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Myth & Sacrifice

The Great Grand Robin Jarvis (Re)Read

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Deptford Mice

All chapter posts for the Deptford Mice, Histories, Mouselets and Almanack.

The Dark Portal | Prologue & Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

He had never been brave or overtly curious, so why did the Grill call to him that spring morning, and what was the urge to explore that gripped him so?

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Ah yes, the infamous Grill. Let’s be honest, the yawning black maw of a tunnel mouth is something which inspires a frisson of unnamed fear in many of us. What, we wonder to ourselves, lies beyond, lurking in the claustrophobic darkness, waiting to leap out and attack? Cover that shadowy opening with cold, writhing ironwork, so out of place in the roly-poly, nature-loving world of mice, and you’ve got a perfect gateway to adventure, danger, and in a lot of cases, doom.

I have a peculiar relationship with The Dark Portal‘s opening pages because my first experience of this book was via audio cassette. Whenever I read that immortal tone-setter, ‘When a mouse is born he has to fight to survive’, I hear it in Tom Baker’s deeply sinister-sounding narration, and am instantly blasted with the feeling of what it was like to listen in mounting glee as this story unfolded in all its macabre glory.

And macabre it really is. The very first paragraph describes in loving detail an anecdote regarding a mouse family who died from ingesting poison set down by humans, a tragedy which, and I quote, ‘only the baby survived because it was too young to eat solids.’ Mr Jarvis was never one for breaking the reader in gently, and in this instance he achieves both of his objectives in one fell swoop: our hearts break for the innocent mousey critters, even as we shriek in horror.

This nightmarish opener really sets the bar for the series as a whole. In the first chapter, we are introduced to the kindly, lovable house-mouse Albert Brown, father of our heroine, Audrey, but our acquaintance with him is short-lived. Albert, having been pulled through the Grill by the vile enchantment upon it, meets an abrupt and sticky end, and we, like poor Piccadilly at the close of this chapter, feel the need to flee sobbing into the night.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: This opening chapter put me in a state of denial the first time I read it. That ending, where Albert Brown is peeled (how’s that for a bit of Chapter 1 violence?) by Jupiter, the Dark God of the Rats, refused to sink in. I just assumed that Mr Jarvis was only playing with us – as authors love to do – and that Albert Brown was somehow going to miraculously survive and show up again later in the book. (Just like Gandalf and the Balrog, right?)

But this is a Jarvis book and the man is out to mess you up. And so, a great character – one who I relate to more and more, now that I have young children of my own – is introduced for all of one chapter and then mercilessly dispatched.

I love the opening of this book. It starts with a classic early Jarvis cast of heroes and villains (The Mice and The Rats) which was a trademark of his early books. Then, without any mucking around, the ideas are set out in a brief prologue: a bunch of mice living in Deptford, they have a nasty Grill leading to the sewers in their basement and you just don’t want to go there. And yet there goes Albert Brown.

Still, if Albert’s flame burned brightly for 15 pages and then was extinguished, at least we had the introduction of the legendary Piccadilly. There’s just something so perfect about a City Mouse being named after a tube station.

And let’s not forget the villains. Morgan goes on to become a memorable adversary. And, of course, Jupiter, who wins the vote for my favourite of all Jarvis villains. He also becomes the villain archetype for all following Jarvis books – his shape and identity is hidden, he has a mysterious plot, lots of minions working for him, and archaic turns of phrase. But there will be plenty more to say about those two as the plot moves along …

Finally, bit of musical trivia: I have this habit of listening to classical music and imagining what sort of movie scene that the music might fit. And when I first heard the opening minute or so of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, I couldn’t help but imagine Albert Brown tip-toeing deeper and deeper into a dark, yawning sewer … Have a listen, if you want (it’s a great piece of music!), but I won’t be offended if it’s only me that hears Robin Jarvis cinema in the music!

