The Whitby Witches | Chapter 1

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The building was in ruins, but that did not diminish its power. The abbey had dominated Whitby for centuries, and waves of invisible force flowed down from it. The ruin was a guardian, watching and waiting, caring for the little town that huddled beneath the cliff. It was a worshipful thing.

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Before we leap into the cold and eerie depths of this most mystical of tales, let’s talk about the scene at the very start. I hesitate to call it a prologue because it’s only about half a page long in the edition I own and has no title, but it makes more of an impression than many full prologues I’ve read in my time.

It’s an instant manifestation of place. The phrase ‘the sands of Tate Hill Pier’ emblazons itself across the very first line, and even if we are not Whitby locals we are immediately smacked in the face by the damp, salt-scented wind of a British seaside town. Then, like the tide, the venerable mythology and folklore of this very specific setting wells up to greet us, and by the time we arrive at ‘Yes, it is a cold morning, and I am chilled’, we have already been pulled under, never to resurface.

The first chapter is classic in a multitude of ways. It is Robin Jarvis classic, in that it begins with small, vulnerable protagonists in a wide and threatening world. It is children’s literature classic, echoing and referencing every train journey taken by displaced children into danger and adventure, from the Pevensies evacuating London to young Tolly disembarking for Green Knowe on a dark and soaking night. Finally, it is horror classic; with its narrow, winding streets steeped in history and the black skeleton of the abbey on the East Cliff like a watchful sentinel, Whitby is a town heavy with dark secrets. Of course, Ben and Jennet have secrets of their own.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: It’s been so long since I have read this! I’m with Aufwader on this one – we immediately get the impression of place. I’ve never been to Whitby (sadly, it was just that bit too far from London for a day trip when I was there last year), but I feel like I have been there, because the town just rises off the page, doesn’t it? In some ways, the small, cute nature of it makes you feel comfortable. But then the wild, sea-side oldness of it make it feel laden with sinister potential. (Both of which turn out to be true in this book.)

It’s also impressive to watch Mr Jarvis change from animal characters to human characters in this one. I remember the first time I read this, I wasn’t sure how well this would work coming off the Mice, but his knack for characterisation never falters. In some ways, also, it’s a new departure in that there is no community to start with. In both Deptford and Fennywolde, there was always a feeling of lots of other people being around you to look after you. (Even though the trilogy opens with a family tragedy.)

But in this opening, it’s just Ben and Jennet, just the two of them, on a train. They’re coming from having nobody and they’re not really sure what awaits them in Whitby. One old lady doesn’t sound like much of a friendship circle! So it’s a more lonely start.

In terms of literary comparisons, I had never thought of Aufwader’s connection between train journeys before. But what this book did remind me of was another famous story. It also features a small boy with a knack for seeing strange things. In short, Ben straight away reminds me of Danny in The Shining. But this is that thing that we all love about Robin’s stories. He straight away reminds us of other stories (and types of stories) but his stories are all uniquely his own.

Finally, Robin, I’ll forgive you for the crack at Australia in this chapter, but I do feel this should be made up for by setting at least one chapter of The Witching Legacy series in some sort of Australian flashback setting … I still hold by my theory that the Whitby coal boat that took Captain Cook to Australia must have had some infernal device or object hidden in its hull somewhere. Surely?

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5 thoughts on “The Whitby Witches | Chapter 1

  1. I admit that, like Matt, I wasn’t sure how good this series would be at first. But – this time even more than last time, I think – I feel immediately attached to Ben and Jennet. They’re likable, realistic, and I just wanna take care of them. Maybe its because I know just how much hardship they’re about to go through!

    I’m reading this and the Devil’s Paintbox at the same time, so it’ll be interesting to see how they compare when it comes to tone! (Though of course, no spoilers from me!)

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    • You know, the opening chapter of The Whitby Witches reminds me of another book: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen Like this story, that one began with a brother and sister on a train, being whisked off to a place where the adventure of a lifetime awaits them.

      I have to say that Ben and Jennet seem much more developed than Colin and Susan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disrespecting Weirdstone. I loved that book and still do to this day. Whenever I read it, I lose my breath somewhere in those dark tunnels beneath Selina Place’s house and never get it back. And the conclusion of the sequel book was like a eagle, ripping my heart out of my chest and tearing it to pieces.

      I’m just saying that I love it for different reasons than I love these books. Colin and Susan grew on me as their story went on but I found myself caring about what the future holds for Ben and Jennet before Chapter One of The Whitby Witches is over. As you pointed out, they feel like real children and that mixture of excitement and worry as they approach their new home is infectious.

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  2. I have to be careful, in this re-read, about spoilers. As I return to Book One, having read all three in the series, I am doing what I was in no position to do the first time, looking for how carefully the opening pages build a foundation, not just for the first book, but for all three.
    The statements about the bereft children and their attachment to their departed parents; that foster-home matron and how oblivious and closed-minded she is….they resonate more deeply when you know how the whole series ends!

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  3. Ain’t no doubt about it, Whitby is one of those places that I’ve got to go see for myself before I die. There was a time when I thought that the most remarkable thing about the old coastal town was that Dracula made port there. That was before the Whitby Witch books came into my life and all such preconceptions were blown away like scraps of paper in a hurricane of pure wonder. As the words of our esteemed author conjure it up before my eyes, I want to explore the streets of this town where past and present seem to overlap. As Ben suggests and Miss Boston concurs, it feels like a magical place.

    I think what impresses me most about this new trilogy is how engaging it is from the word go. Right away, you’re drawn in. You want to know why ‘The Rodice’ shudders at the thought of Ben. Who the mysterious Miss Boston is and why she seems to command so much respect from the people who know her. The story has barely begun and there are so many mysteries just sitting there, beckoning us to turn the page and discover just what the deal is with these people. I was with Matt and Emmy, uncertain that this new story with its new location and new cast of characters would hook me. I should never have doubted. I was hooked then and I was hooked now.

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  4. let me be the first to cast the first stone and mention a certain rubbish film by a VERY rubbish director who was lauded for this rubbish film because it was nowhere near as rubbish as what would follow in his less than illustrious career…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUYKSWQmkrg

    Thankfully Whitby Witches was released years before this was made, so any accusations of me trying to paint Jarvis as some bootlegger will be stopped.

    I do think that the ‘orphan’ angle is a tad cliched at this point, though maybe its easy to say that in a post-Harry Potter world, the idea of him still being in contact with his lost parents, and others loved ones and as such being persecuted for it (by the authorities) maybe does call to mind how so-called ‘witches’ that were persecuted weren’t even doing anything like Satan worship or anything at all. Which, in a way, is a decent foreshadowing of how the titular Whitby Witches of this novel – not so much the later books – are of the benign ‘white witch’ brand.

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