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Myth & Sacrifice

The Great Grand Robin Jarvis (Re)Read

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alchymist’s cat

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 14 & Finale

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘For I am Jupiter,’ he lied. ‘Lord of All.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The Deptford Histories are, in my opinion, some of Mr Jarvis’ best work to date, and this ending is definitely up there with one of my favourite twists in any novel.

In fact, there are a lot of favourites here. We’ve got the perfect blending of fiction and history with the Great Fire of London as a backdrop for our character’s final reckonings. We’ve got the visceral grotesquerie of Magnus Zachaire’s reanimated corpse clawing its way out of the earth. We’ve got Spittle’s glorious showdown with his familiar, grown mighty and terrible under the alchemist’s own tutelage, and, finally, the bitter clash between Jupiter and Leech.

Once again, Spittle is faced with his own hubris come back to haunt him. It was he who trained Jupiter in the dark arts. Spittle sought the elixir of life that means there can be no true victor of their battle. Spittle hauled Magnus Zachaire from the cold oblivion of the void, incurring his wrath and bitterness and compelling him to seek revenge. The alchemist’s dreadful fate is entirely of his own making, and he pays the price for his arrogance and perfidy in what has to be one of the most nightmarish (and satisfying) death scenes I’ve ever read.

If Jupiter’s birth won the award for Most Grandiose Arrival into the story, Spittle’s death certainly wins Most Outlandish Exit. Dragged into Hell itself by an undead mage, his immortality singed off with his hair, screaming for mercy the whole way? Yikes! That’s some Don Giovanni business right there.

To that glorious epilogue, then. I have a mental image of the dark portal in grainy 2D animation, fathomless and waiting. There are no candles before it as yet, but a shaft of ruddy light falls onto the scene from the distant fire, far above. The thin black shape of Leech crawls in like a spider and begins to purr, and, as the dreadful sound shakes the searing bricks and rattles Becket’s bones, a fell darkness seeps forth and covers the cavern in impenetrable night. In their squalid holes and tunnels, the rats of Deptford go about their business, heedless of the evil that now sleeps among them, unaware that Jupiter, Lord of All, has at last come into his kingdom.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Oh. Yeah. Another out-of-the-park finale. Giant cats, a battle between fire and water (which brilliantly echoes The Deptford Mice books if you’ve read them, or just works well as a story element in this book if you haven’t), a re-animated corpse and the Great Fire of London.

What else could you want?

Except a twist where the cat we thought we knew as Jupiter turns out not to be the Jupiter we thought we knew. (If you know what I mean.) In his final moments, the ‘real’ Jupiter (as I’ll refer to the one in this book) learns to be kind to his brother and gives up his dream of doing magic, only to find that Leech has gone too far down a dark path to give up. What a poignant moment!

At least it seems that Will and Molly will end up okay, with a bit of coin, and a chance to get back to Adcombe. (The only ray of sunshine in what has probably been the darkest Jarvis book so far in the re-read.)

Finally, one fascinating detail that Aufwader and I have been sitting on since we read The Final Reckoning was that in the finale of that book, Jupiter has a flashback where he remembers escaping from his cruel master during the Great Fire of London. And it describes him running through London, having his ginger fur being singed.

Which, of course, is slightly different from how the finale of this book worked out, where Leech didn’t have ginger fur during the Great Fire and was actually rescued by Will, rather than fleeing from the fire himself. So I’m assuming that while Robin always had Jupiter’s origins pegged as being in 1600s London (which would make sense, given that his idea of a nasty plan was to give all humans the Black Plague again) the Jupiter/Leech side of the story was possibly thought up later.

If that’s the case, it’s one of the greatest afterthoughts ever.

Anyway, after this much grimness, I’m ready for a seaside holiday. Who wants to come along for another trip to Whitby? Not much bad stuff could happen out there, right?

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The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 13

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Thy realm will last for hundreds of years and thy powers shall extend over the whole earth and finally beyond.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Chapter 13 of any Robin Jarvis book is always alight with drama and tragedy, and this is no exception. We get the reveal of Will’s stolen inheritance, Spittle’s (regrettable) recovery from the plague, and finally, Jupiter’s change of heart with regards to his master.

As usual the cassette version I had of this book was abridged, so I unfortunately missed a lot of the finer details of Spittle’s machinations and Will’s subsequent decisions. On reread, I was impressed by Will’s refusal to sink to Spittle’s level. For almost the entire story so far our young hero has endured awful suffering at his captor’s hand, and now we discover that he is not just Will’s abductor but also his only remaining relative.

