With his latest novel, Toronto author and playwright Allan Stratton swerves sharply away from the finely observed realism of his previous YA novels (including 2005’s acclaimed Chanda’s Secrets) to arch, winning fantasy. The Grave Robber’s Apprentice is funny, imaginative, just thrilling enough, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The novel begins with Knobbe the Bent, a grave robber, discovering a chest on a beach after a storm. Expecting treasure, he’s disappointed to find a baby within. Rather than abandoning the boy, he decides to name him Hans and raise him as his own. “In no time, the brat will be walking, talking,” Knobbe thinks. “He could be my lookout. A few years more, he’ll be able to dig and tunnel and cart my gear. Then, in my old age, he can tend me.”
By the time Hans is 13, he’s rebelling at the thought of becoming a grave robber himself. Meanwhile, on the other end of the social spectrum, 12-year-old Countess Angela Gabriela von Schwanenberg is dreaming of a career as a puppeteer when she is kidnapped by an evil Archduke who has pegged her as his next bride-to-be, and whose wives have a nasty habit of dying on their wedding nights. Will Hans bolt from Knobbe? Will Angela flee the Archduke and his evil cohort, the Necromancer? Will the two tweens meet and join forces?
Well, of course – it’s that kind of story, but knowingly so. Stratton handles the tropes and clichés of fairy-tale fantasy with a wink and a playful sense of destruction. The Necromancer isn’t the evil, magical force he seems. In fact, no one is quite what he or she appears, least of all the titular apprentice. But when Hans’s true identity is revealed, it is with both a delightful nod to tradition and an acknowledgement that, yes, sometimes the old clichés make for the best stories.