Book Reviews

The Power of Dark : Robin Jarvis

The Power of DarkThe Power of Dark by Robin Jarvis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up near Whitby. It’s a gorgeous, wild place. It hinges on the great jaws of the West and East Cliff and when you stand there, on that bridge between the two sides of the town, you can feel the whole world rolling in off the sea to greet you. This is a strange, evocative town that you have to earn. Jennet and Ben, back in The Whitby Witches have to earn their presence within Whitby. They don’t get there easily nor painlessly, but they end up there when they’re needed. When they have to be. Whitby is a space between the worlds, a thin gauze between the human and the other, and such a town needs protectors. Aunt Alice was one.

Cherry Cerise is another. She’s the last of the Whitby Witches; a delicious bit of writing that I can adore and marry for it is perfect. This town has guardians, protectors, and it needs them right now because Whitby is facing its newest – and maybe darkest – hour. Young friends, Lil and Verne, embroiled in events they can’t begin to understand have to stand with Cherry and save their town from the brink of destruction.

I am a fan of Robin Jarvis. He writes big, British fantasy; stories that root themselves resolutely in space and place and explore the darkness of what may happen and what has already happened there. One distinguishing mark of his work are his great and deeply distinct illustrations. The Power Of Dark sings with little inked notes throughout; a sigil, the curve of a *spoiler* or the eyes of the Aufwaders who I had not realised how much I had loved and missed until I saw them look out at me from the pages.

The Power of Dark is the first in a series. A trilogy, I’m guessing. Jarvis fits well into trilogies and the rhythm of them; and this does have the mark of an overarching saga that makes me itch with potential. The Power of Dark is perhaps for a slightly younger audience than you may have expected, but even then, that’s a complex call to make because certain scenes are spine tingling and sharp and not to be read in the dark. I suspect this is one that might be quite fluid when it comes to age based reccomendations.

One other thing to note about The Power Of Dark is that I rather like the fact that it’s so exuberantly unnerving. Jarvis throws everything into this with a sort of delicious glee; there’s steampunk, goths, aufwaders, historic flashbacks, and witches. And it’s great. It rips along with an intense and madly engendering joy. This is a book that was, I suspect, begging to be written for a long time. And I’m really rather glad it was. The Power Of Dark is something that should be in the world, it really should. We are better for it.

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Edit: 07/08/2016 – Robin has confirmed via Twitter (Twitter’s ace, isn’t it?) that there are going to be four books in this series. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and shriek with bookish joy…

Book Reviews

The Whitby Witches : Robin Jarvis

The Whitby Witches (The Whitby Witches, #1)The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve written about The Whitby Witches before but never quite in the guise of a formal review. Upon the decision that I wanted to use this book in my PhD (and how, oh how could I not…), I knew it was time to fix that. And so: a review. But how to review this dark and powerful and wildly fantastic book, oh where to begin with such a book that is the first in a trilogy but not, somehow. The Whitby Witches is of Whitby and responsive to Whitby and in dialogue with the story of Whitby and all of the stories of Whitby. It’s a beginning, yes, to this story, but also a response to Dracula and to the Hand of Glory and the Barghest and to the sea and to the storied history of Whitby itself.

So. A beginning. Jennet and Ben, orphans, are off to Whitby. They have been fostered by Alice Boston (Aunt Alice), a redoubtable woman of redoubtable talents. She is 92 years old, insists on climibg the 199 steps before breakfast every day and is holding a secret of her own. But then again, so is Ben. And so is Whitby.

But the thing about secrets is that they insist on being discovered and so, eventually, awfully, things begin to occur in the Whitby. Events spiral. People die. Darkness rises. Aunt Alice, the children and their friends, must make a stand against the darkest of evils.

This is such a book. I remember the first time I read it, growing up in the North Yorkshire Moors, and I was almost made breathless by this story. Jarvis’ style is so honestly readable; he faces the darkness and he brings to it such glorious moments of people and heart and bravery, that this book deserves to be at the forefront of our consideration of British children’s literature. I devour this book. Every time.

For sometimes I think this series is forgotten and that is not right. It is a matter-of-fact story about magic and power and friendship and hope and being very, very brave. It is a story about people. And magic. And fear.

And it is very, very good.

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Book Reviews

The Dark Portal : Robin Jarvis

Dark PortalDark Portal by Robin Jarvis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m on a bit of a Robin Jarvis kick at the moment, and it was when I reread ‘The Dark Portal’ (the first in the Deptford Mice series) that I came to realise something.

I think that Jarvis taught me the concept of story, in a way. I think he taught me the concept of telling a single story within a greater whole. I am a fan of him, avowedly so, and love his work from the Whitby series to the Deptford books; from Aufwader to Green Mouse and everything in between.

