Dancing Jax | Chapter 26


Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The words of Austerly Fellows embraced her, drew her in, loved her as nothing else ever could, promised to sustain and keep her, to coddle and bless her through all of time.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: There’s a lot that’s pretty horrifying in this chapter, but the thing that stood out for me on reread is that Ashleigh and Kelley, Emma’s friends who died in the Disaster, seem to have ended up in Mooncaster. Living a nightmarish half-life as animate dolls bound to the soul of the Jill of Spades. What in the hell is going on there? 

I have a theory and it’s fairly alarming, so let’s share. At the very end of Chapter 7, after the Disaster takes place, there is a brief mention of some unknown person or force, ‘walking unseen among those young people that hour, choreographing the entire show.’ My theory is that everyone who died in the Disaster, an act of evil choreographed by the Dawn Prince, ended up in Mooncaster. Being dead, however, and unable to read the quote unquote sacred text, they filled such inconsequential roles as magical sidekicks, talking animals, or nameless creatures inhabiting the area around Mooncot, and their identities(?) souls(?) are now trapped in an endless limbo. (Told you this theory was alarming.)

Then, as if life in Mooncaster didn’t already have enough ghastly implications, there’s the main arc of this chapter, which revolves around all the ladies of the court – including those who are married and those who are underage in the real world – flying off to spend the rest of the night on a tower with the Ismus.

There’s something about the casual way this is described that makes it about ten times worse than it already is. Compare and contrast the Coven of the Black Sceptre (here they are again). Granted, they were magic-ed into fancying Nathaniel Crozier (you’d need to be magic-ed to look twice at that grody mess, yikes) but they still retained their personalities to an extent, and were all adults. Crozier preying upon Jennet also stops short of actual physical harassment. Here, however, the implication is that these Ismus-led orgies happen on a regular basis, and that all the ladies of the court are obliged to be available to him whenever he so chooses, regardless of age or marital status. As Emma might put it, that’s well wrong that is.

There’s also an element of misogynist shame and blame to the whole escapade, with Haxxentrot being involved and the flying women being ‘punished’ by the Jockey, who is in himself a riddle. What kind of world is Mooncaster?

Matt’s Thoughts: So there goes Emma!

Most of this book is taken up with her journey into Mooncaster, but it’s bizarre, isn’t it? First up, are the escapades in this story an actual incident from the book? Or is the book just a gateway into Mooncaster and strange things happen to those who are collectively part of the world?

And what kind of world is this? So all the women have some sort of orgy with the Ismus every night after a party? The Jockey plays jokes on people? Haxxentrot plots against Malinda? And the bad magician with the hungry ermine? I mean, who came up with these sorts of OTT caricatures for characters? I might have missed the point, but I can’t help but wonder if Mr Jarvis is having a go at creating characters who are much more simplistic in their motivations in the Jacks world – almost an off-set against the increased realism of his real creatures.

I’d love to know what others think about whether there’s any sort of more subtle logic to the way Mooncaster holds together, but I find it to be a mass of rampaging egos, all simultaneously after their own agendas but simultaneously respectful of the hierarchy in the place – thus their mostly polite real life treatment of each other in our world.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 25


Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘What is this, a special night out from the loony bin?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I love Robin’s ‘lesser of several evils’ approach to characterisation in this book. When she was first introduced, Emma seemed to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She was spiteful, self-absorbed, and callous, with such awfulness to her name as beating another girl so badly that she almost ended up in hospital, and concealing crucial information about the Felixstowe Disaster from the police and parents of those who died. Not to mention her willingness to milk sympathy for her minor injuries and blackmail Conor.

However, set against Dancing Jacks and the perfidy of Austerly Fellows, Emma becomes a kind of anti-heroine. She might be a terrible person, Mr Jarvis seems to be saying, but better a terrible person with her identity (soul?) in one piece than a brainwashed Jill of Spades. We do end up rooting for her in the end, if only because she’s one of the few young people in Felixstowe who has put up any sort of resistance to the deadly book of devilish doom. We actually feel sorry for her when Mauger comes at her like the hounds of the Black Sceptre after Jennet, but for Emma, there’s no nun on a bicycle to save her in the nick of time.

Matt’s Thoughts:  I wonder if Mr Jarvis has had a few acquaintances like this – or maybe it’s just the kind of person you encounter from time to time – but there is something impressive about Emma in this chapter. Completely obnoxious, nothing likable about her at all, totally self-centered.

And yet it is that unshakable ego that allows her to so recklessly stand up against the combined power of Dancing Jacks, when so many other people caved much more quickly. Somewhat like Scabmona, or Alison Sedge, she doesn’t take orders from anyone.