In this capacity, Spittle takes up his other archetypal role as ‘evil uncle’ and, as we see from his plague-induced ravings, he has been playing that part with aplomb from the beginning. Will has every right to let him die at this point, and the fact that he doesn’t is a turning point and important moment of growth for a character who has spent a lot of his own story reacting to the decisions of others.

When I finally got to read this book in its complete form, I appreciated the tense atmosphere of the scene where Will and Jupiter work to create the elixir of life. There they are in that grody little room, toiling into the early hours to save an evil old wretch who doesn’t really deserve saving. In different ways, both of these characters have had to make the choice to be good, and to see them work together toward a noble goal makes what happens afterwards that much worse.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter is gripping enough on the visceral level, what with people coming back from the dead, wincing violence against our young hero and the ghoulish finale with the cupboard.

But there are also some nice touches – it finally dawned on me this time that there is a clever parallel between the Samuel / Daniel Godwin relationship and the Leech / Jupiter relationship. (All of which has great mythic echoes – whether intentional on Mr Jarvis’ part or not – with the story of Cain and Abel.)

The only thing that I was curious about was at what stage in the game did Spittle / Samuel get hold of all the gold? Early in the piece, he was always lamenting that he couldn’t afford nice food and clothes. So it’s possible that he didn’t yet have any money at this stage. And then I’m assuming, by the time he had sold the Godwin farm and then come into the wealth he always wanted, by this stage, he was obsessed with a) avoiding the Black Plague, b) trying to create the Philosopher’s Stone and c) creating the Elixir of Life.

Which of course, takes us to one of the oldest tales of all time: someone craves power and riches, but the more power and riches that person gets, the less satisfied they are.

Anyway, one more chapter left to go till the much-awaited reveal of how Jupiter became the terror of Deptford …

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 12

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Then Jupiter revealed for the first time his power.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I absolutely love Mr Jarvis’ creative chapter titles, and this has got to be one of my favourites in the Deptford Histories. I mean, you can’t really get much more majestic than ‘The Fall of Adonis’. In referencing the figure of ancient Greek myth, this title also carries on that classical motif that is behind both Heliodorus’ and Jupiter’s names and which weaves through everything Spittle is about – as a learned man he would be well-versed in the classics and would appreciate being compared to figures of legend, even if, in reality, the comparison were somewhat less than apt.

There’s also a strand of the ridiculous in this chapter. Adonis is most well-known for his premature demise, and many depictions of him in art and sculpture show the titular ‘fall’. It’s difficult for me to find it in my heart to feel sorry for Spittle after everything he’s done, but his eventual undoing is both a brilliant move in terms of character and also one of the most dismal, pathetic downfalls in this entire series. It took no great magic or heroic resolve to defeat Spittle, because at the end of the day he was just too jolly self-absorbed.

On reread I realised that Magnus Zachaire is, in death, actually just the same as he was in life. Despite the grand wisdom he has been granted by crossing over, he is still malicious and manipulative, and doesn’t seem to have taken his earlier promise to turn over a new leaf to heart at all. It’s really quite saddening, and I feel his story is one of the darkest and most hopeless in this book. I shudder to think what may become of Will and our feline characters, should that sinister spectre achieve his goals.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: All the way through the book, it has been well established that Spittle is both terrified of the black plague and dreadfully vain as well. So, of course, it makes sense that when fate catches up with him, it’s a combination of vanity and the plague that cause his undoing. Clever!

It’s also interesting because, despite being the most villainous character in the story, he is not brought down by our hero, Will. (Who actually hasn’t been able to do much at all in this story.) Instead, he pretty much brings himself down – though the manipulations of Zachaire in the background are behind much of the mischief.

But even that is overshadowed by the awesome moment when Jupiter speaks to Will. Up till now, the human and animal characters in the story have been running in parallel, all having their own dramas. But now, Jupiter speaks to Will and draws him into the potion-making. It’s a great twist and a reminder that ultimately this story, despite having so many interesting and varied characters, is ultimately the background story for the Dark God of the Rats, and we’re drawn back to Jupiter and his power.

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 11

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Carver’s days of evil were over and Death seemed to lurk in the shadows nearby, waiting to drag the soul from his failing body.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This is another of those chapters where we see the entirety of the Deptford universe as one enormous tapestry. In The Dark Portal, the plague had a major role in and of itself, but here we roll back the centuries to glimpse the truth of the evil which Jupiter summoned upon the heath.