The Dark Portal | Chapter 2

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Be it great or small, tall and dangerous, meek and futile?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Possibly one of the most well-known of Mr Jarvis’ inventions is the mousebrass. These humble circles of shining metal – based on the horse brasses of rural 19th Century England – each bear a different motif that matches the wearer’s personality and life path. The symbol moulded into one’s mousebrass is as significant to the Deptford Mice as the Hogwarts Houses to the pupils of magic in the Harry Potter books, or the colour of one’s district in William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire Trilogy. Like many ‘sorting’ conventions in fantasy, when all is said and done it is not the prescribed symbol, house, or district which truly matters; but the ways in which the characters confirm or defy the role they are assigned.

As well as meeting our heroine and being introduced to the Skirtings community, in this chapter we also get our first glimpse of the wonderfully inventive esotericism which is Robin’s trademark. The manifestation of the Green Mouse is skilfully set up by having Arthur’s mousebrass ceremony be reassuringly ordinary. He goes in ahead of Audrey through the paper streamers and painted props of the Chambers of Winter and Summer, and receives his brass in the same manner as every other mouse before him.

This in turn makes Audrey’s experience all the more alarming and awe-inspiring. The scene where she passes through the Chamber of Winter is, to me, one of the most chilling in the entire novel, and is a clever bit of foreshadowing to certain events in The Final Reckoning. Even for the mice of the Skirtings in their cosy abandoned house, the powers of nature are something to be feared and revered; the Midwinter Death is still a threat, but the Green Mouse is just as real and tangible. Faced with her destiny in the form of the brass He offers her, Audrey gives a hero’s protest. ‘On my life I dare not take it’, she says, but of course in the end she does, and now she must confirm or defy accordingly.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: If you’re like me, you might have rushed through this chapter so you can get to the action, but I would almost recommend reading it slowly, because, really, this is the closest thing that we get to a ‘nice’ chapter in this book. At the risk of sounding like Lemony Snicket, it’s all going to get more miserable from here onward.

For me, this is the equivalent of the opening of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien sets up his idyllic hobbit community. (However, Mr Jarvis mercifully spares us a 10-page prologue describing the Deptford Mice and their tobacco preferences.) It’s simultaneously completely new  – the Green Mouse, mousebrasses, the Chambers of Summer and Winter are all phenomenal fictional inventions – but at the same time it immediately feels like ancient English community and paganism. (There’s something to be said for living in a country where so many strands of mythology have been passed down over the years!)

And, finally, Robin introduces three more characters who all become memorable as the series goes on: Audrey, who increasingly reminds me of my wife and daughter. (The latter of whom at age three already had ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ as part of her vocabulary.) Twit, who I love more and more for his spirit of kindness.

And Oswald. In an American cartoon, I feel like he would be one of those clumsy, less-than-bright characters that are inserted for gags, but Robin characterises him much more as an over-anxious out-of-place sort of person. Which I could completely relate to growing up.

Anyway, I won’t spoil anything, but one of the best things about The Deptford Mice is watching the arc all three go through, not just in this book, but over the course of the trilogy.

The Dark Portal | Chapter 3

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Unnatural things walked under the stars and spread fear over the earth.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now Audrey takes her first steps upon the path set out for her, desperation fuelling her to leave comfortable home and hearth. In the time-honoured tradition of heroic tales, she gives up something precious in exchange for information from an untrustworthy source, and so the wheels of her fate begin to turn.

This is a chapter which I still remember from the cassette version; the shadowy, furtive fortune-telling scene with Madame Akkikuyu had great atmosphere, despite that her accent was not exactly true to the book’s descriptions. I can recall my young indignation that Audrey had to forfeit the tail-bells which Twit had given her in such good faith, but the fact that Audrey is willing to believe that the likes of Akkikuyu can help her at all really shows her desperation.

Madame Akkikuyu is definitely one of those characters through which you can clearly see Robin’s background in model-making. With her tattooed ear, polka-dot shawl, and toy marble masquerading as a crystal ball, she is a perfect stop-motion specimen. It’s easy to imagine her eye-watering perfume and the filth under her long, chipped claws, and certainly in this chapter’s illustration she presents a bold contrast to Audrey’s frilly femininity.

