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The Shadow Guests    by Joan Aiken order for
Shadow Guests
by Joan Aiken
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2003 (1980)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I thought I had read everything that Joan Aiken wrote but I somehow missed this one. Her novels typically have a dark side and, true to form, this one has an ancient family curse that must run its course. We meet young Cosmo as he is waiting unmet at an English airport for his father's cousin Eunice Doom. Cosmo has been sent by his father to live with her at Courtoys Mill after something unspecified has happened to his mother and elder brother.

The thirty something maths professor Eunice finally arrives in an ancient Rolls with her aged St. Bernard, Lob, who 'after a polite moment, removed his paw from Cosmo's grasp with an absent-minded air, as if he could not quite remember how it had got there in the first place.' Eunice informs Cosmo that he will board at Morningquest School in Oxford during the week and join her, Lob, the housekeeper Mrs. Tydings and her cat Bubbles at Courtoys Mill on week-ends.

Outdoors at the mill, a mysterious voice reminds Cosmo of a boy who played with him and with his brother on a past visit. He has to cope with acceptance rituals at school and ghosts (Con, a Roman slave training as a gladiator and Sim, a monkish boy reluctantly heading off on Crusade) who need his help at home. He sums it all up as 'I've just heard about this ancestral curse, and as well as that my form has decided, for no particular reason, to send me to Coventry.' Though the school situation eventually improves, the home front becomes more and more dangerous, culminating in attacks of heavy furniture and by two spirits from the past.

The Shadow Guests is mysterious and mystical. Cosmo faces adversity but also learns to accept what he cannot change just as his gladiator and Crusader ancestors did. As is typical with Joan Aiken, the ending doesn't give clear answers and my son was frustrated by its ambiguity, but that's often what life is like after all.

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