Christopher Rowe is back and there are more puzzles, riddles, and secrets to uncover in this fourth novel of the award-winning Blackthorn Key series.
Christopher Rowe has no idea who he is. After being shipwrecked in Devonshire, he wakes up alone, his memories gone. Villagers tell him he was possessed by an unseen evil, and only became conscious after being visited by the local witch.
As Christopher tries to get his bearings, he realizes his current state may be far from coincidence. Dark events have been happening in this corner of Britain—village children are disappearing without a trace. There are whispers that the malevolent ghost of the White Lady has returned to steal the children away, one by one, and consume their souls.
Thankfully, friends Tom and Sally find Christopher and help him reconnect with his unique skills and talents, even as his memories elude him. But as motives and secrets are revealed, Christopher finds himself in a desperate race to reclaim his memories and discover the missing children before it’s too late.
Call of the Wraith CHAPTER 1 MY HEAD SLAMMED INTO THE floor.
I lay there, dizzy, stunned, my legs wrapped and bound above me. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think.
My head ached with a deep, throbbing pulse, every thrum a promise to split my skull. My stomach roiled, rebelled, and when I could stand it no more, I turned over and retched.
Nothing came out. My muscles strained, but there was nothing in my cramping stomach to throw up. When the spasms finally stopped, I rested my head on the floor, the packed dirt cool against my cheek.
I coughed, then swallowed. My throat burned, scratched, dried with hollow spit. I groaned and opened my eyes.
I saw tarred wooden beams above me. Confused, it took me a moment to understand: I was looking at the ceiling. I’d fallen out of bed. Now I lay upside down, half on the floor, half hanging from the mattress. The bonds that held my legs were the bedding: a sheet of cool white linen, a heavy wrap of deerskin on top.
I wriggled free. My body slipped from the blankets and thumped against the floor. I lay there, waiting for the world to stop spinning.
The light, as faint as it was, was still enough to make me squint. It came from a fire of wood and peat, burning low in the hearth opposite the bed, filling the air with the smell of smoked dirt. The room itself was unfamiliar, and nearly empty: just the bed I’d fallen from, a rickety wooden table and chair, and a palliasse in the corner near the fire, a second deerskin blanket crumpled behind it. The mantel over the fireplace, a plank of sagging cedar, was empty. The walls were made of cob: smoothly packed clay and straw, washed with lime. A single door offered an exit, one step up from the floor. Beneath the handle, a rusted iron plate covered its keyhole.
Where was I?
I tried to remember how I’d got here, but tasking my brain made my head spin again. I crawled back onto the bed and lay there, breathing, letting the whirling subside.
At least it was warm. The fading dream of the icy plain made me shiver, and I pulled the deerskin up to cover me. As I did, I noticed what I was wearing: a plain gray shirt, breeches, and hose. All simple, undyed wool, all too large for me.
These were not my clothes. Where had they come from?
Where was I?
Again I tried to remember, and again the world began to spin. I groaned and covered my eyes until the queasiness passed.
I stayed like that for a while, resting against the mattress. It was soft—goose down. The comfort struck me as oddly out of place, considering my surroundings. Not that I was about to complain.
Complain to whom?
I sat up, startled. The motion made my head throb.
The question I’d heard wasn’t a thought. It was a voice, a man’s voice. Deep, the strains of age beginning to weather it.
My own voice came out ragged. I was so thirsty. I looked around and spied a ceramic jug at the foot of my bed. My fingers ached as I picked it up, grateful to hear sloshing inside. I pulled the cork from its neck. The jug’s mouth had already reached mine before I smelled the horror.
I recoiled just before it touched my lips. The jug slipped from my fingers, bounced off the mattress, cracked on the dirt below. The liquid splashed from the broken bottom, and the sharp tang of urine filled the room.
I stared, shaking, at the mess on the ground. Underneath the shards, soaked in the waste, were a handful of stones, a half dozen nails, and short strands of something tied in a knot. It looked like hair.
I gagged, the stink choking my throat. Why would someone leave me that to drink?
It’s not for you to drink.
That voice again. “Who are you?” I said.
No answer came. I made to call out once more, then stopped when I realized: The voice was right.
The jug. Ceramic, filled with urine, stones, nails, and hair. It wasn’t meant to be drunk. It was . . .
The room tumbled, and this time I couldn’t control my nausea. I leaned over the side of the bed, retching, my skull throbbing with every heave.
The spell finally passed. I rolled over, gasping.
You need to get up, the voice said.
I heard it clearly. The voice . . . it wasn’t coming from inside the room. It was inside my head.
