Reviewer’s Rating: ★★
Sometimes it really is about the destination and not the journey. This hard truth is one “William and the Lost Spirit” could stand to learn. Despite charming illustrations and surprisingly complex characters, a weak ending sucks the magic out of this tale.
In the Middle Ages, young William’s life is thrown into chaos after his father dies and his mother chooses to marry a powerful but subtly sinister man named Brifaut. Unhappy with the new marriage and convinced that their father’s spirit is calling out to her, William’s sister Helise runs away. What begins as a simple journey to find his missing sister becomes a dangerous and fantastical adventure full of knights, brigands and bizarre monsters.
Aiding William in his quest is a decidedly un-knightly knight named Brabant, a flirty troubadour and William’s aunt Ysane, whose knowledge of magic shifts the story from a relatively realistic look at life in the Middle Ages to a mystical land populated with dog monsters, griffins and headless men with faces on their torsos. While the fantasy elements might seem like things drawn from a hallucinogen-induced nightmare, author Gwen De Bonneval is drawing from actual medieval mythology. However, it’s still pretty abrupt when the tale suddenly becomes a fantasy and the means by which William is able to reach this magical world is never satisfactorily explained.
“William and the Lost Spirit” is at its best when the characters are behaving not as the stereotypes upon which they are based but as real people. The valiant knight kills without a second thought and associates with bandits who rape and pillage. Helise is consumed by vengeance, suspecting even their own mother in a Hamlet-like plot to kill their father. It’s clearly not a story intended for very young readers.
Unlike most fantasies starring children, the story doesn’t necessarily revolve around William. Most of his coming-of-age story involves him learning that the people around him are often motivated by bad things and will do bad things to get what they want. While William eventually masters the mysterious powers that allow him to search for the lost spirit of his father, it’s far from a happy ending.
In fact, it’s not much of an ending at all. After a slow but steady revelation of both the magical world and the machinations of those closest to him in the real world, the ending feels abrupt and inconclusive. Readers might be tempted to think that the creators simply ran out of money to make more pages. It’s a shame, since “William and the Lost Spirit” has a lot to say about family, religion and a bygone era, but it ends up being cut off mid-sentence.
Matthieu Bonhomme’s illustrations are colorful and clean, and his knack for drawing the classical archetypes that fill the story makes it even more surprising when the characters we thought we had pegged reveal their idiosyncrasies. Both the ordinary and fantastical landscapes are beautiful, and though the pacing is a little too uniform, the story is never confusing or hard to follow (at least from a visual standpoint, since some of the book’s political scheming might lose younger readers).
“William and the Lost Spirit” feels like something really special, right up until the anticlimactic ending. While it by no means ruins everything that came before, it feels like a quest with no treasure at the end. William’s newfound magical powers, how his father’s spirit got lost in the first place and practically every other question the reader might have is left unanswered.
Despite going out with a whimper, “William and the Lost Spirit” is an engaging read from start to (almost) finish. Young readers who stick around long enough to see that not everything is as black and white as the book’s fantasy nature suggests will find it well worth their time.