Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by Tom Booth

Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by Tom Booth. Walker Books, 2021. 9781536208603 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Fantasy

What did you like about the book? Third in Taylor’s Legends of Eerie-On-Sea series, Shadowghast is charitable to readers unfamiliar with earlier entries (Malamander, Gargantis), while also offering ample rewards to returning fans. Briefly, Herbert Lemon and his friends work to save the people of Eerie-on-Sea— and themselves— from the clutches of the Shadowghast, a malevolent spirit traditionally propitiated during the town’s annual Halloween (Ghastly Night, to locals) festivities. Taylor’s work has drawn favorable comparisons to A Series of Unfortunate Events, comparisons that are apt. Here are long-lost relatives swooping in with fabulous promises and dubious intentions, pitchblack networks of secret passageways beneath the city, and a whole constellation of menacing adults— hotel managers, mimes, organ grinders— all eager to thrust our young heroes into the darkness of gibbet, cellar, and oubliette. Here are unpleasant authors with unpleasant names (Sebastian Eels, anyone?), and even more unpleasant interests (e.g. “a  novel with a poison-green leather spine, decorated with an emaciated human figure who looks as though he’s only a notch or two up from being a skeleton [. . .] The Sweet Smell of Despair”), and here is said author’s dusty fetish cabinet, locked away behind a bookcase  . . . 

But then, Taylor is not half the ghoul that Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket tends to be— if anything, Snicket has more in common with Eels than with Taylor himself. Thus, in Taylor’s hands, the sinister contents of the cabinet are a ready vehicle for physical comedy; the frisson of entombment is always short-lived, and few problems arise that cannot be as readily solved by Erwin the luminous talking cat or Clerwin the clockwork hermit crab. Taylor’s idiosyncratic style (“I turn my lapels to their highest setting”) plays consistently for laughs. Shadowghast is an adventure story, first and last, and delivers the precise blend of humor, suspense, and the supernatural that Taylor’s fans have come to expect and appreciate. It is a winning mix— and one that could promise a finer Hollywood showing than A Series has ever yet delivered.

Anything you didn’t like about it? Booth’s cartoony illustrations fall firmly on the side of levity, and serve to amplify the Scooby-Doo mood that already permeates the novel— but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, may be spot on. 

Eerie-on-Sea is characterized by a whiff of orientalism, which— a perennial companion of the novel’s brand of light Steampunk anachronism— pairs not so well with the overwhelmingly white cast. Herbert’s friend Violet Parma appears as the singular person of color (at least, in Booth’s illustrations; this is signified in the text only by “a mass of wild black curls”). 

To whom would you recommend this book? Enthusiastic readers of Lemony Snicket, Pseudonymous Bosch, and of paranormal adventure

Who should buy this book? Middle school, elementary school, and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Juvenile fiction

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Zeb Wimsatt, Mansfield Public Library, Mansfield, MA  02048

Date of review: October 22, 2021

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