I lay there, breath caught in my throat, and responded in kind. Who are you?
Get up, the voice said.
My mind swirled with questions, but the voice wouldn’t answer them. I crawled to the edge of the bed, then stood. My legs wobbled under my weight, the dizziness overwhelming.
Give it a moment.
I steadied myself against the wall. The roughness of the lime-washed cob made my fingers sting. I looked at them; they were red and raw. Blackened skin peeled away from the tips.
“What’s happened to me?” I whispered.
The voice in my head spoke, soothing. Calm, child.
But I couldn’t stay calm. I tried to remember how I got here, and the room spun faster than ever.
I fought it, searched for the memory. I tried to remember.
The walls swam. The walls melted.
• • •
I opened my eyes.
Timbers. I saw tarred timbers over thatch.
The ceiling. I was looking at the ceiling again.
You passed out, the voice said.
I pushed myself up. I didn’t try to remember anything this time. I just stayed hunched over, head between my knees, until the dizziness subsided.
That’s it, the voice said. Good.
What do I do now? I said.
Go to the door.
Slowly, I stood, then staggered over. When I touched the handle, I jerked my blackened fingers away.
The handle was freezing. I could feel the cold beyond the door, seeping through the wood. The nightmare of ice returned to my mind, and all I wanted to do was run. But there was nowhere to go.
I took a breath, trying to calm myself. Then I knelt and pushed the iron plate covering the keyhole out of the way. It swung upward with a squeal of rusted metal.
Light winked through the keyhole. I squinted and peered into it.
The door led outside, to a world covered with snow. Some thirty feet away was a line of trees, branches swaying in the wind, weighed down by heaps of white. The sky above was a dull gray ceiling of clouds.
I pressed closer, trying to see more. To the left, I could just make out the corner of another cob house. I could smell something, too: charred wood.
I saw no fire through the keyhole. The smell wasn’t coming from outside; it was closer. I pulled back, blinking away the spots the brightness had left in my eyes. Then I saw: There were symbols, burned into the wood of the doorjamb.
There were five of them. Four were circles, arcane markings within. The fifth was a W.
No. Wait. It wasn’t a W. It was . . . conjoined Vs?
Yes, the voice in my head said.
I knew these symbols. I looked back at the broken jug, and once again my stomach began to tumble.
Yes, the voice said. Those go together. Think.
But thinking made me dizzy. The only thing I could remember
no, not remember—feel
was that those symbols meant nothing good. A sudden, desperate wish gripped me: Be anywhere but here.
I grabbed the handle again, ignoring the pain in my fingers. I pulled. But the door only rattled. It was locked.
When a wild storm shipwrecks Christopher Rowe and he washes up alone on the shores of England, he can’t remember anything. He doesn’t know who he is or that he’s just completed a secret mission in Paris for the British king. He’s dressed as a nobleman, which feels wrong, and carrying a sash of herbs and medicines, which feels right. Despite his state, Christopher agrees when the farmer who rescues him asks him to find some missing children. Locals believe a ghost has taken them, but Christopher’s scientific mind searches for other solutions. His new mission reunites him with friends he doesn’t remember and leads them all into danger against the brutal winter, witch-hunters, and pirates.
1. Why does the first section open with a page featuring nothing but a question mark? Does this help you make any predictions about the story? Why do you think the author labels the following sections with a day and date? Analyze the italic letters under each day and date, and what they might mean.
2. How and when does Christopher show his leadership skills in this story? Are you surprised by any of his actions? How does he show his loyalty and his willingness to help others? What are some of his other characteristics? How do they help him in his quest?
3. Why is Christopher disguised as a nobleman? How do people treat him differently because they think he has a title? How does he act differently? Describe his feelings about his disguise. Have you ever treated someone differently or been treated differently because of your appearance? How did it make you feel?
4. Sally is presenting herself as Lady Grace. Why is she in disguise? At what points in the story is she vital to helping Christopher and even keeping him alive? How do you think she and Christopher feel about each other? Give evidence for your answers.
5. Describe the friendship between Christopher and Tom. Find examples of how Tom is a steadfast friend. Why does he sometimes get exasperated with Christopher? How are the two of them similar and how are they different? What qualities do you value in a friendship?
6. Who is Moppet and how did she end up in England? Why does it take everyone so long to understand who she is? Why does she like Tom so much even when she is afraid of everyone else? What happens to her at the story’s end? What does she add to the story?
