In October, I often get in the mood for a ghost story. City of Ghosts, a spooky middle grade fiction book by Victoria Schwab, fit the bill for me. It is the story of Cassidy Blake, who has the ability to see ghosts and to visit the realm of spirits. Her parents are paranormal investigators who relocate to Edinburgh, Scotland, to film a television show about haunted cities. Her best friend happens to be a ghost named Jacob. Once they get to the city, Cassidy encounters a spirit that is evil and learns that she has the capability of overcoming it.
I really liked Cassidy’s character. She deliberates a complicated family dynamic, as she has the ability to see ghosts, but refrains from telling this to her parents, who happen to be paranormal researchers. She explains: “My parents don’t know the whole truth about me. I never told the . . . the things I see on the other side. It feels like a secret I should keep.” She comments on this in a really matter-of-fact way: “Dad doesn’t believe in ghosts [ . . . ] My parents make a good team: Dad’s the scholar, and mom’s the dreamer. He focuses on explaining the past while she spins ghost stories out of maybes and what-ifs.” I found that this dynamic that Cassidy navigates to be quite entertaining to read. Keeping her abilities secret from her parents adds a good layer of conflict to the story that makes it amusing to read at times. This prompts Cassidy to say things like, “Mom and Dad may be brilliant, but they clearly don’t know a thing about finding actual ghosts.” These kinds of observations brought comedy to the story.
Her relationship with her ghost friend, Jacob, plays a crucial role in the story. When Cassidy’s mom says to someone who is interviewing her, “I have indeed felt the presence added of ghosts. I’ve seen them.” In response to this, Jacob “waves a hand in front of her face,” and nothing happens. Not only does this show the limitations of what Cassidy’s parents actually know, this scene made me laugh. But it was clear that Jacob was around for more than comic elements. It is Jacob who introduces the creepier elements to the story, like when she looks at him in the mirror: “There are two Jacobs, the one beside me and the one in the mirror, but they’re not the same. The Jacob beside me is the one I know. But the one in the mirror is grayed out and gaunt, his shirt and jeans soaked, river water pooling at his feet. I’m not easily spooked these days, but seeing him like that, it scares me.” What is even scarier about this moment is that even Jacob is taken back, and when she asks him what this was about, he responds, “I . . . don’t know . . .” This scene sets the tone for the type of horror that the book has. When I read this, I found myself getting goosebumps and turning the pages to find out what would happen next. I will not give away any more of the spooky components because I know that a suspenseful ghost story relies on the element of surprise. I kept turning the pages to see how the story would turn out, finding myself quite entertained.
Sometimes the risk of reading a book that is geared towards younger readers as an adult is that the secrets or observations may not be as enticing to a more mature reader. However, as an adult I thought that the characters and the suspense were really fun. The component that could have risked being more off-putting as an older reader was how didactic it got at times. Yet these parts did not stray into the direction of being preachy and were embedded well into the story. For example, there is a part where Cassidy is coming to terms with the differences in language coming from America to Scotland. When she orders fish and chips her response to seeing fries is “these aren’t chips.” Her mother responds with, “sure they are,” and she thinks to herself, “I realize this is yet another one of those things that got lost in translation.” In fact, it helped with the transition between the different places in the story.
If you’re in the mood for a ghost story with a young girl as the main character, I would definitely recommend this book. The eerie aspects of this book will definitely get you in the mood for Halloween!