Carrying on from the Chamber of Winter scene last chapter, there is foreshadowing aplenty in Audrey and Akkikuyu’s introductory conversation, as well as in the vision which follows. We are still in the early chapters, however, and the dread and doom are balanced with the occasional humorous moment. One that always make me chortle (and which is also a scathingly accurate summation of Madame Akkikuyu’s character) is when she admits that while her potions make her gullible patrons strong and happy, those spurious concoctions also ‘make them a little bit dead sometimes too.’

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Ah, Madame Akkikuyu! I don’t think I quite appreciated where Morocco was when I was younger, and so I always imagined her as having a vaguely exotic accent but I wasn’t sure exactly what it sounded like. And so, to make sure I get this correct in my head, and in case you find yourself reading this book out loud to little people, here is a YouTube of a how to speak in a Moroccan accent for reference.

This chapter is a great example of Mr Jarvis’ cinematic writing. Swirling colours in a crystal ball, flickering flames. It all reminds me of 80s animation, even though I couldn’t point to any one particular film. But a great example is this scene from The Secret of NIMH.

Also, pay close attention to Akkikuyu’s vision. Like another prophecy we’ll encounter in a few chapters, it foreshadows not just this book but the entire trilogy.

Finally, Piccadilly and Audrey meet for the first time, and it sets up two ideas: 1) Audrey’s denial about her father being dead. (Which, hey, I totally get.) And 2) Piccadilly’s crisis of faith. These may seem more mainstream now, but in 1989, there were few books aimed at kids with this much darkness, spiritual crisis and trauma going on. (And Robin hasn’t even started. He’s just cracking his knuckles in readiness for the real unpleasantness!)

The Dark Portal | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

But the last, Twit noted with horror, had one of his claws missing and in its place, bound tightly to the stump, was something that made the fieldmouse squeal like his cousin – a peeler.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Poor Arthur Brown never gets much of a look-in when people talk about the Deptford Mice, but as far as I’m concerned it’s his unremarkable nature that makes him so likeable. As our heroine’s jollier, sturdier brother, it’s his duty to bring a bit of common sense and stability to proceedings. In this chapter as during the mousebrass-giving, he does this with aplomb, comforting his mother and rallying his friends when it becomes clear that Audrey is well and truly missing.

Here we also get a clearer look at Twit and Oswald; two of my absolute favourite characters out of any of Robin’s books. Twit especially is cleverly unfolded as the series goes on as a rather complex character, but his sunny personality remains genuine, as we see when he discusses his countryside home. The put-upon Oswald; gawky, bescarfed, and jittering, is the sort of character with whom we can probably all identify to some extent, if only because most of us certainly know ‘an Oswald’ in our own lives.

Between them, Arthur, Twit, and Oswald make up Audrey’s rescue party, and it is through their frightened but courageous eyes that we come nose-to-snout with One-Eyed Jake and his cronies. One rung down from Morgan, this band of bloodstained scoundrels are delightfully, slaveringly wicked, and thus immensely fun to read. I can recall one reviewer of The Dark Portal from a few years ago commenting that even the lowliest of Mr Jarvis’ rats would make Cluny the Scourge, the infamous warlord of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, drop his whip-like tail and flee in terror. I have to admit I concur – Cluny is very sinister, but you can’t beat a snickering, leering gang of red-eyed murderers closing in on our helpless heroes, deliberating whom they are going to make a ‘raw head and bloody-bones’ of first!

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m a fan of horror films, so I love the way Robin has worked in the classic horror movie trope into a kids’ story: One person goes missing in some dark, forbidding place. Other friends say, ‘Let’s go find them!’ And then everyone ends up in trouble. (He does, however, avoid that other cliché of horror stories, where somebody suggests the never-sensible idea of splitting up.)

This is also an introduction to a bunch of classic Jarvis ‘nasties’: they’re the bad guys who work for the ultra-villain and they’re nearly always ugly, sadistic and violent. I’m sure this got many parents and teachers riled up back in the day (and apologies to any parents and teachers reading this who are riled up still) but this is actually what makes his books so intense: the villains are so, well, vile, compared with the innocence of the heroes, that it makes the story that much more compelling.

