The Phantom Isles
by Stephen Alter
Review by Colleen Cahill
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1582347387
Date: February, 2007 List Price $16.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Visiting a tropical paradise seems like a good idea to most people. What happens when a tropical island, or at least its ghosts, comes to stay in a small Massachusetts town? This is the premise of Stephen Alter's The Phantom Isles, a story of misplaced souls from the Ilhas dos Fantasmas that have been trapped in some of the books of the Carville Public Library for more than sixty years. When three middle school students unknowingly take the first steps to freeing the spirits, a lively adventure ensues.
It all begins when Ming, Orion and Courtney break into the Public Library at midnight to read a spell from The Compleat Necromancer by Prof. Hezekiah T. Osgood. After reciting the "Spells and Incantations for Summoning the Decreased", they're disappointed because nothing seems to happen, but by the next day, they and the Librarian, Alma, are aware something is afoot. In those books previously owned by Prof. Osgood, faces start to appear. These are not just pictures, but moving, talking images of people. After a bit of research, the kids and Alma learn that the ghosts are from a set of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean which are also the smallest nation in the world, Prithvideep. Due to strong currents around the islands, the tiny population is made up of "castaways, wanderers, and seafarers" from every continent on Earth. In the early 20th century, Hezekiah Osgood, his wife and son were sent to Prithvideep from Hornswoggle, Massachusetts (which later became Carville) to study the island and also teach the natives "puritan values and democratic ideals". The Prof. did not end up teaching anyone anything, but he did discover that the island were full of ghosts. These were not scary or evil spirits, but family members who continue to exist on the island and were treated as honored members of the community. These are the ghosts that Courtney, Ming, Orion and Alma need to release from their bondage in the Osgood books and the only one who seems to know the answer is the ghost of Nick Osgood, son of the nefarious Prof. But they will have to hurry: Ming and Orion's crazy teacher Mrs. Hokum has seen one of the ghosts and is bent on getting the books in the library burned.
Alter has written a delightful story for young adults. The Phantom Isles has adventure, history, and for the ghosts, danger. It also has wonderful touches of humor: I laughed out loud at Ming and Orion's answers to Mrs. Hokum's "Positive Profiles of Self Assessment", which included such questions as What Historical figure do you most admire? Ming choose Genghis Khan's wife and Orion choose Pac-man. Some of the humor seems aimed more at adults, such as that until recently the President of Prithvideep was fed to the sharks at the end of his term of service. The book is held together by the superb atmosphere the author sets, often just through the use of names: the Ilhas dos Fantasmas conjures a mysterious island of romance, while Hornswoggle, Massachusetts seems faintly Lovecraftian.
I highly recommend The Phantom Isles for those who love a good fantasy that has a bit of intrigue, a touch of far off lands and a whole lot of fun.