No matter the era, life as a teenager is fraught with peril. Take Curtis and Mila, the protagonists of House of Ash, the powerful new YA fantasy from Edmonton writer Hope Cook. Curtis, in the present day, must take responsibility for his younger sister while their father battles mental illness. Curtis, who struggles with mental health himself, is trying desperately to hold his family together over the four months before his 18th birthday, at which point he hopes to gain legal guardianship of his sister.
In the year 1894, meanwhile, 17-year-old Mila is also struggling. She and her younger sister are being dragged to a new life at Gravenhearst, the family home of their mother’s new fiancé, Andrew Deemus, purportedly “the wealthiest man in all of Canada.” But Gravenhearst is a house of mystery, of hallways that seem to shift and alter as if the building itself were concealing the secrets of its owner. A library of alchemical texts and marvels that defy explanation terrify Mila, who becomes convinced she and her sister are in peril.
The storylines of Curtis and Mila – each rivetting in its own right – draw inexorably together. Curtis begins to hear voices and suffer physical pain after he rides his dirt bike into a mysterious copse near his house. Research reveals that the area was the site of a stately country home that burned to the ground in 1894, killing everyone inside. Then, one night, Mila and Curtis see one another through a magical mirror and both their lives change irrevocably.
Mila and Curtis are skilfully evoked, and the supporting characters are well rounded in their own right. The novel’s shifting narrative focus builds both thrust and suspense. The central mysteries are well developed, and the book is a genuinely original read, based on familiar tropes twisted in surprising ways. House of Ash is a well-crafted novel firmly rooted in character and history that will ensure readers never think of a haunted house the same way again.