Is it any wonder they see her as the prime Jill of Spades?

Dancing Jax | Chapter 24


Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘I have taken your jools! LMAO!!!!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Barry and Martin both have redeeming moments in this chapter, only for those glimpses of kindness to be quickly blotted out by the overwhelming horror of the situation that they’re in. What makes the business with Dancing Jacks hit so hard is that it’s one more awful thing on top of an already huge pile of awful things. Each of Barry and Martin’s problems would be bad enough individually, but all the terribleness sort of comes at them at once, and in light of the week they’ve already had, it’s no wonder neither of them has the capacity to understand a supernatural threat as well. Maybe on a good day, they might’ve banded together against the evil of Austerly Fellows, but this is far from a good day, and they’re just regular people, not .

For me, the saddest part about Paul wrecking Martin’s memorabilia collection is that it’s proof of how drastically Dancing Jacks has changed Paul, separating him from what should be the most important and positive part of his childhood – his family. He and Martin were close, as we saw, and Dancing Jacks has now robbed them of the bond that they shared. It’s not just that they’ll never build and paint their TARDIS together, it’s that they’ve been denied the chance to create memories as a family.

Still, there’s hope as long as the ‘aberrants’ resist.

Matt’s Thoughts: Another chapter that’s firing on all cylinders.

Barry emerges as a character who deeply cares about the children in his school, despite his political incorrectness. We now feel sorry that his days at the school are over.

Martin thinks he’s discovered a plausible real-world explanation of drugs with the discovery of the minchet jars, which gives him a flicker of hope. But clearly however that particularly noxious plant works, it’s not like any sort of narcotic we know anywhere else. I also feel that he comes into his own in this chapter. The destruction of his man-cave could have tipped him into a spiral of anger and hatred, but instead his good side comes out. But is it too late?

Finally, Emma heads out – into the moment we’ve all been waiting for.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 23


Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘And yet everything in that fantasy has its own rationale,’ he said rubbing the back of his neck. ‘It has its own internal logic. In fact, it makes more sense than most orthodox religions.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: A harrowing chapter, as Martin and Carol try to understand the change that has come over Paul and both get it ‘so very wrong’. We see exactly what Paul meant in the previous chapter when he pointed out how Martin is so quick to accept supernatural threat in his sci-fi shows, but is so determined that the real world be rational and explainable, that he has failed to notice the paranormal evil taking place under his nose. And now it’s too late for his own step-son, and soon the whole of Felixstowe will be engulfed. And what then?

Matt’s Thoughts: Mr Jarvis keeps up the steady stream of references to religion, to the state of England, even to the modern encroachment of technology – I quite liked Gerald’s highly quotable line, ‘It’s splendid they’re reading something other than emails, isn’t it?’

But we barely notice this because of the realism with which he paints the trauma of Martin and Carol. They do everything worried parents would do – ring friends for advice, go to the doctor. But there does not seem to be any easy cure for the Jacks addiction. (And it is an addiction – there is something creepily addict-like about Paul’s lamentation about his lack of a copy of Jacks. And when he turns violently on Carol at the end? Heartbreaking.)

Dancing Jax | Chapter 22


Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘So many movies about predators coming from outer space,’ he said. ‘But that’s not where the real dangers are. People in the olden days knew, before science told them it was stupid.’ He pointed to the ground. ‘Down there, Martin. Deep down there, that’s where it’s coming from.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Barry’s assertion that ‘phases and crazes’ among the students never last is absolutely chilling. Yes, under normal circumstances, he’s right. But these cards aren’t for trading, and this is no playground fad.

The sense of menace early on in the chapter really pays off when Paul is finally caught, and in class, of all places. Like with Shiela, we have a moment where we thought the reality of Austerly Fellows’ evil might just get through to Martin before it was too late, but of course, that’s not meant to be. However, it’s interesting that Paul actually manages to resist for quite a long time in comparison to some of the other children. Was that because he had taken time to learn about Dancing Jacks, and Fellows’ diabolical plan beforehand? Perhaps most of the power of the book is in surprise attack, making those who are unaware of its true purpose more susceptible to its influence.

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter is a total rush (but not necessarily a good one), swooping from Martin and Barry missing the point – again, the tragic irony that their ‘aberrancy’ is blinding them to the real danger – through Martin’s maths class (now greatly transformed since we first met him) and finally, the turning of Paul.

Just a few hours, we say, and he would have been fine! Martin might have listened. We haven’t met Gerald yet, but we sense that he certainly wouldn’t have brushed Paul off if he could have got t his place.

