The Grave Robber's Apprentice reads like a fantasy adventure. And in fact, Canadian author Stratton throws in allusions to the Greek myths, Shakespeare (at least two plays), The Wizard of Oz, Oliver, and even the New Testament. Though there are very few actual fantasy elements in that Everything Is Explained, the story feels picaresque, macabre, and fantastical throughout.
We begin as we should, with a baby adrift in a jeweled chest. The baby even has a birthmark shaped like an eagle on his shoulder. But the man who finds him shrugs it all away. He is inclined to leave the baby to die and just take the chest. But instead it occurs to Knobbe--scavenger and grave robber--that this child can grow up to work with him and then care for him in his old age. Knobbe won't admit that the baby has won his soft heart. And so the baby begins a new life as Hans, the grave robber's apprentice.
Hans makes an okay grave robber's helper when it comes to digging and all, but he balks at actually touching the bodies. Knobbe, who feeds, clothes, and yells at the boy, tells him it's time for Hans to rob the graves completely. Hans is torn.
Meanwhile, we read about the trials of a girl named Angela Gabriela von Schwanenberg, "the Little Countess." She loves to put on plays, and she includes Hans as a character called "the Boy." But she is horrified when she and her parents are thrown in a locked carriage and taken to Archduke Arnulf's castle. Her fate will be truly horrible. Let's just say the archduke is a regular Bluebeard. Angela is next on the list, and she and her parents try frantically to think of a way to save her.
In planning her escape, Angela introduces us to a villain who's just as bad or worse than Arnulf--the Necromancer. He is blind and looks like he's half dead. The Necromancer surrounds himself with a herd of awful little boys he calls Weevils. When push comes to shove, he will take care of himself first, betraying anyone who gets in his way.
Eventually Angela and Hans go on the run together, with Arnulf and the Necromancer hot on their heels. They meet strange and kindly characters as Angela sets out to rescue her parents from the archduke.
This book includes a lot of gruesome stuff that 10-year-old boys are likely to relish, such as the following:
"The Necromancer floated into view, feeling his way with a long wooden staff. A wraithlike creature, hairless and pale, his willowy frame was draped in a dirty velvet shroud. His wears were withered; his nose and lips rotted. He had no teeth; no eyes. His empty sockets were empty caverns rippling with shadows from the lamplight. 'How long have you been there?' Angela whispered. 'Since the moment you thought of me,' the Necromancer replied. With long, bony fingers, he withdrew two bird eggs from his dirty shroud and placed them in his eye sockets. 'I've been watching you since you left your castle, my crow's eyes circling the night sky.'"
Later, after Angela gets away, the Necromancer hunts for her, flicking his gray, lizard-like tongue, catching her scent in a graveyard. Another striking line is this bit near the end of the book: "We'll stuff him in a bone barrel, gagged with a dead rat." There's really quite a lot of this sort of thing.
Although Stratton very deliberately explains away as much magic as he can, there are over-the-top and creepy things going on, just the same. Much of it is exhilarating, such as when our hero and his allies make various daring escapes. (In a way the book is one long chase scene!)
On a side note, I was very pleased with how Knobbe is kept in the story and even honored for his rough but dedicated attempts to raise Hans. In a departure from most storytelling, Han's somewhat repulsive adopted father isn't limited to being a one-dimensional villain.
The Grave Robber's Apprentice is a colorful tale, full of adventure, horror, comedy, and heroism. Not to mention a prophecy that echoes Macbeth's doom, though this one may be even more satisfying, considering it involves a sea of bones. Elements like Hans's identity are given away well in advance, but I don't think you'll care much. You'll be too busy following Hans and Angela at a breakneck pace as they flee the Necromancer and the evil archduke.