the fog and the mountains and the scenic panoramas of Scotland. Victoria is one of the most descriptive authors I’ve ever come across, able to evoke the ambience of certain locations with a few well-placed words, and even in a book meant for younger readers, she stays true to this aspect of her writing.
I adored all the characters, but I especially loved Cassidy. She felt so real and fleshed out. A twelve-year-old girl who loves Harry Potter (she’s a Gryffindor!), likes photography, and is a bit of a loner – tell me you can’t relate to that. True to her characterization as a Gryffindor, Cass soldiers on through her fears of the Veil and the Red Raven – who is out to get her life force and trap her in the Veil forever – in order to rescue Jacob and make sure the Red Raven never takes any children ever again. If that’s not at total Neville Longbottom, I don’t know what is.
This book is the ghost story du jour, but elevated to an art form. The Red Raven is all kinds of creepy, and I’m not ashamed to say that certain parts of the book made the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand on end (then again, perhaps reading it when I was by myself at the apartment, at night, and my roommate not due to return for several hours wasn’t the best idea). Honestly, I felt like I was reading a Disney Channel Halloween special or an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? – the kind you watch as a twelve-year-old kid with popcorn, surrounded by all your friends, just enjoying the spooky vibe.
All in all, I absolutely adored this book, even though I am literally a decade (lol) older than its target audience. It was creepy, well-written, and just generally a big mood all around. Again, I would exhort older readers who describe it as “too simple” to remember that this is a middle grade book – but even then, Victoria still absolutely delivers in such a way that adult readers would appreciate it too.
I am absolutely in awe of Victoria’s flexibility. She can write for adults, teens, and kids and all these stories bear the same unique brand that is inherently Schwab. The only other author I can think of who I feel can do this extremely well is Neil Gaiman (think the difference between Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book, in comparison to the difference between A Darker Shade of Magic and City of Ghosts) – and as a huge fan of Neil, that’s certainly high praise coming from me.
City of Ghosts comes out on August 28. Pre-order it here!