But the book got to him first. It’s scenes like the classroom scene here that make me dream about how you would film something like this. It would almost need two directors – one to make sure that Felixstowe felt as real-life and ordinary as possible and another to create a Mooncaster that is totally OTT. It’s the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the ordinary that make this chapter come alive.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 21


Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The Royal Hunt had begun.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I recall there was a bit of outrage over certain things the Ismus says at the start of this chapter, particularly about him comparing himself to real-life dictators and suggesting that they were in some way doing the bidding of the Dawn Prince. While I don’t enjoy these comparisons, I feel the need to point out that Robin has been blending real-life evil with fantasy and occult elements since The Woven Path in 1995. This is not new. Actually, the historic elements in The Woven Path were probably more shocking, if you’re in the mood to be shocked, because they took place during the Second World War and involved children younger than Paul both being endangered by wartime events, and in some cases actually losing their lives.

If anything, the Ismus’ grandiose claims come off as a bit tired and cliché. Surely Austerly could stand on his own as an Extremely Evil Character without needing real-world figures to prop up his ego? Or is he so insecure that he feels the need to talk himself up against so-called ‘louder’ figures at every turn? I’m also mildly surprised that he compares himself to Hitler, and not, say, someone who had occult doings at the forefront of their crimes. Wouldn’t Austerly Fellows, ‘the most evil man in England’ (I can feel Nathaniel Crozier frowning jealously from here) have been acquainted with every unsavoury occultist worth running away from? Wouldn’t he be more inclined, with his personal leanings, to make ‘Satanic panic’ comments? But then, maybe Hitler comparisons are the best he can come up with. Everything about the Ismus is a bit Standard Villain(tm), even if he is the ‘realest’ character in Dancing Jacks.

Matt’s Thoughts: Well, it’s really on now, isn’t it? All authority figures, including the police are now falling under the control of Jax.

I saw an unimpressed reader having a fairly solid rant about this chapter on a review site because they weren’t happy with the comparison with Hitler being brought into it. I can understand the concerns, but I don’t feel as if Robin is trivialising the issue at all.

I think whole book is concerned with evil and suffering in the world and our capacity as humans to deal with it. Especially in our superficial age. The Ismus’ rant about ‘no substance, no value, just labels’ and ‘no rescue, no salvation’ – speaks very strongly to our current culture. That’s why I enjoy this series so much, because it is trying to make its readers think about these heavy issues.

Dancing Jax | Chapter 20


Warning: Contains Spoilers!

It was like a swiftly spreading disease.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: A moment of silence for the eight kids who went to the counsellor and came out brainwashed, and for Debbie, Sandra’s childhood friend. Deeply depressing to think that she, too, will soon be another moony Mooncastrian.

This chapter really brings home what I mentioned at the start of the book about the evil of Dancing Jacks beginning with some of society’s most vulnerable individuals. It’s pretty chilling to read lines like ‘Paul was only eleven years old. He had no idea how to make anyone listen and take him seriously’, and, ‘He preferred when they were shouting than when they attempted to empathise and got it so very wrong’.

Usually, when a young protagonist knows about something supernatural and is ignored by every adult they try to tell, it’s either played for laughs, or ends in concrete visual proof forcing the adults to ‘believe’, leading to them helping the young hero win the day. No such thing is happening here, however. Far from ruefully yelling ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!’, there’s a sense of real and immediate peril in Paul’s desperation for someone, anyone, to listen.

The worst part is that Trudy is completely right – there really is nothing she, or anyone, can do against Austerly Fellows. In her rejection, we see the end of Paul’s faith in his elders. Martin and his mum, his teachers, his friends, and now the one person who believes him about Dancing Jacks, have all abandoned him when he most needed their support. Even the law can’t stop what’s going on in Felixstowe. (Were this book set a few decades earlier, I can’t help but wonder if the church might have been included in that list of ineffectual adults, or whether, as we saw in the Whitby Witches, there might’ve been a Sister Frances character to pull through for Paul. This book is very much in the vein of traditional British horror, after all.)

Matt’s Thoughts: I don’t remember this chapter from the first time I read it, but it’s somewhat terrifying to think of the mass grown-up failure that is happening here. The grief counsellor that’s supposed to help everyone is making converts to the Jacks. Martin still doesn’t see. Trudy doesn’t want to go back to an event that changed her life forever.

So there’s a lot of weight to that line near the end of the chapter: ‘one small lad against forces he couldn’t begin to imagine or comprehend’.