Deathscent | The Queen’s Salamander

b_0002 copyWarning: Contains Spoilers!

Leaping from his seat, Brindle threw his hands forward and caught the plate, just inches away from Her Majesty’s face. Fragments of shattered sugar paste exploded across Elizabeth’s pearl-encrusted gown, and every voice in the room was stilled.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Before the finale really gets its teeth into us, I’m going to briefly digress and talk about the chapter headers for this book. My goodness, those chapter headers. I can look at my favourite in-book artwork in Robin Jarvis canon; all six books of the Deptford Mice and the Hagwood trilogy, and still say with complete honesty that the headers for Deathscent surpass them all in my esteem.

As Matt pointed out, everything about the look and feel is this book could be described as ‘exquisite’ without overdoing things too much (and that’s not even considering the hardcover edition in all its crimson and gold glory) and as always, Robin’s black and white illustrations serve to compliment the book design and bring the world of the story to life.

For me, though, the Deathscent chapter headers are special because they kept me drawing at a time when I might’ve left art behind. For little Aufwader in her early teens, they were a set of miniature masterclasses in character design and visual worldbuilding; they taught me more about art than the weekend class I was attending ever could, and they showed me that ink and wash, a rather staid medium as far as I had seen, could be dynamic and engaging and fun. I started experimenting with inks to copy the Isle of Havering at the beginning of Part Two, and though my wobbly efforts never quite looked like a proper Uplifted Isle, I had discovered a method and medium that I felt at home in, and one which, with some alterations and a lot of expansion, has stayed with me to this day.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Well, I’m not sure if I was right to be predicting that Henry would survive when he’s getting them all into trouble like this!

We’ve got another rogue mechanical, political intrigue, Richard going out of his way to get himself executed, and now a kidnapping. In all of this, I feel sorry for Adam, who never even wanted to be dragged into any of this!

And most compelling of all is Brindle’s inner struggle against his darker side. Will he hold out? (We bloodthirsty Jarvis fans are all hoping not…)

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Deathscent | Gloriana

b_0002 copyWarning: Contains Spoilers!

Perched upon a sublimely crafted silver unicorn, she was a compelling vision of purity and power. Arrayed from head to foot in white silks and taffeta, she seemed almost to have stemmed from the realm of Heaven herself.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: As much as I enjoy a bit of gratuitous Liz 1, I do slightly begrudge her the quote space for this post, because I think we all know the real star moment of the chapter is when Brindle steps off the nightboat, haloed by the evening sun to the awe and consternation of everyone present. Elizabeth is very grand with her little ladies-in-waiting on mechanical lions and her Virgin Queen pageantry, but if ‘Herald of the Divine’ is the look you’re going for, you just can’t beat a well-timed sun flare.

It was only on reread that I really noticed it, but this chapter is from start to finish a superb argument for that Deathscent musical I was waffling on about at the end of Part Two. Everything is already in place; from the aforementioned dramatic lighting effects, to Gloriana’s epic entrance and resplendent courtiers, to the background set of the Palace of Whitehall, to an intense first meeting of all our most important characters that’s just crying out for a big, showy chorus.

I have two tracks to support this; one light and silvery with a traditionally regal undertone, and one equally sumptuous, but heavy with premature decay and looming menace.

The first is a piece by Martin Phipps for the recent ITV drama Victoria (I’ve never been a huge fan of Victorian period drama unless it involves the Brontës, so I’m happy to repurpose this for the original Gloriana) and the second is a further Elisabeth: Das Musical piece, ‘Alle Fragen Sind Gestellt’ or ‘All Questions Have Been Asked’. The piece occurs during the positively monumental wedding of Elisabeth of Austria to Prince Franz Joseph – they are about as poorly matched a couple as possible, and, blinded by young love, pledge themselves to each other while Elisabeth’s true fate, Death himself, looks on. Both tracks, I feel, have the necessary atmosphere for this chapter, but please do compare and contrast, and of course, suggest your own!

Matt’s Thoughts: What a magnificent illustration of Queen Elizabeth I here. Given that so many paintings of her are fairly stylised, I love the humanness of the illustration. She very much becomes a close relative of Rhiannon from Hagwood, doesn’t she?