7. When the book opens, Christopher is lost without his memories and doesn’t even know who he is. What does he suspect caused the loss? How does it feel for him not to remember his friends when they find him? Describe when he starts to get his memories back and what might have caused the change. Did Christopher’s predicament make you recognize anything about the importance of your own memories? Do you think Christopher could have learned to adapt without his memories?
8. Why are Robert Dryden and Wise so kind to Christopher? What does Dryden’s wife believe about Christopher, and why? How do the two men help Christopher at the beginning and again later on?
9. Summarize what Sir Edmund told Christopher about his role as a witch-hunter. What did Christopher find out that proved Sir Edmund lied in the past and was lying to Christopher now? How did Christopher figure out the truth?
10. What do the local people believe about Sybil? Why does Robert Dryden defend her? What do Christopher and his friends learn about Sybil’s real history and abilities? How is she killed, and why?
11. Describe Sir Edmund’s scheme to kidnap the children. Why do the pirates want the children? How does Sir Edmund use local folklore to make people believe the disappearance was magical? Why did he do it? How could making different choices have changed the outcome of the story?
12. Why do the local people believe the White Lady took the children? How does Christopher figure out that their belief is wrong? Why do you think the local people were so willing to believe that?
13. What does Julian do to help his father? Why does he do it? Describe Julian’s personality and what you think his life was like with his father, giving specifics to back up your answers. What happens to him in the end?
14. Christopher’s pigeon, Bridget, proves to be important in more than one situation. Describe times in the story that she helped Christopher and his friends, and how. How is she especially useful to Moppet?
15. The story takes place in December during an unusually snowy time. When is the weather an important factor in the plot? How might the story change if it took place in the summer?
16. Why do you think the author chose to have the voice of Master Benedict speak in Christopher’s head? Find examples of how the voice helps Christopher.
17. Near the end, Christopher thinks, “Fear had ruled these hills—had ruled me, too.” Analyze his statement, explaining how fear had ruled the hills and how it had ruled him. What did he learn about fear during his adventures? Why do you think fear is such a powerful motivator? Do you think having no fear can also be a problem?
18. Christopher goes on to say to the Raven, “‘You are nothing but a dream.’” Why does he say that? Discuss whether you think he truly believes it.
19. Sir Edmund’s needle is engraved with Latin words from the Bible that translate as “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” How does this quote relate to the book’s plot? Describe times when Christopher learns a truth after believing something else, and how it sets him free. How do you decide who and what to believe in your own life?
20. What does the word wraith mean? Analyze the book’s title and why you think the author chose it. How does it relate to the story? Talk about the book cover and how it reflects the story.
1. Robert Dryden’s wife is worried that Christopher’s pigeon, Bridget, is a familiar, which is explained as “a demon spirit that took animal form. They were said to be companions of witches.” Talk to students about where this conception may have come from, and why people believed it. Ask them if they think connections with animals are dangerous or just misunderstood. Then invite students to think about what kind of animal they’d like as a magical companion if they could have one. Each student should make a poster of the animal, including a picture and explanations of its magical abilities, why they chose that animal, and what kind of relationship they’d hope to have with it.
2. Witch trials have taken place in Europe and North America, including Salem, Massachusetts. Have students research the history of witch trials using print and digital sources. Each student should write down ten interesting facts from their research and share them with the class. As a group, discuss how the facts relate to the book.
3. Ask students to work in small groups to devise a board game themed around Call of the Wraith. Each group should brainstorm challenging questions and answers about the book, and put them on cards. The board should have a path of squares for players to travel forward if they get the right answer, and backward if they don’t. Have students decorate the cards and board, and share them with their classmates. Read more about making board games at this PBS page: https://to.pbs.org/2j0dOLf
4. This novel uses unusual words connected to beliefs in magic and to Christopher’s work as an apothecary. Have each student find unfamiliar words in the novel such as geas and vitriol. They should create a small booklet with a different word on each page, along with a quote from the book, a definition, and a drawing or decoration to illustrate the concept.
5. Perhaps after the friends return to London, there will be time for quiet conversations by the fire. Have students imagine such a conversation between Sally and Tom in which they discuss their adventures in the book and talk candidly about how they think and feel about Christopher. Students should work in pairs to write a dialogue, and then perform for small groups.
Guide written in 2018 by Kathleen Odean, a youth librarian for seventeen years, who chaired the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She now gives all-day workshops on new books for children and teens. She tweets at @kathleenodean.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Since escaping from university with a pair of degrees in theoretical physics, Kevin Sands has worked as a researcher, a business consultant, and a teacher. He lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of the award-winning and bestselling Blackthorn Key series.