V.E. Schwab has long been opening speculative fiction doors for young adult and adult readers with bestselling books like Vicious and the Shades of Magic series. Now, she’s venturing further into the world of kid readers, with City of Ghosts, a supernatural story about a 12-year-old girl named Cassidy Blake and the ghosts she sees.
When Cass falls into a river, she almost dies, but is saved by a boy named Jacob who happens to be a ghost. When the “corporeally-challenged” Jacob pulls Cass back from the dead, she pulls him a little bit into the world of the living in return, and they become best friends.
“And so you have a girl who’s not all the way alive, a boy who’s not all the way dead, and suddenly she has this ability to see ghosts,” Schwab told Den of Geek at San Diego Comic-Con, explaining the premise of her story.
Cass’ ability is made more complicated by the fact that her parents, better known as the Inspecters, have their very own book series in which they explore the history of paranormal activity in different places.
“They don’t know that their daughter can see ghosts and they get a television show traveling to the most haunted cities in the world,” said Schwab. “And this girl, who has done a pretty good job of avoiding ghosts, now finds herself dragged forcefully into some of the most haunted places.”
Set in Schwab’s hometown of Edinburgh (the author splits her time between the Scottish city and Nashville), City of Ghosts is the first in a planned series set in the world’s most haunted cities. For Schwab, Edinburgh was the perfect place to set the first installment in the series.
“[In Edinburgh], people talk about ghosts the way they talk about going to the grocery store,” Schwab explained. “There’s this sense of normalcy that they attribute to the paranormal that I found utterly fascinating. They don’t put it up on this like, folk-loric pedestal, they don’t dismiss it as superstition. They treat it like, ‘Oh I saw one once, I was doing…’ They treat it in the same way you would talk about seeing a celebrity or seeing anything else, and I love that.”
City of Ghosts comes complete with a map at the beginning of the book that shows Edinburgh from Cass’ perspective, including all of the places she visits in the story. It’s a format Schwab plans to continue for each book in the series, the next of which will be set in Paris. Schwab has already begun doing research for that one, visiting the Catacombs of Paris, which is home to more than six million skeletons, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery, which is the size of 89 city blocks.
“All of the ghost stories in the series, asides from the primary one that is my plot, are all real. So they’re all local legends,” said Schwab of City of Ghosts‘ supernatural stories. In Edinburgh, this includes the legends of graverobbers-turned-murderers Burke and Hare; George Mackenzie, the poltergeist who lives in Greyfriars Kirkyard; and the drummer at Edinburgh Castle.
“There’s a really lovely plaza in Edinburgh that just happened to be a mass execution ground,” explains Schwab. “And, when you’re walking there now in 2018, you’re like, ‘This is like a really cute plaza with lots of shops and stuff.’ But if you’re Cassidy, the main character, who can feel the veil pulling on her, she steps into this plaza and it looks beautiful and, all the sudden, she’s being wrenched through the veil into a realm where she sees that this was a place of mass executions… It was the hanging square, essentially. So I love the dichotomy of this town, this city, which is essentially a fairy tale, having this really dark underbelly to it.”
In some ways, City of Ghosts has been a long time coming for the bestselling author. Schwab has published 14 books under the names V.E. Schwab and Victoria Schwab, but the seeds for City of Ghosts, or at least a proper ghost story of some kind, have been with Schwab since college.
“Really, the very, very first book I ever wrote while I was in college, never sold, had one or two seeds that even ten years later I just loved,” Schwab said. “Those seeds were not in the right garden. They were not planted in the right place but there was something to them. [The story] was about the line between the living and the dead.”
The line between life and death is a common topic for Schwab, who also explores the theme in a more adult context in her Villains series—the first of which, Vicious, came out in 2015, and the second of which, Vengeful, will hit bookshelves next month. In the Villains series, some people develop extraordinary powers after enduring near-death experiences (or, more accurately, experiences in which they are brought back from the properly dead). Sydney Clark is one such character in Vicious; she develops the power to bring others back from the dead.
“I thought, what if I took Sydney Clark, from Vicious, and gave her the exact same power and created a different world building system?” Schwab said. “What does her power look like if, instead of being a super villain/hero figure who can resurrect the dead, what if the exact same accident results in the ability to cross the veil between the living and the dead?”
Enter Cassidy Blake, a character who owes something to a character who has come before, but who is entirely her own, dynamic protagonist—not least of all because she lives in a totally different context: the middle grade market.
Schwab’s Villains may be far too adult for the eight to 13-year-olds in your life, but if you’re a young adult or adult who loves Schwab’s work (and, if you’ve read Schwab’s work, odds are you love it), and who wants to open a speculative fiction door for a younger person in your life, City of Ghosts is the perfect opportunity.
Kayti Burt serves as a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. A long-term lover of all things science fiction and fantasy, she is an unabashed defender of the power of speculative storytelling and a proponent of sentimental TV. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.