His books are big books. They are unashamedly children’s books too; scary, challenging and yet accessible literature, told in a rolling style that does not dress itself up behind dense stylistic shapes. These are stories which want to be told, to be read, and when they are read, they have the curious impact of pushing themselves under your skin and settling in that odd unsure space between reality and fiction. I grew up near Whitby and could almost see Aunt Alice, cycling over the bridge and tramping the beach, Ben and Jennet at her side.

But the Deptford books, oh the bigness of these books astounds me so (and my thanks to my equally beloved Michelle Magorian for teaching me the proper way to pronounce Deptford). These books are stories which stand hugely in their own right but also layer and cut against each other, their sediment shifting and revealing more of the individual story the more you read the other. This is great and clever work and patient, too, that quiet belief in the story to happen when and how it needs to happen, that shift in perspective that comes when you read one and come back to reread another. I admire this, I admire it greatly.

And so The Dark Portal sits, as a beginning to the Deptford Mice, but as a sequel to the Deptford Histories and as a companion to the Deptford Almanac (one of my most treasured books ever). It is, nominally, the story of a group of mice and a group of rats and an evil, terrifying figure in the shadowy sewers called Jupiter. The rats serve Jupiter and the mice keep their wary distance, living above the ‘Grille’ and rarely making trips down into the sewers. But there is magic in the Grille, dark magic, and one day it makes a mouse called Arthur Brown enter the sewers and so begin a series of dark and terrifying events which could change the world forever.

It is a story which sits comfortably and superbly so within itself. The world of the rats and mice (and squirrels, and bats) is huge and layered in mythology, story and truth. There’s not one inch of this world I don’t believe, and there’s a part of me that wouldn’t be surprised, even now, to see Twit shimmy up one of the plants outside. His competency in this world, the thick, dense taste of it, is beguiling. And it is powerful, hugely so, These are books that show relatively young readers just what can be achieved in books, in story.

(Do note, that if you’re reading this with your own mouselets, there are some scary and bloody moments in it so do, as ever, read the book yourself and trust your instincts)

The Dark Portal is also a story that swells and grows, the more you read of Jarvis’ work. You learn character backstories, motives, rationale and so much more. There are things in these stories which would feed the internet for weeks, and the puzzling out of meaning, the dull suspicion of something more than coincidence, and then the bright clarity of connection , is something that will always make me relish Jarvis’ work.

Children’s literature is good, guys. It’s been good for a long while, and I think it’s in a bit of a brilliant and golden position right now with the quality of work being produced. But with every trend there are individuals who are ahead of the curve, who are producing world-changing, genre-defining books ahead of their time. Jarvis was, is, one of those authors and The Dark Portal is a wonderful introduction to his work.

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Everything else

Oh, why did I go to Whitby?

This post is part of the “I’m looking for a book about…” review group hosted by Playing By The Book. This months edition is focused on books about the seaside, beaches and oceans. More information and a schedule of upcoming topics is available here.

The titular quote to this post comes from Mina Harker, a character from Bram Stoker’s near-timeless classic Dracula (available in full on the awesome Project Gutenberg here). Whitby, a coastal town on the North Yorkshire Moors, has played home to many stories.

One of the most famous is Dracula but another series not many may have heard of is the Whitby Witches series by one of my all-time favourites Robin Jarvis.

The Whitby Witches is a series of three books: The Whitby Witches, A Warlock in Whitby and The Whitby Child. All of them are set in and around Whitby.

The Whitby Witches (Whitby series)

As people who know Dracula may realise, there’s an instant link between the two stories on this front cover. However that’s only one incident in the books. The Whitby Witches opens with Jennet and Ben, two orphans who have been shuttled between foster homes, being sent to a new one. Ben is perhaps one of the biggest reasons they can’t find a “forever home” as he has the second sight and keeps seeing ghosts and things which people can’t understand – and one of those people who doesn’t wholly understand his gift is his sister. The two of them end up with Aunt Alice, a spectacular old lady character who sparks off the page, in Whitby.

Whitby itself is described so stunningly and in detail, you can’t help but get sucked in. You can almost map the route Aunt Alice takes the children home – and personally I always imagined she lived somewhere in one of the little yards that spiral off Church Street…

As Jennet and Ben try to get comfortable in their new home, Ben discovers the race of Aufwaders – visible only to those with the second sight. These are humanoid, dwarf-like creature who live in and around the coast itself; living in the sea and the cliffs and the ocean.

He becomes friends with Nelda, the only young female Aufwader of the tribe, and then, inexorably Ben becomes embroiled in their fight for survival. However back in the town, surrounded by her circle of friends, Aunt Alice becomes embroiled in a fight to the death of her own.

A Warlock in Whitby (Whitby Witches S.)

The second in the series, A Warlock in Whitby has so many continuous threads and plotlines from A Witch In Whitby it’s best read in sequence with the others.  It’s also very hard to precis without giving away what happened previously so I hope you’ll forgive me if I seem somewhat cagey.