May I say, the feeling of this book and where it’s likely to go is completely different from any other Jarvis that I’ve read. Here we are, pretty much three quarters of the way through, and the tension is only at a slow-burn level. Any other of his books, and we’d have a major villain revealed, our characters would be on a race against time, there would be some major artifact to find, and everything would be in utter chaos.

Meanwhile, we’ve just got one group of people going to have dinner with the Queen and another going off with Doctor Dee. Some revenge-filled Spaniards. And the mysterious Brindle in the middle of all this.

And yet …all the intricate detail that has led to this point has slowly and surely (perhaps like a flower opening up) laid the groundwork for an immense feeling of Doom laying over the characters in this story. (Or is that Doooooom, Aufwader?) I have a horrible sensation that there is some sort of monstrous bloodbath coming, which actually makes this story a whole lot more akin to horror than what I’m normally used to from Jarvis.

I don’t know how this is going to pan out, and I’m worried that I’ll have more questions at the end than answers, but this is a masterful bit of novel-writing.

Deathscent | Gog and Magog

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

 ‘Behold the city of cities,’ Thomas Herrick half sang under his breath. ‘Fair London, the great seductress – is she not a ravishing beauty? Tempted and destroyed far too many men, she has, and will ever continue to do so.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The dynamic between Henry and Adam continues to fascinate me, because at this point their characters have been completely swapped around, defying all expectation.

On the face of it, it seems as if Adam should be the one longing to see London and idolising Brindle. As a talented and studious apprentice of Motive Science, Adam has the greatest cause to feel stifled by Malmes-Wutton, and as an orphan, the greatest cause to be latching on to mentors and parental figures wherever they might appear. I feel like it should be Henry; older, more worldly, and with familial support behind him, who ought to be the cautious homebody. But no, we’ve got sensible, suspicious Adam and rash, childlike Henry, and they’re hurtling into something from which they will both emerge changed, one way or another.

Then there’s the literal set-piece of this chapter; the apprentice’s first sighting of London. It was the scene with Gog and Magog which got me interested in London-based folklore, but what I hadn’t recalled and only noticed on reread is that Greenwich (at this point a Queen’s residence and not yet an Observatory) is separate from the main city, out on its own little island. I have to wonder if, in a later, unpublished Intrigue of the Reflected Realm, Mr Jarvis might’ve had a grisly fate in store for that isle, in keeping with his favourite pastime of destroying his home turf in writing.

Matt’s Thoughts: May I first up make a comment about the typeface of this book?  I’m not sure what the font is called – though it reminds me very much of the font used for the Les Misérables musical – but it makes the experience of this book so immersive. When you see the slightly crumbling nature of the words, as if they came off an ancient printing press a few centuries ago, you are instantly drawn into the Elizabethan age.

I also am a huge fan of the chapter titles – never enough detail to give the story away and, in fact, nearly always enigmatic until you’ve read the chapter. In some sense, there is more of an air of mystery and, dare I say it, intrigue, that lurks over this story than any previous Jarvis novel I can think of.

It’s a shame this was never made into a film, because the Iribian deserves his place among the great sci-fi ‘monsters’ (though that’s too simple a term for him) of things such as Alien and Predator. The difference here – and it’s what makes it all so intriguing – is that the potential danger of this character is hidden beneath a veneer of charm and courage. And quite possibly …sincerity.

The hunter-like elements of Brindle remind me of sci-fi creatures, and the duality of his personality (sinister behind the scenes, noble in person) reminds me of the likes of Jekyll and Hyde. His sadness and inner conflict also put him in the realm of a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, perpetually isolated from humanity by what he is, despite his very human thoughts and feelings.

And this is before we’ve even thrown in the historical element, what with the Tower, Elizabeth I , and so forth.

Finally, seeing as I haven’t read the book all the way through yet, and the end of the chapter has foreshadowed that only two of the four will make it back, I might as well place my bets and see how it all turns out. My money would be on Adam and Henry being the ones to survive. Richard, well, I’ve been worried about him since he left on this trip. Brindle is a survivor, but I’m not sure if someone with his ‘skills’ can really be left alive. We’ll see how it goes!