Matt said in a previous post that what makes this aspect of The Alchymist’s Cat so frightening is that it’s all historical fact – the pest houses were real, and people like Peggy Blister and Ned Bunkit really did profit from the sickness. I’ve heard historians nowadays describe the Great Plague as ‘apocalyptic’ more than once, and here we get a genuine sense of what that meant for the people of the time. In Will’s figurative shoes, we are treated to a grand tour of the hellscape that the Black Death has made of London, and it makes for evocative and moving reading.

Speaking of moving, how heartbreaking is Mother Myrtle as a character?  There she is, little old lady, probably spent her life in the mission, not a bad word to say about anyone, and dying a slow, painful death. Honestly, it makes you shed a tear. That said, it’s also quite heartening to imagine that among the Spittles and Lingleys of the world, there were folks like Mother Myrtle who did their best to care for the plague victims with the few resources available.

Molly revealing her face in the pest house is one of those scenes that is indelibly etched into my imagination. On reread I was reminded of Henrietta Rae’s ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ – the contrast of the horror of the pestilence with Molly’s angelic image is nothing short of poetic, the kind of scene that could easily become a painting. I wonder if either Molly or Mother Myrtle were inspired by any real historical figures?

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I thought this chapter was brilliant. It steadily moves the plot forward and answers questions about how Will ended up with Spittle from earlier in the book, so if nothing else, it’s intriguing.

But I’m increasingly developing a fondness for ‘Jarvis bit players’ – those characters that make a brief appearance but immediately register in the brain.

In this case, it’s the contrast between the hideous drunken coachman, Ned Bunkit, (another horrific sequence) and the miraculous Mother Myrtle. Myrtle’s kindness and light shine through this chapter, cutting through the darkness. (And that itself is a bit of a theme in this chapter, isn’t it? The light of the lamp cutting through the room or the gleam of Molly’s hair. It’s all light and darkness.)

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 10

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘One day,’ he growled, ‘I shall avenge you, Mother, and all humankind will pay – this I swear.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Molly was one of those characters who I cared deeply about as a young reader. From the moment she appeared in Chapter 4 I loved her, and I didn’t stop loving her even when it looked as if she had treated Will cruelly and abandoned him. I knew there must be an explanation, and here she proved me right. I could talk all day about how great it is that she’s the plague doctor, and how she’s weathered the storms that’ve been thrown her way and carved out a business for herself that allows her to use her learning in a time when women were considered second-class citizens, but I’ll save that for the comments otherwise we’ll be here forever.

This chapter also answers a question that had been bothering me right from the beginning: why did Will never make more of an effort to escape from Spittle’s nefarious clutches? Surely the ruckus over Mr Balker’s murder must have died down enough by then to let Will make a dash for it when Spittle was sleeping? Alternatively, Will must by this time have had suitable knowledge of the shop to know which concoctions might knock the alchemist out for long enough to allow an escape.

At first it seemed to me to make little sense that Will would stick around when the means of getting away is presented to him with every customer who opens the shop door. In Chapter 6, however, the reason dawned on me, and this chapter confirms it. In that chapter, we saw Spittle demonstrate his first real command of the magical arts.

Being a young man of 1665, the Biblical concept of eternal damnation would be as tangible to Will as the promise of ascension to heaven, and Spittle’s necromancy would have cemented beyond doubt that the threat of everlasting hellfire was absolutely real. In this universe, Spittle really does have eyes everywhere, and really is capable of exacting all manner of terrible magical punishments on Will, should he try to leave. Throughout the story Will has demonstrated a wisdom beyond his years despite his rustic upbringing and illiteracy, and here I feel he is actually showing that wisdom again by not acting rashly with regards to his predicament.  Our young hero is aware that his circumstances could change very quickly – the means to get away may still present itself, and he need only be ready to seize it when it arrives.

As a final note: with Heliodorus’ death comes the only direct mention of Hobb we get in this book, but it is a striking one. On tape, that terrible “Hobb is come!” was gargled out in a despairing death-rattle that haunts me to this day. What I’d like to know is whether all Children of the Mighty Three behold a dreadful vision of their patron lords or lady at the hour of their deaths, or if Heliodorus, having done great and terrible deeds in life, was singled out for that dubious honour.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I remember being somewhere between 10-12 years old and reading a Three Investigators mystery. (Does anyone else remember them?) In the course of this mystery, young detective Jupiter Jones made a mention of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express in which he totally spoiled the ending. I never got around to reading the original Christie until maybe 15 years later, and you would have thought with that much ensuing time, I would have forgotten that plot spoiler from my pre-teen days.

