Victoria Schwab is a master of the supernatural, and her books are full of monsters, angels, and magicians. In City of Ghosts, the first in a series aimed at middle-grade readers, Schwab’s protagonist, Cassidy Blake, not only sees ghosts but can also enter their world.
Cass Blake is surrounded by ghosts. Her parents make their living by writing about them, not realizing that their daughter is in touch with the real thing. After an accident at a lake, she was rescued by a ghost named Jacob. Not only is she now able to pull back the veil and enter the ghostly realm herself, Jacob has decided to stay around and be her best friend. In other ways, Cass’s life hasn’t changed. She still has to go to class. She’s still not one of the popular kids.
But then her parents’ books lead to a television series, one that will be filmed in Edinburgh, Scotland, a city teeming with ghosts—and with a power Cass has never encountered before. When she meets another of her kind, someone else who can cross over, she learns that her gift comes with responsibilities. And dangers.
Schwab is a master storyteller with a great deal of affection for her characters. Cass’s ghost-hunting parents may not realize they have a ghost in their home, but they are not the buffoons that some adults in children’s novels tend to be. Jacob may be a ghost, but he’s also a typical kid with a list of comic books he wants for the trip. And Jacob loves to play tricks. When he disappears mid-flight, Cass begins to worry: “No Jacob in the terminal. No Jacob on the escalator or at the baggage claim. And then the luggage starts tumbling out onto the carousel, and the first thing I see isn’t the red and yellow stripes of my suitcase (yes, I’m a Gryffindor), but the boy riding cross-legged on top of it.”
In fact, the only unlikable character in the novel is one particularly nasty ghost who instructs ghostly child minions to carry out her evil plan:
Jacob’s there, on the ground of a far cell, being pinned to the damp stone floor by a half dozen children. Two of them look like they belong in a fancy old painting, and one is dressed in rags. Others look more modern, like they could even go to my school. The only thing they have in common is the cold pallor of their skin, and the fact that they’re all attacking my friend. Hands clamp over Jacob’s mouth and knees pin his wrists. One frost-covered boy sits on his chest as the other kids fight to hold him down. “Get away from my friend,” I snarl. A hand catches my wrist, and a voice whispers in my ear. “Sorry, love,” it says. “They only listen to me.”
As Cass fights to save her earthly life, she must rely not just on her wits but also on her friends, the young and the old, the mortal and the ghostly.
City of Ghosts is an entertaining story with just the right amount of scariness for young readers, but it’s also a novel that can be enjoyed by adults, even those who are many decades removed from middle school.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.