Nobody has any special combat skills to battle these kind of bad guys. It just comes down to courage and tenacity. Which will be sorely tested in the chapters to come …

Final Pedantic Note: Reading the Hodder silver-coloured edition, I noticed that the book alternated between spelling the old piece of metal in the cellar as ‘Grille’ and ‘Grill’, sometimes within paragraphs of each other. To sort this one out, I went to the source. It’s now officially ‘the Grill’.

The Dark Portal | Chapter 5

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

As she stood undisturbed in the moonlight, erect and lovely, it seemed as if the care of years fell away and she was young again.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Audrey’s mother Gwen is another character who is slightly underappreciated. This is really a crying shame, because her story arc is one of the most touching in the entire Deptford Mice Trilogy.

Though she bears the common sign of the house-mouse as her brass, Gwen shows uncommon resilience and fortitude, and it’s easy to see where Audrey gets her inner strength from.  The little scene between Gwen and Arthur as they grieve for Albert is incredibly moving even in its simplicity; we feel their sorrow, but overshadowing it is a layer of worry for Audrey, who still refuses to accept the truth about her father.

Between Albert’s sudden death, Piccadilly’s arrival, the awkwardness between he and Audrey, and Audrey’s missing mousebrass, things are burgeoning into a veritable mousey soap-opera, but it’s the melodrama that makes this story so engaging. One can’t help but be swept along.

Twit’s eagerness to return to the sewers on Audrey’s behalf is very touching even if he ends up staying behind, and the fact that Oswald gamely offers to venture into danger shows that he possesses an internal moral compass quite as strong as his divining rod. A good thing too, as he’s going to need every ounce of courage and integrity he has in the chapters to come.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Aww …this chapter was a lot more sad than what I remember last time I read it. The scene with Gwen stoically remembering the past in the moonlight really got to me this time.

I don’t have a lot to comment on in this chapter except that I love the fact that Oswald is getting braver, and I’ve always liked the visual image – even though no illustration exists for this – of him chasing his divining rod through the sewers.

As for the cliffhanger chapter ending, well, what I can say? Beware of the Grill!

The Dark Portal | Chapter 6

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Threefold the life threats. How shall he be vanquished? By water deep, fire blazing and the unknown path.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I didn’t remember the very start of this chapter, and when I read it over it gave me the chills. Here we’ve got Arthur Brown of whom I spoke so well in my thoughts on Chapter 4; kindly, well-meaning, sensible Arthur Brown, imagining the worst of Audrey and turning his back on her when she most needs him. Of course, it’s Jupiter’s power that is corrupting Arthur’s gentle nature, and I think it is the fact that Arthur specifically is so affected by the evil enchantments of the Grill that really makes the threat of Jupiter seem personal.

In this chapter we also get our first hints that there is more to Twit than was initially shown. For instance, there is something a bit woolly about the explanation for his immunity to the Grill’s influence. Apparently, he is simply too good-natured for the magic to get its claws into him. If, however, the same Arthur who recently comforted his grieving mother and raced into Jupiter’s lair at risk to his own life to rescue his sister can suddenly be sneering like a rat and saying Audrey can rot in the sewers, Twit must be positively saintly.

Then there’s the business with his parents – town mouse and country mouse, so to speak, meaning that Twit slots neatly into both the society of his fieldmouse home and the Skirtings community, even if he prefers the former. (Does anyone else find it heart-breaking that the story Twit treasures about his parent’s meeting is meant as a cautionary tale to discourage city and country mice from pursuing romance with each other? I certainly do!) Evidently, there is a degree of sorrow in Twit’s life if not in Twit himself, and a degree of duality and mystery. Keep hold of these clues, we’ll need them much, much later.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m guessing that if there is any particular section in long-term Jarvis fans’ copies of The Dark Portal that is the most thumb-stained, it is this chapter. The bats, (with the marvelous names of Orfeo and Eldritch), are the deliverers of a bunch of cryptic riddles that foreshadow the entire trilogy all the way through to the last page of Book 3.

