Ghostlight: An entertaining and engaging MG ghost story

Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGhostlight by Kenneth Oppel

Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsKenneth Oppel’s Ghostlight is a quick-moving MG story involving a trio of teens battling a long-dead villain seeking to raise an army of ghosts in modern-day Toronto. Full of action, the narrative also includes a number of brief but effective emotional moments and also highlights the poor treatment of Native groups.

Gabe Vasilakis has a summer job giving the Ghost Tour of the Toronto’s Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, which in 1839 saw the unexplained deaths of its keeper and his 16-year-old daughter, Rebecca Strand. Unexplained no more, though, as Gabe ends up able to communicate with Rebecca and thus learns she and her father were part of a secret order of ghost-banishing “Keepers” who “protect the harbors, the cities, the coastlines of the world … since the Lighthouse of Alexandria … stand[ing] guard over the night to protect the living from the wakeful and wicked dead.” In a scene vividly depicted in chapter one, Rebecca and her father were killed by a strong ghost named Nicholas Viker, one who gains power by consuming other ghosts (including Rebecca’s father) and who, like Rebecca, has woken from a long slumber. Gabe, his best friend Yuri, and new friend and “ghost-blogger” Callie join forces with Rebecca to try and prevent Viker’s rise to power. To do so, they must find the “ghostlight”, a magical gem that can cast a light to banish ghosts, sending them on to whatever is their next stage.

The plotting, as noted, is fast paced. The book opens with a bang, a battle between Rebecca and her father against Viker, one they eventually lose in horrific fashion. The story also closes with a big battle, though on a far more epic scale and involving many more people (some living, some not so much). In between, Oppel presents some puzzles for the trio to solve (what happened to the gem in the intervening centuries) and throws in smaller conflicts between the group and Viker, who has his own allies. The tension ratchets up gradually but steadily, with each encounter more dangerous than the last and the effects scaling upward so that by the end the entire city is under threat. And while the anxiety is also increased by the physical danger to our main characters, two other elements add a slower-burn but if anything more disturbing kind of anxiety: the disquieting potential for Rebecca to move to the darker side of her ghostly existence, and the way in which the semi-physical “clasp” between Rebecca and Gabe drains him of energy while enlivening her.

Thanks to these unnerving elements, and some vivid description of physical horror (the way Viker consumes ghosts, how his appearance changes in grotesque fashion) and shootings, this is a book that really is in that MG range rather than one you’d read aloud to a younger child, such as a seven or eight-year-old, though of course, one knows their own child best. As for possibly older readers, due to the fast pace, as I’ve found is often the case in MG books, obstacles faced by the characters are sometimes too easily overcome, with characters either gliding by them with little effort or thanks to coincidental actions, both of which occur here. Middle grade readers will probably shrug, if they even notice, though older readers may find such instances more problematic. It’s also possible middle grade readers won’t even notice the history lessons Oppel provides, making use not just of the specific geography of Toronto but also the city, and the nation’s history. That includes the mistreatment (putting it lightly) of its original inhabitants, a welcome addition to the story.

Oppel has always been great with characters, and that holds true here as well. Gabe is dealing, and not particularly well, with recent trauma in his life: a divorce, his dad moving out, and then worse, his dad dying before anything has a chance at being resolved (at least, while they were both alive — is there a chance now that Gabe knows ghosts are real?). Meanwhile, Yuri must deal with the possibility of his family being forced to return to Russia because of how difficult his father is getting certified to do engineering work in the US. Oppel does an excellent job in detailing the complexities of Gabe’s feelings and also allowing both teens to have moments of unpleasantness due to their stress. Callie also has her own family issues, though less dramatic, as she wants to be a journalist, a profession her all-dentist family scorns for its lack of money-making potential.

The story’s climactic battle resolves the main storyline, but Oppel leaves open the possibility of a return to this world and these characters. Younger readers will probably find themselves hoping that possibility becomes reality.

Published in September 2022. Rebecca Strand was just sixteen when she and her father fell to their deaths from the top of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in 1839. Just how they fell — or were they pushed? — remains a mystery. And their ghosts haunt the lighthouse to this day. . . . Gabe tells this story every day when he gives the ghost tour on Toronto Island. He tries to make it scary enough to satisfy the tourists, but he doesn’t actually believe in ghosts—until he finds himself face to face with Rebecca Strand. The true story of her death is far more terrifying than any ghost tale Gabe has told. Rebecca reveals that her father was a member of the Order, a secret society devoted to protecting the world from “the wakeful and wicked dead”—malevolent spirits like Viker, the ghost responsible for their deaths. But the Order has disappeared, and Viker’s ghost is growing ever stronger.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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