 

Deathscent | To the Copper Cow

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘See here!’ Hobbling John proclaimed with consummate pride to his dumb-struck customers. ‘There’s an angel in my tavern.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now the voyage to London is truly underway, and I can’t be the only one having major misgivings about the idea of Brindle being whisked out from Malmes-Wutton and paraded before all and sundry like a travelling exhibit. There’s a point to be made about innocence and ignorance and leaving gardens and gaining knowledge while falling from grace, and that’s part of a larger theme underpinning this book that we’ll get to in due course, but for now let’s just say things do not bode well for our ‘heavenly messenger’.

It really doesn’t help that he turned out to be so gosh darn endearing, besides. Somewhere between the rose garden and the Puritan-best-plus-hair-ribbon business, Brindle managed to charm teen me to the Outer Dark and back, and I can’t even lie and say I totally outgrew that. He’s just so noble and hapless and he has a terrible secret and frankly if he can have a face like a melted Wellington boot and seven children and still make hearts flutter, then I don’t hold out much hope for the notoriously susceptible Elizabeth I. She’ll be swooning at his feet before you can say ‘questionable choice of royal favourites’, and when has that ever had a rosy outcome.

Matt’s Thoughts: It was The Alchymist’s Cat that popped into my head here as we follow our characters (I don’t know if I want to use ‘heroes’ to describe all of them yet) on their journey out into the further isles of Englandia.

It really had never dawned on me that this book (which I really didn’t know much about until a few weeks ago) had such a strong sci-fi element. It’s a completely different side to Robin’s writing and yet just as engaging and interesting. In fact, possibly even more so, because it’s all so new and unexpected.

And – as always – no matter how strange something appears when you stop and think about it (‘so a bunch of Elizabethan types who are 150+ years old sail in a flying boat through space along a chain to an island and decide to visit a pub with a dead mechanical animal hanging out the front’) it all makes perfect sense within the context of the story and seems completely plausible within the Jarvis world.

In short, it’s brilliant.

And, to circle back to what I was saying about Alchymist’s Cat, it also shares the similar dangers of the shifty people that you meet if you visit the wrong establishment…

Deathscent | Angel Versus Demon

b_0002 copyWarning: Contains Spoilers!

Without warning, Old Scratch tore from the scaffold, and Master Flye realised he was done for.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: What was I just saying about ominous plot developments? In one fell swoop, Jack Flye, our most reliable apprentice, is dead, Adam has lost his beloved mechanical sidekick, we have confirmation that Something’s Up With Brindle, and everybody’s being forced to set sail for London to appear before the Queen! From the reader’s point of view it comes out of nowhere, but for us, who have already progressed through two thirds of Robin Jarvis canon, it’s gratifying to see him experiment with a novel in three parts for the first time, and maybe change the pacing around a little.

Speaking of stories in three parts, this might be a good time to mention something that has only occurred to me on reread: Deathscent would make a truly outstanding musical. I’m not talking an all-singing, all-dancing, brightly-coloured and goofy palaver, but rather something dark and sensual in the vein of Elisabeth, or even the ballets of Matthew Bourne, with sumptuous period costume, looming sets, smoke machines in abundance, and sinister, poetical lyrics.

Work with me here. Picture a domed auditorium ceiling crossed with firmament-style lighting effects and studded with stars. Imagine genuine mechanicals built for the stage, nightboats coming and going, luminous astrological backgrounds, Henry and Adam’s hawks flying over the audience. Think of celestial choirs and devilish bellowing, Elizabethan lutes and pipes, sinister synth drones and wailing, anguished guitars. Now tell me you wouldn’t be first in line for tickets.

Matt’s Thoughts: Poor old Suet! I knew something like this was going to happen, but at least he went out heroically. And given that there seems to be something about ichors where a mechanical’s essence can be passed from creature to creature (e.g. O Mistress Mine passing from the musicians to Suet), that bit of black ichor might come in useful later on.

Great showdown between Old Scratch and, well, everyone else. Now that the hint has been dropped that Brindle might actually have drawn health and vitality from the conflict and ensuing tragedy (I know, creepy, right?), the title of this book takes on an even more unsettling meaning as we finish the second part.

I’m also starting to realise that Brindle is more grey than we think. He certainly has good manners and he seems to care, but is that an act? Does he have sinister motives that we have yet to see?

Either way, I strongly suspect that Part Three is going to be a cracker.