Thus the thumb-stains! Throughout the trilogy, all of a sudden you’ll remember something that the bats said way back in Chapter 6 of The Dark Portal, you flick back and then marvel at how Jarvis has plotted the whole thing carefully from beginning to end. Despite which, you can never quite work out how it’s all going to end.

Unless …

[Small Aside For My Confession of Youthful Transgressions]

… unless you’re like me and you used to peek up the end of books to see how they finished up. I was notorious for doing this up until the age of – well, really up until I read The Dark Portal. By peeking at the end of Portal, I so spoiled the ending for myself, that I decided from then on I’d sit back and let books unfold as the author set them out. Since then, I’ve found books and movies to be a lot more enjoyable when you don’t know how they’re going to end. It does mean, though, that I won’t join in any conversations about any TV show I haven’t seen yet Because I Might Watch It One Day.

[End of Aside]

Anyway, final question for the readers: if there was ever a T-shirt going around with the logo:

‘By water deep, fire blazing and the unknown path’

Who here would buy it?

The Dark Portal | Chapter 7

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Sometimes in the dead of night I catch her out. Maybe it’s just the timbers shrinking after a warm day, but there are occasions when I fancy I hear the old girl sighing and sobbing for what was.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter kind of crept up on me. I was busy being all excited about Twit’s history and the bat’s prophecy, and suddenly, oh look who’s next! Thomas Triton, midshipmouse; retired, and sometimes pickled! At the opening of this chapter, however, we have yet to arrive with Twit in the rigging of the Cutty Sark. First, there’s an aerial tour of London to be had, and what a tour it is.

Twit’s flight over the city in the claws of Orfeo and Eldritch perfectly echoes the tale of Twit’s parents which we were privy to last chapter (especially when the bats almost deposit him in the icy, fast-flowing Thames!) but its main purpose is to reveal to us the world beyond the small, mousey confines of the Skirtings. Through Twit’s startled little eyes, the Deptford of the 1980s rolls out like a vaguely shabby carpet, revealing its Frankenstein’s monsters and its dark Satanic Mills, presenting a shadowy, dream-like stage-set for the action of the trilogy.

When eventually Twit does arrive on the Cutty Sark, it is as if to another world entirely. Having never seen a ship in his life, he has no frame of reference except the high corn-stalks of his field, and I’ve always loved the way he squares his tiny shoulders and just copes, despite that the bats have recently subjected him to more alarming experiences in quick succession than he’s probably ever had in all his born days.

Then there’s Thomas; the first whisper we get that the world is greater still than the London of the Deptford Mice Trilogy, and that it is indeed tall and dangerous. What secrets gleam in the blade of the midshipmouse’s sword, now hung on the wall like a trophy of nameless battles past but terrible? What sorrow lies at the bottom of the bowl of rum he gives to Twit? What wondrous places do his old and faded maps depict, and what has he seen that he has no fear of Jupiter, Lord of All?  Dear Readers, that’s another story.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I got the chance last year to visit London for the first time ever. I set aside a day – primarily because of this trilogy – to go and visit Deptford and Greenwich. (And drag my kids along.) I’m assuming Londoners have a much more immediate idea of what the place is like, but as an Australian, having only these books to go by, I was less sure what to expect.

Here’s a photo of the Deptford Markets from when I went through:

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The first thing that struck me was that it was similar in many respects to some of the inner-city suburbs of my city, Sydney, that used to be a bit rough in the past but are now becoming quite trendy. (So you now have the strange combination of the young and trendy living side-by-side with the less-well-off.)

I would probably need a Londoner to help me out on this one, but the feeling I got from Deptford was that this was a suburb on the up now but that perhaps was less popular back in the day.

All of which leads me to one of the most interesting things about Robin’s books: they are all very particular about place. While he has created some completely fictional settings for some of his books (e.g. Hagwood), there are also a good number of places like Deptford, Greenwich and Whitby, that are real, living locations.

