The Hunt for the Seventh by Christine Morton-Shaw
In 2006, Jim Brown moves to the Minerva Estate with sister, Sally, and their father. Their father, who has recently been widowed, has just gotten a job as head gardener for Lord Minerva.
Lord Minerva makes it clear that he has no patience for children. He tells the Brown family that Jim and Sally are to stay out of sight and out from underfoot. Jim and Sally are limited to the public areas of the estate and their tower rooms. They also are not allowed to leave the estate without an adult. There is a security system with plenty of cameras throughout the estate, which will be monitored to ensure that neither of the Brown children wander away from the places where they are allowed.
Being restricted to certain areas of the estate ends up causing problems for Jim, since he has been hearing voices telling him to "find the seventh." As Jim begins to follow the requests of the voices, he is led farther and farther out of bounds.
Jim gradually pieces together the history of the estate. In 1796 a curse was placed on the Minerva family. The curse was that every 30 years a child of the Minerva family will die on the summer solstice until either seven children have been killed or the curse is broken. The first death was in 1826, which means that the seventh and final child will die in the upcoming solstice of 2006 which is days away. Additionally, there is only one child left in the family -- Lord Minerva's autistic son, Henry. Jim sees Henry around on the estate and part of the mystery is that Jim cannot figure out where Henry is living, since the staff are under the impression that Henry has gone away to boarding school.
The restrictions on the movements of Jim and Sally provide much of the tension in the plot. We find out that something has been stolen, but, despite all of the cameras on the premises, no one knows who took whatever it is. Lord Minerva, of course, thinks that Jim must have taken whatever it was, and gets more insistent that the kids stay where he wants them, and Jim's escapes so that he can continue his investigations get increasingly dangerous.
One of the places where this book really shines is in the characters. I tensed up whenever Lord Minerva and his menacing butler were in the storyline. We also meet several villagers -- Mr. Benjamin, who owns the pub in town, and Jacob Everard and his daughter Eve (a widow herself, whose last name is never given). These people all become sources of clues, and in the case of Jacob and Eve, friendship for the Brown family. We also get to know Alicia Benson, the cook for the estate. She is a motherly figure, if a strict one, who takes Jim and Sally under her wing.
The other biggest strength of the book, I think, is the atmosphere. The scenes where Jim has to watch flashbacks of the deaths of the first five children who died are some of the most effective in the book. Equally effective is the way the reader watches the water build up on the grounds of Minerva Hall as it rains, and rains, and rains.
Speaking of water, water is a recurring theme through this book. There were once weeping willow trees on the grounds of Minerva Hall, and the weaving of wicker (which is made from willow) was the major industry in the area. Weeping willows grow alongside streams, but all of the streams, and consequently, the willows, are gone from the estate now. There are signs all over the estate warning visitors to stay away from this place or that when it rains. Additionally, there is a place where a river once emerged from the ground in the village, but something happened to the water and the culvert, where the water used to emerge, is now all boggy and things flood in strange, unexpected ways. So it is not just fitting, but expected, that the climax of this book takes place in a raging downpour with lots of flooding on the estate.
The conclusion of the book led to much head scratching on my part. The solution was kind of ingenious and yet sort of perplexing. Jim figures out the nature of the curse and what has been prophesied will be his part in it, but one character's motivations for his -- or her -- behavior are senseless to me. Frankly, if I didn't find so much else to love about this book, this one development would have ruined it for me, and the book would now be back at my local used book store, rather than still sitting on my shelf.
Another weakness, though hopefully it is a weakness in editing, not in the writing, is that in the edition I read, at least, the language used has been made United States-centric. The book takes place in the UK, and Morton-Shaw is from the UK, so Jim, Sally, and everyone else should use the terminology they use in the UK. As a result, instead of torches, serviettes, and chips, we have flashlights, napkins, and fries, and those are just the ones that I caught.
What follows is a spoiler about the plot point that didn't make sense to me. If you do not want to be spoiled for the explanation of how the book ends, do not read any farther.
It turns out that Henry, Lord Minerva's son, is dead. The Henry that Jim befriends is a ghost, and that Jim's task is not to protect Henry, but to find his body. This was pretty ingenious and I liked this development.
However, the part that didn't make any sense to me is that Lord Minerva and the creepy butler murdered Henry, because Lord Minerva hated his son. I just cannot wrap my brain around this motivation. Perhaps if Lord Minerva had had a psychotic break and then covered up the crime afterwards because he was afraid of going to jail, I could see it, but this was clearly premeditated.