Finally, the illustration for this chapter – outstanding! There’s something so warrior-like about the image, and it perfectly complements Mr Jarvis’ words.

Deathscent | Hunting the Devil

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

 ‘So terrible was Her anger that Robert Dudley’s name was not even to be mentioned, and no one dared defy Her or support him.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Depressing as Lord Richard’s history is, I can’t help but feel that being ousted from court might’ve actually done him a few favours in the long term. He seems like a gentle, genuine soul, at complete odds with the snide and prancing Thomas Herrick. The impression that I get is that he never really liked court life, but was mainly involved for the sake of Robert Dudley. In this instance, I don’t see Lord Richard’s returning to court as a positive change in his fortunes, but rather as a gilded curse that will leave him worse off than when he was first exiled.

Though this chapter is quite raucously joyful, with horse racing and hunts afoot, there are definitely a few thunderclouds of plot development on the horizon. Here’s hoping our young protagonists can weather the storm.

Matt’s Thoughts: So now we have our back story on the Richard Wutton exile. I’m not sure if it will be addressed in the book, but what has happened to fertility and social progress with the extended longevity of the Beatified Realm?

Bear with me here …we know everyone has been up there for 150+ years and, unless something bad happens like getting trampled by a mechanical horse, their biological age seems to be relatively unchanged. In other words, the Dritchlys and Richard Wutton were always older, and Elizabeth I has remained middle-aged.

But have people stopped having children? I thought I read somewhere that the young apprentices don’t remember the old England. So were they born on the floating island? If so, how long does it take you to get from being a baby to being a young adult? Does each stage of life last longer?

Furthermore, why has the culture remained so Elizabethan? Surely, you would expect politics, technology and fashion to have improved over that length of time. In short, there’s a slightly unsettling staticness about this world. Part of this, of course, is that we simply don’t know much more at this stage about the special ambassadors and their plans. What was the point of setting all this up? Presumably, if they went to all this effort to preserve some sort of human life in space, they had a plan.

I’m definitely hooked!

Meanwhile, on the action side of things, this boar hunt would be fun, except that I’m getting exceptionally worried about Suet…

Deathscent | Rats and Ashes

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The three rats seemed everywhere. They swarmed into baskets, upset pots, spilled jugs, broke bottles and scattered grain. One of them bounded into a bowl of dried apricots and began to fling them at whoever came near, before dashing away again. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: There’s a lot to appreciate about this chapter, but my favourite part is and will always be the positively gleeful descriptions of the mechanical rats which Henry sets upon Mistress Dritchly’s kitchen. We don’t need an Iribian’s fine perception to practically feel the mischievous delight beaming off the page. ‘Hoho, heehee,’ Mr Jarvis seems to chortle at us, ‘look who managed to smuggle rats into a book with animals so far from the main focus that they’re not even real!’ Well played, Robin. We knew you’d find a way to sneak rodents in at some point, even if they are made of tin.

The crux of this chapter is not the comedy of Henry’s pranks, however, but the tragedy of Brindle’s incinerated nightboat, and all that the loss of it implies. Malmes-Wutton’s ‘celestial visitor’ is now completely cut off from his home and people, and, it seems, will have to be content with making a life for himself among the folk of the Uplifted Isles.

Sad as it all is, I’m highly intrigued by the brief glimpse we get of Iribian aesthetics and technology; fungus-like desks? Translucent coppery interiors? Even a command deck complete with observation screen and floating keyboards. He might not be from heaven, but I daresay Brindle’s home planet is a good deal more interesting than than anything the Elizabethan afterlife has to offer.


Matt’s Thoughts:
Well, that explains the meat. In so far as, ‘we eat fungus that grows inside mechanical animals’ is an explanation. Clearly, this was another one of those solutions for human survival set up by the ‘special ambassadors’ that everyone on Malmes-Wutton has since grown used to.

So this is the point where I ask – Mr Jarvis, there’s very little on your website about this: how on earth did you come up with this idea? Clockwork Elizabethans in space? Has this ever been done by anyone else? Is this a completely new genre? It’s absolutely blowing my mind (in a good way!).

It also makes me wonder how many other worlds and ideas you have lurking in that brain of yours that we will never know about, just because they’re too unusual to fit into book form. I’m in awe.