“How to keep a head of the pack.”
This is the ninth novel in Delaney’s Wardstone Chronicles series (known as The Last Apprentice in the USA), and full confession: I haven’t read any of the others. I generally wouldn’t start reading a series so far in, but I was recommended this, on the grounds that it worked as a stand-alone piece, and certainly qualified for inclusion here, in a way the rest of the saga didn’t. Can’t argue with that assessment: while I sense you would likely get significantly more from the book if you have read its predecessors, Grimalkin makes a heck of a bad-ass.
As we join the story in progress, she is carrying round the severed head of The Fiend [who appears, more or less, to be Satan] in a bag, having separated it from his body after he killed her child. However, she is being pursued by a host of his acolytes and the kretch, a creature spawned for the specific purpose of tracking and killing her. They are intent on retrieving the head and re-uniting it with the rest of him – which will cause all hell to break loose. Fortunately, Grimalkin is a witch herself – and not just the cauldron-y, hubble-bubble kind, but the assassin of her coven, a position obtained by killing the incumbent. Normal witches? Don’t stand a chance. Custom-created hell-spawn with a poisonous bite and armoured eyelids? Now, you’re talking.
Actually, even that would probably be a light challenge, Grimalkin’s talents being so well-honed. However, having created this Superwoman (and I’m thinking more Nietzsche than Jerry Siegel), Delaney makes the smart move of then dialing it back, weakening his protagonist early on, which brings her down to the level where she could be taken out. And, since she’s not the central character of the series – Tom Ward doesn’t even appear – there’s a genuine sense Delaney could dispose of her; he certainly has few qualms about disposing of just about everyone who assists her, at a rate of which George R.R. Martin would approve. This story is, more or less, an extended chase sequence with occasional pauses for reflection, and flashback to learn how Grimalkin reached her position, teamed up with Thorne, her apprentice, etc. It makes for a rather breathless pace, but certainly keeps the reader’s interest.
There are times when it does become a little too “young adult”-ish for my taste – I took to rolling my eyes, every time I read another occurrence of “I am Grimalkin!” But credit Delaney for not attempting to shoehorn in any element of Twlight-esque romance. Because that would be utterly inappropriate for a character who can say, “Cowardice and courage are just labels—words invented by foolish men to bolster their egos and denigrate their enemies. In battle we should be cold, clinical, and disciplined.” While there was a movie version of the first novel (albeit one largely ignored, even by fans), this entry is probably close to unfilmable, simply because Grimalkin is pure, undiluted anti-hero, which is very difficult to make work on-screen. I’d like to see them try, yet amn’t holding my breath there. All told, I certainly enjoyed this one, yet am not sure if I’ll bother with the other, Grimalkin-free entries. It just wouldn’t be the same.
Author: Joseph Delaney
Publisher: Bodley Head, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a physical book.
a.k.a. The Last Apprentice: Grimalkin The Witch Assassin