Which makes me wonder – what did people think, back in the late 80s, of a book being set in Deptford? Did it carry some sort of social weight that we wouldn’t be able to appreciate overseas? What does it say about his heroes that they live in a place like Deptford?

I’d love to hear from any of our British readers in the comments on this topic.

And here’s my photo of the Cutty Sark!

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It’s been damaged by fire (and repaired) a few times over the last couple of decades. And it now sits on a sort of glass platform rather than being in a concrete trough like the book. But still, it’s there and larger than life and a total must-see for those doing the Deptford Mice walking tour in London! (As is the Greenwich Observatory, but I’ll save photos of that for Book 2.)

Back to the chapter, I also love the little moment flying over London with the feral creatures and the song of the night which Twit and the bats can hear. It’s just one of those scenes you read and never quite forget.

And speaking of unforgettable, Thomas Triton! Aufwader has said pretty much everything I w0uld want to say about him. But I would like to know – what sort of accent does Thomas have? Any help from our readers on that point?

The Dark Portal | Chapter 8

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Their red eyes sparkled in the firelight and shone with the hunger and hatred that drove them.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Now we return to Oswald and Piccadilly on their hunt for Audrey’s mousebrass, and we begin to understand why Oswald is so hapless and down-trodden. Like with Twit and the story of his parents, I shed a tiny tear when I think of the hurt and feelings of rejection which Oswald has endured for the whole of his life. Combined with Piccadilly’s achingly brave shouldering of his own orphan status, it’s no wonder that this pair are at the top of many a reader’s Characters Who Most Need A Hug list.

In their small, sad conversation, Oswald and Piccadilly bring to light perhaps one of the most important themes in all of Mr Jarvis’ work: the necessity of true and loyal friendship. Oswald may have an appalling time of it in the Skirtings community, and Piccadilly may have no family, but, as they begin to realise in this chapter, they have each other – along with Arthur and Twit and (hopefully) Audrey.

Following this adorably awkward scene, we move right into ‘Oswald and Piccadilly in: A Brush with Protracted and Grisly Death’ as One-Eyed Jake and his band slink by on their way to the Skirtings. Courageously, the mice contrive to distract the rats and so spare the lives of their loved ones, but not before they get a lovely catalogue of the many and varied ways in which Jake and his cronies deal with their victims. All are quite ghastly, and cover everything from a traditional live peeling to my favourite, the good old crispy mouse-ear. Which of the rats’ murderous methods do you like best, O Ravening Readers?

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I love the halfway points in Jarvis novels. The action has heated up, and all the gas burners are turned on. This is a fairly straightforward chapter, but we do start to see Oswald become more brave – plus we also find a little bit about the awkwardness and insecurity that he’s lived with most of his life.

Then we have the rats! One-Eyed Jake, Fletch, etc. I always loved his rat villains, especially because of the illustration in this chapter. Their evil faces and long, tall forms, compared with the short innocent mice make such a contrast. I realised what I didn’t quite express in an earlier post about his villains is that they were unusual for their time, because a lot of villains in kids’ stories were more cartoonish back in those days. (At least in the books I read!) Less than intelligent, easily fooled, comic characters.

Whereas there is almost nothing comic about Jarvis’ rats. (Though possibly you could make an exception for the number of creative verbal riffs they have on all things to do with snot, slime and poxes … a clever way of making them coarse without anything that would count as coarse language.)

Anyway, we’re in the middle of a water chase … on to the next chapter!

Up Next Reminder | The Crystal Prison

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The classic original cover of The Crystal Prison.

Now that we’re midway through The Dark Portal, this is just a reminder that if you’re thoroughly enjoying this – and we hope that you are! – that you might want to track down a copy of the second book in the trilogy, The Crystal Prison, before we start up in February.

With regards to editions, this is much the same as was the case with The Dark Portal. Ideally, you will want to see the illustrations, so we recommend:

The original edition (as shown above).

The silver edition with the dripping writing:

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The American edition:

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And because it’s the only in-print version still on sale, and because we like to support Mr Jarvis, where we can, we’d suggest buying the Kindle version as well.

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