City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab is a middle-grade, supernatural fantasy book that I grabbed from the library after I surprisingly found it chilling there on the shelf. I remember looking it up a few days prior only to discover that the hold list for it was a mile long. So, when it popped into view, I didn’t hesitate for a second. One of the main reasons that I wanted to read City of Ghosts is because the premise sounded fascinating to me and I wanted to get to it before the hype-train took-off. Now that I’ve sat down and read the whole thing, I must say that I find myself quite disappointed with it.
City of Ghosts is about a girl named Cassidy Blake who has the ability to see ghosts. Even though her parents are ghost investigators known as Inspectres, they are completely unaware of their daughter’s abilities. When the Inspectres head to the super-haunted city of Edinburgh in Scotland to shoot a new paranormal-focused television show, Cass, and her ghost besty, Jacob, tag along. While there, Cass learns that she isn’t alone with her special skills and that not all undead beings are friendly.
The good traits and the not-so-good traits are split down the middle pretty equally for me, making City of Ghosts one of the most average titles around. Some of the good things include the pacing, the involvement of parentals, and a portrayal of a genuine, feel-good friendship between a boy and a girl.
The pacing is amazing. It picks up quickly and reads quite fast and that makes the novel a delight for anyone who is on a time constraint with reading. For example, if you have lots of work or school, but want a light pleasurable read in between your busy schedule. It’s also ideal for people who may be suffering through a reading slump, which is something that I felt I was struggling with a bit when I first began to read it.
Also, even though the novel is easy to read, it isn’t dumbed down for younger audiences. The language usage and sentence structure felt natural and appropriate for older readers without making us feel like we’re reading a picture-book without pictures, if that makes any sense. It’s not too easy so as to be boring and unengaging.
Another facet that was neat is the inclusion of the parents. In a lot of young adult and middle grade books, particularly contemporary ones, the parents make a brief appearance and then the rest of the story just focuses on the youngsters. However, in City of Ghosts, Cass’s parents make more than one short and simple appearance. They have legitimate speaking interactions with their kid and are there to show concern for—or reprimand—Cass when things get scary. This is really a tiny detail in the grand scheme of things, but it was one I appreciated due to how lacking it can be within the genre.
Lastly, the camaraderie that Jacob and Cass share is beautifully heart-warming and genuine. There is no budding of awkward, kiddie romance or anything else of the sort. It is quite rare to see a sincere, platonic relationship between a boy and a girl, especially one that has flaws akin to a friendship like that outside of a bookish situation, and it was my absolute favourite thing in the whole world. It made me feel fluffy and miss my friends of the opposite, or non-conforming, gender.
Other small, positive things to take note of include the writing. City of Ghosts is well-written, but it isn’t well-constructed. I’ll discuss that in a moment. Differences in the British English and American English vernacular were shared, and it made me smile because I remember how difficult of a time I had adjusting to American English due to the very same differences mentioned here.
Okay, now the things that weren’t so fantastic. The first and foremost would have to be the nearly non-existent plot. The foundation for the overall conflict in the book takes forever to get laid down. We wait patiently (or impatiently in my case) for the big trouble to pop up, but it doesn’t make its appearance until the last twenty five to thirty percent of the whole book, and even then it’s so lacklustre and anti-climactic. I found this immensely frustrating. The antagonist is shown, but only for half a page or two near the beginning, and then shelved until the last one-fourth. In that sense, there is no excitement or sense of adventure that the synopsis leads you to believe.
My second biggest issue with this book is the token brown character. I hate it when authors decide to include a person of colour in their narratives only as a means of checking off a box in the diversity pool. We are not plot devices, or things that you use as decoration to spice up your damn books, and this is something that really needs to fucking stop. Not only is the brown character used as a flimsy and almost utterly useless plot device, she gets about the same amount of screen-time as our antagonist, which completely sucked because she has a gloriously charming persona. I would argue this person has a much more interesting personality than even our main character, Cass.
A few other things that sort of caused the narrative to fall apart for me include the inherent lack of suspense or tension, the endless Harry Potter references, and how lacking Grim the Kitty’s presence was. I understand this book is for middle-grade readers, and I do make these critiques with that notion in mind.
Starting with the suspense. While the setting and atmosphere do get a bit dark and spoopy, there is nothing in it that truly captures the essence of supernatural horror that it is labelled as. I went from one page to the next, teetering on the edge of boredom due to nothing going on. When Cass does enter a situation that can be construed as frightening, I felt like instead of experiencing it via her lens, I was being told what was going on, and what I should be feeling. Where is the fun in that?
Next… There are also a shit ton of Harry Potter references. I am well-aware that for many, many readers out there, HP was a life-changing series. It is the reason that most of them fell in love with books and reading to begin with. But not everyone has such an appreciation for the series, more so since it is problematic as fuck and JKR keeps on fucking with canonical things, thus making those aspects even more fucking problematic than they ever were. After a while, I needed the HP references to stop because they were beginning to get aggravating. I also don’t feel that every young reader will be able to relate to HP as many of them are growing up reading books outside of that universe with serial by Rick Riordan and the like. My nephews would never get all of those HP references because they live in a Percy Jackson household. So… if you’re like me and don’t find the Harry Potter franchise to be the brilliant beacon of bibliophilia, you may not appreciate this quality very much.
Lastly, and this is entirely due to my cat-loving soul, I needed more Grim in my life. Grim is Cass’s kitty and he seems like a delightful, sassy creature. I was expecting him to play a much larger part than he did, chiefly because he’s on the bloody cover of the book!
The bottom line is that City of Ghosts is not going to be a good book for people who are into story-driven, or plot-driven narratives, as there is no fucking plot in this thing. It also won’t be a good choice for anyone who enjoys multi-layered characters and, folks that don’t appreciate token diverse cast members. On the flip side, if you’re the type of reader who adores references to Harry Potter, and/or just want a super simple and fast-paced read to pass the time, then you may obtain some realm of happiness from City of Ghosts. In general, I do not recommend it.