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The Servants by Michael Marshall Smith
Review by Andrea Johnson
Eos Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061494161
Date: 01 September 2008 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Mark is eleven years old, and can't believe his parents got a divorce. Beyond that, what's his mother doing getting married again so quickly to a complete stranger, and dragging Mark out to their new home in a seaside town where he has no friends, and doesn't know a soul? And it gets worse. Mark's Mom hasn't been feeling well lately. Some days she barely gets out of bed. And why does his stepfather have to be so overprotective of her? She's doing fine. She can go outside. She'll get better. Won't she?

After a chance meeting with the elderly tenant of the basement in the house, Mark is exposed to an especially odd kind of magic. There is a connection between the haunting action in the basement and what's happening above, but can Mark figure it out in time?

Thrust into a new life with a stepfather he barely knows, at a seaside village where he has no friends, Eleven year old Mark is frustrated, confused, and angry. Why would his parents split up? Why would his mom marry a complete stranger so quickly? And why would she drag her son out to a remote seaside village where he doesn't know anyone? Doesn't she love him anymore?

Told not to talk to strangers makes it hard for Mark to make friends at the skate park, where he spends most afternoons. Since he doesn't know any of the boys, they are strangers, and therefore, he shouldn't talk to them. He's not supposed to go out of visual sight of the house or the skate park, and his Mom isn't healthy enough to take him into town. What's worse, his stepfather, David, has harsh words for him anytime he pushes his Mom to do something. Although it's summer, it's cold and rainy all the time at the coast. Bored, lonely, and out of sorts, could the summer get any worse?

Mark's only friend is the old woman who lives downstairs, and all she wants to do is eat cookies, drink strong tea, and talk about how the town was when she was young. Mark's interest peaks when the old woman shows him the rest of the basement. The walls are smoky, smooth, and old. The butler's pantry, the kitchen, the old larders, what kind of memories might these rooms have? When something impossible happens in the basement, Mark can tell himself he was dreaming, or he can investigate. What bored eleven year old isn't going to investigate a fun, creepy, haunted basement? When he realizes the connection between what's happening down there, and his own life, Mark must face a painful transition.

I don't know which Marshall Smith does better –- successfully and subtly conveying the naivety and confusion of a child, or elegantly conveying a crucible of truth, and how painful that journey can be.

Reading this book, I really felt for young Mark. I remembered being that age, and not understanding what the adults were talking about, but thinking I knew far more than I did, and my life was beyond easy compared to his. The book is short, and an easy read.

Speaking of short, I wonder if the book is too short? At just over 200 pages, a lot of the action gets wrapped up pretty quickly at the end, with minimal exposition after the climax. I wish the book had been longer, I felt there was more interaction that could have happened between Mark and the basement dwellers.

I recommend Michael Marshall Smith's The Servants for young adult readers (who are old enough to read a chapter book), or anyone looking for a light ghost story with an inspiring message.

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