What is notable about this book is the role it gives to Jennet. She becomes very pivotal and it’s hard to not feel a massive surge of empathy at how she’s used (verb chosen most deliberately throughout) by one of the newer (and very dodgy) arrivals to Whitby.

The saga of the Aufwaders continues and provides a dark parallel to the experiences of Jennet.  There are some very uncomfortable tones to what happens here with Nelda and it’s not an easy story to read. Jarvis manages to weave so many myths and stories into these books it’s hard to pick just one out, but what happens to Nelda has elements of the story of Persephone.

On the surface, we see the impact of the new arrivals on Whitby. Naturally X is up to no good, and one particular sequence sees Ben stalking X through the town at night, up towards the Church, and it’s stunning. Ben runs up the slim, narrow little path by the side of the famous 199 steps so that X doesn’t see him. The below is a photograph of the exact area and it’s perfect. You can so see Ben, pressing himself to the walls to try and stay hidden, and yes, I re-enacted a lot of these books as a local kid, can you tell?

And then there’s that BIG encounter by the Abbey when – well – you’ll just have to read it and see what happens!

The Whitby Child (Whitby Witches S.)

As it’s the final in the series, it’s hard to think that there’s more local folklore that can be put into these books but there is. One of the key incidents in The Whitby Child involves The Penny Hedge ceremony. This is a ceremony still carried out today and involves the erection of a fence which has to stop three tides.

Everything in these books is so vitally linked to Whitby and the sea. It’s a series that is made by the power of the location and, I think, would have little to no impact if set anywhere else. Whitby is a town full of stories, of secrets, of mystery.

All of these books were available on Amazon for 1p when I checked (10th June 2012) and I’d really recommend them for readers 12+ looking for something a little meatier from their fantasy or those who like fantasy to have a realistic edge. And, if you’re a reader who lives or has visited Whitby, I’d recommend them even more.

All map images are (c) Google.


Robin Jarvis or Why The Old Ones Are Still The Best

I love my books. Being reunited with them is always an utter utter joy. I’m such a dork. I say hi to my mum, hi to my dad, pat the dog perfunctorily, tickle the cats and then race upstairs and stare lovingly at my babies.

These shelves contain all the authors I can’t let go. Elsie Oxenham (Oh Joy just shut up!) A million Brent-Dyers (Margot! Why were you never expelled!). Lovely lovely Angela Brazils; all spines of ornate magnificence and prim and proper ladies with their hats on. Ethel Talbot. Antonia Forest (Autumn Term, the book I go back to and back to and back to again).

Right now I’m loving me a bit of Robin Jarvis.

Being a bit of a local girl, I first discovered him through the Whitby series; a trio of furiously dark and pacy thrillers set in and around Whitby. Whitby is a town built on stories. Dracula, Penny Hedge, the Hand of Glory, Caedmon – these stones are built on words. The Whitby series are amazing, wildly powerful fantastical thrillers that just made me long for more.

I slid into the Deptford (pronounced Detfud, thanks Michelle Magorian and Goodnight Mr Tom) Mice series, slightly awkwardly at first as I did the second and not the first and then I learnt about a cat but there were mice and it all got a little confusing so I stopped. And then I found the Deptford Histories and I’d found my entry points to the series. The thing about Robin Jarvis is that he writes big scopey challengingly fantastical fiction. The layers in these books has kept me coming back for nearly twenty years and I can guarantee I’ll keep coming back for a fair few more.

One of my greatest treasures is this.

It’s not particularly rare, not particularly priceless, but it’s one of the most magical books I own. The Deptford Mice Almanack is a weird little non-book but in the same breath it’s an everything-book. It completes the Deptford books to a mind-blowing extent, fleshing out the world to a stunning extent.

Gervase Brightkin, squirrel anthropologist, takes us through a year of life and events in and around Greenwich. During this we become aware of a strange new evil building in the area, one which leads the almanack to end on a particularly unnerving precipice. And I won’t spoil it here, but just let me say ROBINROBINWHYSTOPTHEREHUH?THINKOFTHECHILDRENWON’TSOMEBODYTHINKOFTHECHILDREN?

The artwork inside it is stunning. Jarvis wrote and illustrated it all – and tended to do the same throughout his other books (check out the Wyrd Museum trilogy for some more loveliness). One of my favourites is this:

I love how they’re not necessarily explained with massive chunks of text. And also even when presented in isolation, these images still have an emotional impact that reflects their power.

I also love the quiet humour. In between all the spine chilling incidents, there’s a lot of very clever humour that combines the more fantastical elements with a lovely visual humour. Take the following example from November 4th Prank Night: “…last year a young mouse was goaded into climbing the central mast of the Cutty Sark to hang a pair of Mrs Chitter’s bloomers upon the rigging”

The other thing is that this book draws on all the Deptford books – that’s a lot of folklore and mythology to build on – and then builds on that. It’s an eye opener and one that contributes to keep pulling me back to them. These stories don’t end.