The Alchymist’s Cat | Prologue & Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

… and so the seed of terror was sown.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Thus it was that the stalwart readers of Myth & Sacrifice at last came to the Deptford Histories, and, shrieking in bloodthirsty glee, leapt into the darkness that awaited them.

As a child I was rather startled by the way this book begins. Up until that point the most risqué thing I had come across in a Robin Jarvis cassette was two mice holding hands, and all of a sudden there was some serious cat-flirting going on all up in my headphones. Now, however, I appreciate the prologue for what it is – one of the most elegant introductions to a world I’ve ever come across, steeped in atmosphere, heady with malign promise, doom-laden and prophetic as only the best villainous origin stories can be.

Around the time I had this book on tape, I also had a cassette of collected British folklore that was deeply, deeply creepy. I wish I could remember what it was called, but there was one story in it that I recall vividly to this day. It was an obscure re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin entitled Tom-Tit-Tot, in which the titular character is described as a ‘small black thing with a long tail’ and referred to as an ‘imp’ or ‘impet’. Young Aufwader knew, just knew, that Tom-Tit-Tot and Imp were one and the same, and she had a fairly good idea of who might keep both forms in their shape-shifting repertoire.

A quick peep at the first chapter then, and my goodness what a perfect period drama opening. The tableau of little orphaned Will watching the coffins of his beloved family sink into the mire is nothing short of Dickensian in its wretchedness.  I daresay most of us are acquainted enough with Mr Jarvis’ narrative trademarks at this point that we know the letter from Will’s uncle portends nothing good. Like kindly Hannah Balker, we want to prevent  young Master Godwin from making that trip to London for the safety of his own soul, but poor Will is a Robin Jarvis protagonist, and a tall and dangerous fate awaits him there.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: How much do I love the cover of this book? Anyway, jumping straight in. So I mentioned in a previous post that I found The Whitby Witches felt ‘live action’ compared with the ‘animated’ feel of The Deptford Mice. Which leaves this book in a sort of strange hybrid between the two. It has a fascinating cast of fully-rounded animal and human characters and jumps between the two worlds fairly effortlessly. (And speaking of casts, this is the first Jarvis book not to feature his trademark cast list at the beginning. You’ll just have to work out who everyone is as we go along!)

What a great prologue. There’s just a visceral thrill from the idea of the tough-minded Imelza hooking up with a shadowy black cat from who knows where. (Well, not quite. The hints are pretty strong that Jupiter wasn’t just a High Satanic Majesty in name only …)

All the elements are there – cats, rats, bats – but in this completely new 17th century setting. But we’ll talk more about that when we get more into the story.

Chapter 1 sets up the character of Will, but again I feel like there’s a hint of that theme of community vs tooth-and-claw that we saw in the mice. Will obviously came from a close-knit family, and it seems that the folks nearby and on his farm were equally communal. (Witness the kindness of the Balkers in taking him in.) However, in a bleak start to a book that is only going to get more bleak, we never get a chance to see what that community looked like. It’s gone, covered up like the coffins getting drowned by mud in that stunning opening scene in the graveyard. There’s no shielding young readers from the horrors of English history in this one!

So our heart goes out to Will even before anything has happened to him. And maybe it’s just me, but I feel like John Balker is a human version of Thomas Triton – a good sort in a scrap, but haunted by past pain and regrets. Anyone else agree?

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9 thoughts on “The Alchymist’s Cat | Prologue & Chapter 1

  1. The weirdly sexually-tense world of the cats in this book is fitting given how this book was released the same year as the infamous Felidae – whilst I have not read the book its based on yet, I don’t think the film was THAT loose an adaptation – and I’m not sure if there’s any other precedents (Dick King-Smith’s The Mouse Butcher could have been, but that had none of the swearing and sexuality, just loads of violence…can those more versed in cat stories please help)

    As for Imp…well, whilst its easy to forget that theres evil nasties OTHER than the Raith Sidhe and Sarpedon in the Deptford world, its all too easy to assume that The Evil One – whether you call him, Satan, Lucifer, Iblis, The Big D, whatever – is Imp himself, or at least one of his archdemons. Course in a world where theres talking animals and rat gods it becomes more difficult, unless these evil gods are linked to Satan as well. Which opens up another can of worms…

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    • I’m sorry I can’t be of more help on the cat stories front, but a fun detail I just discovered is that the novel version of Felidae came out in 1989. In publication terms at least, Jupiter and Pascal are twins!

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  2. I’ve always suspected that Imp is in fact Bauchan, taking the form of a cat one night when he happened to encounter Imelza and seduced her. That would make it incredibly ironic if it was his son who would one day usurp the Raith Sidhe. As Bauchan is known to be a trickster, it makes sense that the black cat would ask Imelza to call him Imp if it was him, and then there’s his comment about it being the first night he had seen with those particular eyes.

    If that is indeed the case, then there might be a less-obvious reason why he as Barker is impressed by Jupiter’s accomplishments in The Final Reckoning… as in sure, Jupiter must be destroyed so the Raith Sidhe can rise once more, but that’s his boy!

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    • That’s a great idea honestly – it even seems to fit a little better than the Satan angle, though of course that carries weight too considering that both heaven and hell are very real to the humans of this book. What’s so great about a scene like that is that it’s ambiguous enough to allow for lots of different approaches.

      (Also is it bad that your observation about Barker is kind of funny to me? It just makes me laugh a bit to imagine Bauchan, proud dad, seeing his baby all grown up and smiting things …gosh!)

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      • I agree about the ambiguity. There are times when Jarvis is very explicit about how his cosmology works and then there are other times when he only hints at what is behind the scenes. In this case, the fact that Imp isn’t defined any further just makes it that much darker.

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  3. My thoughts on the prologue: I’m wowed by the world-building on display throughout these six pages. We get so many fleeting glimpses of a world with countless layers to it as Imelza prowls in search of her prey. The sound of mice raiding a pantry in one of the houses. The two bickering rats, one of whom casually mentions The Three. Later on, when the feline huntress climbs up to the roof for some peace and quiet, she also hears the voices of bats discussing what they have seen in the future.

    And what’s this? Could that be a human we see in the streets below? In the original trilogy, the big blundering folk were mostly kept off-screen but here all the rules have changed. So many worlds co-exist in this one city and each one just barely touches the edges of the other.

    My thoughts on Chapter One: Reading this book for the first time, I found myself shocked by how grim Will’s situation is from the offset. Not only had the kid lost his entire family in one fell swoop, now he was going to have to run the farm he’d inherited as the sole survivor. I guess his father would probably have been preparing him for the day when he’d taken over the family business but…geez…I can’t begin to imagine being in the poor lad’s shoes.

    Of course, I now know that…well…that was just how it was back then. There was no department of social service to find you foster family to live with, no grief counselors to help you cope with the trauma having been forced to watch as everyone you loved withered away before your eyes. When something like that happened, there was just you against the world. You had to grow up really fast or it would chew you up and spit you out.

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  4. The Raith Sidhe are still being worshiped at this point, right? I assume so since the two rats mention them so casually before Imelza pounces. If The Three haven’t yet been forgotten by all but a few devout believers then the theory about Bauchan being Imp and thus the father of Jupiter (which I really love) would seem quite possible. If Bauchan has not yet reached the point where someone need to make a sacrifice in his name to awaken him, the trickster God would have a lot more freedom at the time of The Alchemyst’s Cat than he does when the original trilogy comes around.

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