The Grave Robber's Apprentice
by Allan Stratton

Allan Stratton's The Grave Robber's Apprentice

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 8-12

Fairy Tale Archetypes, Shakespearean Themes, and Death Defying Heroics

I adored this unassuming children's story, which begins with two very different children.

The Grave Robber's Apprentice - Summary

Angela, the Little Countess, is basically happy, if not a little lonely.

She spends her days scripting and staging elaborate puppet shows, wishing her parents would pay her a little more attention, and daydreaming about the mysterious boy she sometimes sees outside the castle.

The boy, Hans, is the adopted son of Knobbe the Bent, a cantankerous career grave robber who is becoming increasingly agitated by Hans's refusal to subsidize his retirement by stealing from corpses.

Hans daydreams about the life of luxury Angela must experience in her lofty castle.

Conflict strikes when Angela and her parents are forcibly summoned to the capital, where the Archduke informs them of his intention to marry Angela on her thirteenth birthday, one month hence.

This is particularly distressing, because the Archduke's wives have a habit of dying horribly shortly after he receives their dowries.

  • In fact, Angela's only friend died under very suspicious circumstances, drowned in a bath of milk, shortly after her own wedding to the Archduke.
  • In fact, the Archduke's current wife is still alive and frantically informs Angela of her potential fate, shortly before dying herself, under very suspicious circumstances. 

Angela's solution involves the plot of Romeo and Juliet and a frightful, duplicitous Necromancer.

Soon, she and Hans must form an uneasy partnership and undertake an epic and dangerous journey on which secrets will be discovered, strengths will be revealed, and wrongs will be righted.

Review continues.

Angela and Hans (cover image cropped, title superimposed)

The Grave Robber's Apprentice - review

It's a children's story in the epic tradition, although it's not especially long.

What I find monumental about the piece is first, of course, the hero's journey, here depicted as an equal partnership between a boy and a girl who grow to legitimately care for one another as human beings, while expressing compassion for almost everyone they meet.

Then, there is the clever use of familiar fairy tale tropes brought forward to fit the modern mold:

  • the princess in distress sets out to rescue herself
  • the adoptive father is selfish but not cruel
  • the monsters in the forest only want to protect themselves
  • the religious hermits in the mountains are constantly preparing for battle.

The Archduke is scary, but with comic flaws that prevent him from quite reaching the terrifying blankness of a Bluebeard.

The story even gets a second villain in the Necromancer, who is even scarier for his occasional attempts at humor. At one point, a coffin saves the children's lives! And there are wolves! And acrobats! And secret passages!

It's all very thrilling.

From page one, I loved The Grave Robber's Apprentice, a thoroughly modern fairy tale cobbled from the broken molds of the stories of the past, whose traditional details no longer serve today's children. The form remains familiar and recognizable, but the specifics are enlightened and updated. Children can enjoy the thrill of the fairy tale journey, and adults can rest assured that this empowering fantasy will not perpetuate any of the painful stereotypes that mar our enjoyment of sharing certain old tales without our thoroughly modern offspring.

More of Monica's reviews.

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