Title: Ghost Knight
Author: Cornelia Funke
Translator: Oliver Latsch
Illustrator: Andrea Offermann
Pages: 345 pages
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown & Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., c2011 (English translation c2012)
Publication Date: May 1, 2012
But there they were.
Three riders. Very pale. As if the night air had gone moldy. And they were staring up at me.
Everything about them was drained of color: capes, boots, gloves, belts–and the swords hanging from their sides. They looked like men who’d had their blood sucked out by the night. The tallest one’s straggly hair hung down to his shoulders, and I could see the bricks of the garden wall through his body. The one next to him had a hamster face and, just like the third ghost, was so see-through that the tree behind him seemed to grow right through his chest. Their necks were marked with dark bruises, as if someone had tried to slice their heads off with a very blunt knife. But the most horrible thing about them was their eyes: burned-out holes filled with bloodlust. To this day those eyes scorch holes into my heart.
Their horses were as pale as the riders. Ashen fur hung from the animals’ skeletal bodies like tattered rags.
I wanted to cover my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see the bloodless faces anymore, but I was so scared that I couldn’t even lift my arms. (24-25)
Eleven-year-old Jon has just been shipped off to his father’s old boarding school. He is certain it’s because of the pranks he pulled trying to get his mother’s boyfriend (aka The Beard) out of his life for good. But Jon’s “banishment” has just gotten worse, as instead of making friends he quickly discovers he is the descendant of an old dispute involving a knight from the 1500s who is out for revenge. Jon enlists the help of a classmate Ella, who shows him how to call upon the Ghost Knight William Longspee for protection. Things get complicated when Jon learns that Longspee might not be such a good guy after all. Jon must decide who to trust fast after Ella get kidnapped and he must face his ghostly past, with or without Longspee’s help.
Fans of Cornelia Funke’s work will jump for this newest book before even knowing what it’s about. While still containing elements of fantasy, Funke strays toward a more realistic setting and plot. In an author’s note and glossary, readers discover that William Longspee, Jon’s “ancestor” William Hartgill and the vengeful knight were real people. The boarding school that Jon is sent to has existed in one form or another for almost a century. Jon mentions his eight-year-old sister’s desire to go to a boarding school based on her readings of the Harry Potter series, and I think quite a few kids harbor that desire, although I’m not sure how much they would have enjoyed running from ghosts.
The combination of ghosts and knights is a sure hit with readers. The battles are described beautifully, and while Andrea Offermann’s drawings sometimes remind me of an anime movie, they deftly portray the action. She’s really in her element when it comes to the scenery, with portrayals of the cathedral and old style architecture containing detailed stained glass windows (pg 203) and intricate above the head shots (pg. 90) featuring two-page spreads of the columns and “spandrels” (76-77) and the ghostly atmosphere (pg. 50-51).
Although Funke weaved real aspects with her own creations almost seamlessly, at one point Jon is reassured that the ghosts can’t hurt him, but that he should run anyways. It’s only later that we discover what ghosts can do that is so dangerous, but until then his fear of them seems incongruous. Once you’re willing to forgive and forget that detail (and as I said, it’s sort of explained later what makes them so fearsome), it’s a wonderfully entertaining story. Another part I don’t think was really necessary was little hints that Jon is telling this story from the future including foreshadowing comments like “That’s more than eight years ago, and I still remember it perfectly.” (5) and “I tried to drag her to the stairs, but she was–and still is–stronger than me.” (228) How his relationship pans out with Ella is left a little hazy, but the ending clearly ties up any loose ends, even if Funke does leave it open enough for a sequel that I think most readers would appreciate if it ever came about.