Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Unexpected Guests: Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford

"You want to see this, Milo!" Mr. Pine called. "A real Nagspeake Christmas tradition. We're about to get a visit from the Waits, to bring good luck for the coming year."

There was a jangling, and something else... was it music? The lights bobbed and dodged, and as the lights emerged from the woods, so did the people. There were seven, one of them with a ring around its head like a crown and a small forking branch hung with candles.

And then the final figure, a ghostly horse, shrouded in layers of white that caught the moon-and fire-glow like ice. Its head was a grinning skull with candles in the eye sockets and stag's antlers glowing gold. The head tossed and the jaw clacked open and shut as the creature walked along.

Milo Pine's school holidays have just begun and he has been hoping for a quiet family Christmas this year at Greenglass House, a very old inn on the rugged southern coast of England. This year there is only one guest, a vague young man named Emmett, seemingly obsessed with sketching the ancient stained-glass windows that give the inn its name--that is, until the place is invaded by two of last year's most unusual guests, two young women, Georgie and Clem, self-proclaimed thieves, who quietly admit that they need a place to lie low for a few days. Once the home of Doc Holystone, a legendary smuggler captain, Greenglass Hous is no stranger to secrets,, and in short order, more unexpected guests show up for dubious reasons. Milo, who has looked forward to time alone with his parents, is both sad and annoyed.

And then the Waits appear, a motley collection of mummers from a local "asylum" called The Liberty, whose Advent visits are a tradition drawn from ancient times. Caroling is a minor activity for this band, and one of them, Rob, dressed as the "sweeper" gets busy with his duties of sweeping the chimney to bring good luck to Greenglass House in the new year. Rob, however, is a novice sweeper and the downstairs is soon filled with smoke and soot to be cleaned up, and the Pines find themselves suddenly hosting the weird Waits for the night as well.

Then Georgie and Clem confide that their "haul," historic navigational implements from the stash of the infamous smuggler Violet Cross, have been stolen from their rooms, implicitly by one of the guests, and then two of the women guests are battered by an unseen hand. Unwillingly, Milo finds himself drawn into this mystery, and to his delight, finds himself joined in his investigations by Meddy, the ghost of Doc Holystone's daughter, who has not materialized since the previous Christmas.

It's not your usual Christmas story. Greenglass House at Christmas is a place where no one is quite who or what they seem, a place for shape-shifting spirits, a place where the past and the present overlap and layer themselves in a frosty, misty setting that seems unmoored in time. On one level Milo and Meddy assume the identities and powers of Tengfei and Sirin, in a Dungeons and Dragons-like game, while the real Milo himself worries over his own dual identity as an Asian child adopted by pair of English innkeepers and Meddy is haunted by her inability to be reunited with the ghost of her father Doc Holystone. And still, the holy grail strangely sought by all of the mystery visitors is a legendary map of the Skedwrack River estuary, with its shifting shoals and channels, an actual yet metaphorical artifact somehow able to represent the myriad changes in navigable waters that their famous smugglers sought.

And those are only some of the mysteries found in Kate Milford's just published Ghosts of Greenglass House (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2017), the sequel to last year's Greenglass House, winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for mysteries. Some secrets are revealed in this second book, with its dense, convoluted plot that often floats somewhere in that realm of "a willing suspension of disbelief," making for an absorbing supernatural detective story, albeit one with a quite down-to-earth bit of sleuthing involving a traditional Advent food. Milo is a complex character, living in what he feels are two worlds in more ways than one, of Chinese heritage in a very English village, on the cusp of childhood and adult life, and aware of the ghosts from a past that are always an active force in the living present. For young readers who like to curl up over the holidays with a complex mystery novel that takes them into a very different world, this one is a must read.

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