Let us begin with a little bit of numerology, ‘Slither’s Tale’ is the eleventh volume of ‘The Wardstone Chronicles’. It can also be counted as the series’ second book not told by Tom Ward after volume nine, ‘I Am Grimalkin’, and the first book in the series which takes place far north of the Spook-protected County, having only indirect ties to the ‘Spooks’ and their tale.
The book introduces the reader to a long-lived race of humanoid beings called the Kobalos. They feed on blood, have wolfish heads and can use their tails to sense their surroundings. Most of the Kobalos live in the far north in Valkarky, a steadily growing city that is supposed, according to their beliefs, to cover the whole world in the far future.
The main narrator Slither is a Kobalos haizda mage, a kind of hermit who lives on the outskirts of their domain. He farms a region, his haizda, where several hundred humans live in their dwellings. He rules them with fear and magecraft, harvesting the souls of dying humans and drinking the blood of the living.
Like all of his vocation, Slither follows a strict code of honour, so he would, for example, never break a trade agreed upon. So the story begins with – guess! – a trade between Slither and one of his human farmers, whom he finds dying. In exchange for the farm and his eldest daughter, Slither promises to deliver the two younger daughters to their aunt and uncle.
The next day, Slither and the three siblings begin their journey. Slither plans to deliver the younger girls first and to then sell the eldest daughter, Nessa, at one of the slave markets of his people to get rid of his obligation as a Kobalos citizen to sell a human slave at least every forty years. As they take shelter for the night in a Kobalos tower, their plans are changed. The high mage owning the tower decides to kill Slither and take the three human females for himself. Slither survives the devious attack, thanks to Nessa. After killing the mage and his henchmen, he manages to escape with the three sisters. Unfortunately, one of the mage’s henchmen, a Kobalos assassin, has sent a telepathic message to his brethren, so the group has to journey to Valkarky first to clear Slither’s name. On their way, they get waylaid by a Kobalos sent to bring Slither to justice. Slither, again, is victorious.
After a long journey north, Slither can convince the ruling triumvirate of high mages that his claims are the truth as he sees it. But since the message of the dying assassin told another view of the story, Slither has to undergo trial by combat. While waiting for the date of the trial to arrive, Slither discovers an intriguing prisoner who calls herself Grimalkin. What happens in the rest of the novel, the reader should find out for himself.
Joseph Delaney this time uses two narrators to tell the tale. The main narrator shows how Slither’s values and traditions differ strongly from human ones and these differences become even more obvious being contrasted time and time again by Nessa’s viewpoint. With this narrative trick, Delaney paints an intriguing picture of the strange culture of the Kobalos without making them the total evil they could have been if shown by a human viewpoint alone. But it is also apparent at the end of the novel that there can be no peaceful co-existence between humans and Kobalos.
‘Slither’s Tale’ is in my opinion a well-written addition to ‘The Wardstone Chronicles’ and perhaps paves the way for further adventures after the defeat of the fiend. It shows that there exists a wider world beyond the County which doesn’t know about spooks. It also succeeds in making the world a more realistic place. There are creatures of pure evil in ‘The Wardstone Chronicles’ but this novel shows once more that there exist all shades of grey in the world.
While most of the people one encounters are mere sketches, Slither and Nessa show detailed and distinct personalities. Even if the plot is a relatively straightforward ‘travel from a to b and overcome obstacles on the way’ fare, ‘The Wardstone Chronicles’ are written for a YA readership after all, Delaney’s ability to conjure up a gloomy and chilling atmosphere without being too graphic makes reading the novel worthwhile even for an adult fan of gothic horror. But despite it being only loosely connected to the rest of ‘The Wardstone Chronicles’ (via ‘Grimalkin’), it is not a good entry point for the whole series. Start at the beginning with ‘The Spook’s Apprentice’, soon to become a major motion picture titled ‘The Seventh Son’!