Book Review: “The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship” by Philip Pullman and Fred Fordham

May 30, 2017

While we’re all waiting on Philip Pullman’s continuation of His Dark Materials in The Book of Dust, due out October 2017, and for the BBC adaptation of that same series –an adaptation being prepared by none other than Jack Thorne of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – we can tide ourselves over with Pullman’s very first original graphic novel: The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship!

While Pullman’s The Golden Compass has been adapted into graphic novel form, Mystery of the Ghost Ship is the first time the author has originated a story for the format. The title character is the son of an inventor whose 1929 experiment at sea goes terribly wrong. The young John Blake was separated from his father’s expedition and ended up on the Mary Alice, a ship that somehow sails through time, picking up castaways from various historical eras – John’s crewmates include an ancient Roman engineer, a 19th-century Silk Trader, and a former captive of a Barbary pirate raid, among others. Where and when the ship will appear is unpredictable, but recently some dangerous people have been trying to track the Mary Alice down. In 2017, Australian teenager Serena Henderson is separated from her family during a storm at sea and finds herself a part of the Mary Alice’s motley crew. Together, she and John must fight to keep the ship out of the hands of its enemies.

At its heart, Mystery of the Ghost Ship is an action and adventure story, well-suited to the graphic novel format – there are explosions, high-speed chases, hand-to-hand combat, and high-tech weapons. All of this combines to keep the story moving along at a quick pace, aided by the illustrative powers of Fred Fordham. It’s a good thing, too, because much of the work of this story is in situating the conceit of what I assume will be a series.

I love the idea of a ship that travels through time, but pretty much all of the action in this installment takes place in 2017. There are lots of good reasons for this: we need to meet Serena, our female protagonist; we need to establish the crew’s mysterious connection to the present (hint: they’ve got descendants!); and we need to establish some kind of overarching narrative for the continuing adventures of John Blake. All of this the graphic novel does very well, and it’s to its credit that I am eager to read more. I do hope there is more time-hopping and historical encounters in the future!

That being said, you can read Mystery of the Ghost Ship as a standalone if you want to test it out without committing to a larger narrative – we may not 100% solve the mystery of how the Mary Alice works, but Pullman does give us some closure on the main events of the narrative. If you’re wondering how close this is to His Dark Materials, the answer is not very – what the two works share is mostly Pullman’s impressive imaginative power. If you’re a fan of his, this is definitely worth checking out.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.