William’s sister, Helise, has run away. William feels responsible; he knew she was distressed over their mother’s remarriage, didn’t believe their father was dead, and had some frightening ideas about their mother, but he didn’t listen. He sets off in search of Helise and finds a wandering knight, Sir Brabant. A good thing, since he has plunged into the dangerous medieval fantasy world they live in, where villagers can be murdered by vagabonds and every stranger could be a dangerous enemy.
They seek refuge with a sorceress and William is badly wounded. In the second part of the story, he enters a strange land, encountering frightening monsters, mystical beings, and the great Christian king Prester John. But who are the real monsters and is his father really alive somewhere in this strange land? When William returns to the sorceress’s home, he finds Helise and more questions: was he hallucinating, or was his strange journey real? With the help of Sir Brabant and some determined deeds of their own, William and Helise move on to find a new life. There is no happy ending for everyone — as William says, “There are no winners here.” But they accept what they cannot change and look forward to the future.
The author and artist have created a fascinating medieval world that seems like it’s straight out of a history book until the fantastic elements come to life. An additional section at the end, “The World of William and the Lost Spirit,” adds more information about the class system and various characters from the book, such as the seneschal and the knights. There’s also a section explaining the different monsters and fantasy creatures, which were all taken from medieval monsters, and their origins. The back matter also includes several pages of discussion starters and questions focusing on gender, religion, and various tropes and conflicts in the story.
The art is a good match for the story and I especially liked the way the backgrounds of the panels shift to match the settings and moods. When William is fleeing dangerous men, the woods are glowing in warning shades of red and orange. Nighttime adventures are shaded in dark blues and William’s adventures in the Land of Truth show oddly green skies. The illustrations are skillfully drawn with sharp, bright colors and lines and there is no danger of the artistry overtaking the story. The amount of text varies, but dialogue is kept to a minimum in the action scenes, and the story has a strong balance of action told through the art and important points in the plot highlighted in the text.
This story took me a while to get into, as medieval fantasies aren’t my favorite genre, but once I’d read through it a few times I found it sparked off a lot of interesting ideas and I enjoyed the art and storyline. However, I’d have a hard time figuring out exactly where in the library to place this or what audience to give it to. There is a certain amount of blood and death. Several monsters are killed with a certain amount of splatter and there are destroyed villages and slaughtered peasants, although nothing too gory. There are mature themes hinted at in the philosophical discussions of William’s father’s beliefs and the dialogues with William’s mother. At least a contextual knowledge of medieval beliefs and culture is needed to really grasp the full context of the story. The publisher recommends it for teens ages 13-18 and I’d agree that’s probably the age group that would be able to handle all the elements of the story. The problem is that William is a fairly young thirteen-year-old and I simply can’t think of any teen, at least at my library, who would be interested in this type of medieval fantasy, especially with the philosophical and religious elements that are such an important part of the story.