Unfortunately, no. As I read the Poirot book, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I know how this one ends … bummer.’ So I will never know whether the finale of that book would have been considered one of her best endings.

Anyway, all of this is to say, that I was somewhat delighted to find that I didn’t see it coming, even on my third read through, that John Balker was actually in London looking for his daughter. I totally bought the red herring that it must have been some old flame of his. Not only is this a great piece of information to know, the little spark of hope that this offers for Will is a welcome relief from the dark tone of the story. Of course, it’s just a spark, especially with poor old Heliodorus (my favourite of the Jarvis rats) biting the dust at the end of the chapter.

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 9

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Like some ghastly angel of Death the plague spread its dark wings over the city, moving stealthily from house to house.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: If things were bad for Will before, they are about it get a good deal worse as we move into the ghoulish second act.

The Black Death was not something that I knew a great deal about as a young’un listening to this on tape, but I definitely knew what it was and roughly when it had occurred. What I love about Mr Jarvis’ treatment of history in his books is that he never sugar-coats things or tries to wash out the grisly details, but at the same time it’s not so traumatic that a young, somewhat morbidly-minded reader whose knowledge of the plague amounts to a few history lessons would be deterred from wanting to find out more. The way the plague closes around London like an enormous cruel hand is just so sinister and evocative – we want to look away, and yet, we are compelled to read on.

Despite my dislike for Lingley, the revelation concerning his rather wretched demise did give me a pang of sympathy. His humiliation may have been deserved in some ways, but, if we assume that it was the impetus for his suicide, then Spittle has essentially caused the death of another flawed but essentially innocent person. Sir Francis might’ve been insufferable and callous, but Spittle is a murderer, albeit indirectly, and certainly deserves the downfall I wished upon him last chapter.

It’s testament to how skilled Mr Jarvis is at creating even tertiary characters that the death of the Gobtrots hit me as hard as the death of any major character in his books. I suppose they could never have survived long in a Robin Jarvis book, being awfully nice and disgracefully lovable, but I was upset to see them go all the same.

Finally, as if the catalogue of human suffering in this chapter were not enough, we have Imelza’s doomed bid for freedom. What an absolutely dreadful scene! It mirrors the finale of The Crystal Prison in that it’s really a deeply perspicacious illustration of how any large-scale calamity, in this case the Great Plague, can turn otherwise reasonable people into a murderous mob. Rest ye in the void, O Imelza, Empress of Night and Mother of Calamities. Watch over your children in the dark time ahead.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: And this is the beginning of the major tonal shift in the story, but the one we’ve known has been coming for awhile – the arrival of the Black Plague. What makes this so particularly bleak and terrible is that none of this comes from the Jarvis imagination. The deaths, the shut-up pest-houses, the randomness of who was going to die from it, the plague doctors – it’s all straight out of history.

I know a lot of people aren’t feeling all that great about our current day and age, but I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend, except through tales like this, what it must have been like living through something on that level. And is it something that could only have happened back in the past? I’m not sure. Our modern medicine is pretty good, but we can’t foresee everything …

We haven’t seen this level of bleakness since The Final Reckoning and even then, that had a fantasy element to it that you could use to detach from it. But this chapter feels much more real (for me, at any rate).

And despite Aufwader and I having a disagreement over whether there was any sympathy due to Lingley, his suicide in this chapter just made me feel for him even more. But that barely had time to register because the Gobtrots are out of the picture as well.

And Imelza.

Did I block this part out of my mind as a kid? I’m not sure, but I don’t remember reading this section before and I was utterly horrified. This is grim stuff, Mr Jarvis, really grim.

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 8

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘At last,’ he cackled, ‘that beribboned maypole has entered my web and is in my power.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The business with Lingley is a lot of fun, providing a moment of relief in what is essentially one of the darkest sections of Deptford canon. In particular I find his battle of wills with Spittle hilarious – they’re both rather pathetic specimens in a lot of ways, so seeing them try to have a face-off is pretty amusing.  Plus, they are opposites. We have Sir Francis; flashy, titled, upwardly-mobile but oblivious to his own buffoonery, and we have Spittle; learned almost beyond the comprehension of mortal minds, brewing the elixir of ultimate power in his cramped attic room, but vile in personality and malignant in intention.

