The Seer of Shadows: A short but sweet period ghost story

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Seer of Shadows by Avi fantasy book reviewsThe Seer of Shadows by Avi

Set in New York City, 1872, we are introduced to Horace Carpetine, a young man who works as an apprentice to a photographer. His employer Mr Middleditch is a rather unscrupulous man, eager to turn a penny whichever way he can, but Horace is captivated by the magic of early photographic techniques.

Told in first-person account, Horace describes meeting a young black servant girl called Pegg by the gates of Mr Middleditch’s house, who arranges a photography session with her mistress Mrs Von Macht. Sensing a wealthy woman, Mr Middleditch agrees to the woman’s request to take her picture so that she might leave it on her recently deceased daughter’s tomb.

Mr Middleditch has a better idea — to exercise his skills and manipulate the photograph so that it looks like her daughter Eleanor appears as a ghostly presence in the portrait. To do this he needs Horace to sneak around the Van Macht house and photograph any portraits of Eleanor that he might find. While there, Horace strikes up an acquaintance with the servant girl Pegg, who tells him the true circumstances of Eleanor’s death and the Van Machts’ culpability in her passing.

Yet once he develops the photographs, he’s horrified to see an apparition of Eleanor in the finished portrait. Not only that, but Eleanor looks angry and vengeful — and Pegg is certain that she’s going to do something terrible. The two of them must come up with a way to send her back from whence she came before anyone comes to serious harm.

Tapping into the late 19th century’s fascination with spiritualism that went hand-in-hand with the innovations of early photography, Avi writes an atmospheric and spooky children’s ghost story that has a fine eye for the period in which it’s set. Horace is a sympathetic narrator, caught between his employer’s instructions and his own sense of right and wrong, as well as his rational upbringing and his inability to deny the presence of the supernatural.

The ending of The Seer of Shadows was a little odd, with the plot wrapped up and flitting ahead nearly ten years for an ambiguous epilogue in the space of a paragraph, but the book is a suspenseful and creepy story that may not follow all the rules of a quintessential ghost story (it remains a little fuzzy on how exactly Eleanor returned from beyond the grave and how responsible Horace was for the subsequent haunting) but achieves its goal of delivering chills to the reader.

Published in 2008. Age range 8-12 years. Horace Carpetine does not believe in ghosts. Raised to believe in science and reason, Horace Carpetine passes off spirits as superstition. Then he becomes an apprentice photographer and discovers an eerie — and even dangerous — supernatural power in his very own photographs. When a wealthy lady orders a portrait to place by her daughter’s gravesite, Horace’s employer, Enoch Middleditch, schemes to sell her more pictures — by convincing her that her daughter’s ghost has appeared in the ones he’s already taken. It’s Horace’s job to create images of the girl. Yet Horace somehow captures the girl’s spirit along with her likeness. And when the spirit escapes the photographs, Horace discovers he’s released a ghost bent on a deadly revenge. . . .

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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