Series of 13 books (not counting a few supplementaries). Published, under slightly different titles, as The Last Apprentice series in US.
I have spent a good while debating with myself whether to include the Spooks books on this blog. It's not that I didn't enjoy them, quite the contrary. But . .
There are two different reasons why I hesitate. The first is that I have to admit to something of an antipathy for series fiction. I tend to wince inwardly when I see them lined up along the shelves of book shops. I always fear that they represent somewhat lazy writing, with their authors falling into set patterns of development with what become tired characters and plots. I also worry that they encourage similarly rather lazy reading in young people. Of course as soon as I say that I have to acknowledge that the 'Enid Blyton' syndrome, liking to read and re-read what is familiar and comfortable, has always been and probably will always be a feature of the young. It is hard to say that this is, in itself, a 'bad thing'; being able to behave in this way almost certainly encourages, supports and grows innumerable readers. But my own heart always wants to encourage such young people to venture out instead into the enormous diversity of wonderful reading material available. However this blog is not written with the particular aim of suggesting reading for the young. I am looking for greats of the 21st century. Do I want to include a series in this? Many of the best fantasies need three or four volumes to encompass their large vision; there is something in the nature the genre that often benefits from a large canvas. But is it feasible to sustain the highest quality over umpteen volumes?
My second hesitation is around whether these stories in fact fit my self-imposed brief for this blog, whether that are 'magical fantasy'. In terms of genre would they be better classified as 'horror'? Josephn Delaney does create an enclosed fantasy world. It is actually very close to our own world of around 400 years ago - except that ghouls, ghasts, boggarts, witches and the like do actually exist in it. They do not exist as mere superstition or even as a second realm of occult reality alongside or beneath the historical one. These 'creatures' are clearly part of the accepted everyday life of the people of this world. The Spook is in many ways very much a wizard figure too and certainly Tom, a seventh son of a seventh son, taken from his own home to be the Spook's apprentice, fits straight into one of the classic fantasy moulds. Yet the Spook specifically claims not to use magic. His role is to protect the folk of 'The County' from the creatures of 'The Dark', but he does this largely by physical means. He is rather more of a latter day 'Ghostbuster' than a wizard, although at the end of the day such devices as binding spells do have their part to play in the stories, even if cast by others. So the genre is somewhat ambiguous. It could be argued either way.
As is self evident, I have overcome these qualms, and I have done so simply these books do excite me as works of fiction. They are thumping good reads. Moreover, although as you might expect with so many titles, some of the books are rather stronger than others, I do actually think that the whole series is more than the sum of its parts and deserves to be considered as an important fantasy creation. As such, it has many strengths. What first drew me to the Spooks books is their very rich setting in what is called in the novels 'The County', but is closely based on Lancashire. Much particularly takes place amongst this area's northern fells. It happens that I was born and brought up close to those fells and also taught for a good few years in a school near the foot of Pendle Hill. So I know the places well and love them dearly, as the author clearly does too. And he evokes them quite wonderfully. Landscape is in no way incidental to these books, it is a vivid and integral element, deeply understood, passionately and movingly painted. Then there is the very rich vein of folklore and history on which the books also draw. Even though some scenes and characters are somewhat 'Hammer Horror', they still resonate with those deeper folk memories and instinctive fears that are a very real part of the make up of all of us. All of this, too, is written in a deceptively simple, straightforwardly narrative style, that is easy and comfortable to read yet continually conjours vivid pictures and engages excitingly; which actually takes a great deal of authorial skill.
But most of all these books are, more even than their shock-horror-don't-read-at-bedtime plots, about real people and relationships. These are what develop so well over the series as a whole, with subsequent books adding layers and new, often surprising, facets to earlier ones. The books present and explore a rich range of characters and their relationships: Tom the apprentice and his family, the Spook and his, the wonderfully ambivalent young witch, Alice, Grimalkin . . . so many of them. This is series that, it's genre notwithstanding, deals movingly with simple but fundamentally important human values: courage, friendship, loyalty and a willingness to do what needs to be done because 'somebody has to do it.'
Reservations are swept aside. Even though individual books are perhaps not great literature in themselves, and actually have no pretensions to be so, the series as a whole deserves a significant place in any consideration of recent fantasy fiction. It is surprisingly well worth reading.