Unlike Matt, I don’t really feel that sorry for Lingley due to his past mistreatment of Molly, whom I love. We all knew that that gaudily attired gentleman was going to put his foot in it with the King somehow and ruin his own chances, and it was just bad luck for him that he chose to seek Spittle’s advice in the matter. I only wish that Spittle could be similarly humiliated – that would be very satisfying to see after the sorrow and pain he has caused thus far.

The dreadful old sinner shows no sign of being undermined yet, however. As in Chapter 6, this chapter shows us the origin of a few of Jupiter’s favourite Tips and Tricks For Evil Godliness, in this case the glowing red eyes. I would absolutely love to see the scene where Spittle banishes Lingley from the shop as hand-drawn 1970s horror movie poster. Imagine Spittle looming over all, flames falling from his gnarled hands, murderer’s grin all over his face, stringy hair standing on end. In the foreground, Lingley backs away, puny dagger falling from his grasp, and behind, Will looks suitably terrified as Jupiter hovers in the doorway to the attic, watching and learning.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: It’s a strange thing in the world of Jarvis that we can have two unlikeable characters – in this case, Lingley and Spittle, but one will turn out to be that much more nasty than the other, and we end up feeling sorry for the lesser of two nasties. If that makes sense. (It made sense in my head when I wrote it.)

It is fairly true to the times, that someone’s rise to power (or fall) could depend on a single encounter in the monarch’s court, so the stunt that Spittle pulls is pretty diabolical. You feel that although Lingley is pretentious, he simply didn’t deserve anything as bad as what happened to him.

And in his calling by at midnight, we miss the chance to see whether the Philosopher’s Stone would have worked. (My money is on it not working.) But all of this dastardly scheming is about to be trumped by something even bigger and nastier again – the real-life history of London in the 1660s …

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 7

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

His whiskers quivered as magical forces channeled through his small body and his golden eyes blazed with force.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: If the last chapter echoed the ritual on Blackheath in The Dark Portal, this one recalls the bat’s prophecy from the same book. Magnus Zachaire’s mutterings into Leech’s ear are quite as doom-laden and foreboding as the riddles of Orfeo and Eldritch. Between Spittle’s boot, the flying, enchanted embers, the dire pronouncement that Jupiter will one day be named Lord of All, and Imelza’s sudden need to be sure that Dab will play peacemaker between her brothers when their mother is gone, things do not look too sunny for Leech.

The scene with the flying embers, while we’re at it, put the fear of god (or Jupiter!) into me as a child. I had a somewhat irrational dread of fire, and the idea of burning hot coals that don’t just zoom right at you but do so with intent was terrifying. If we didn’t feel sorry for Leech when he was born the runt or when Spittle kicked him back and forth across the attic, we certainly do when we learn that not even his own brother is kind to him.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: The characterisations in this chapter are really interesting. One thing I didn’t remember from earlier times reading the book was the concept of Zachaire’s regret. (Maybe I was too young to appreciate what it might be like looking back on your life and regretting your choices.) But the idea that there is a certain agony for Zachaire’s spirit, being called back to life, and that it’s based around his regrets – it’s a really clever idea. And of course it contrasts instantly with Spittle, who is so focused on getting the Philosopher’s Stone that he is oblivious to making the same choices.

But, of course, the real highlight – and this I do remember from the first time reading it – is that this book starts to make us ask a question: what could have happened to turn Jupiter super-evil? He’s self-confident, yes. Starting to grow in power, yes. But like young Anakin Skywalker, we sense that he could do something good with his life if he wanted.

So because, in one sense, we know where this story will lead – but in many others, have no idea how it will get there – Mr Jarvis has expertly set up a sense of mounting dread. We’re not sure where a crisis will come from – we have Leech’s jealousy, Imelza’s concern for what might happen when she’s not around, so a few things are hinted at – but there’s enough potential here for something to go wrong and set off a nasty chain of events for young Jupiter …

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 6

tac

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Escape the bonds of Death and come forth.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: All right, all right, I take it back. Spittle is the genuine article. His qualifications are not faked and he knows what he is doing both as an apothecary and in your bona fide magic circle. A round of applause for Spittle the Magnificent, everybody. (Ugh, I can just imagine the smug look on his face.)

If the last two chapters might fall under ‘Birth’ in Jupiter’s biography, we now move on to ‘Early Life’ as our favourite stripy fluff-ball attends his first practical demonstration in the occult arts. I love the clever little touches which hark back to that infamous Blackheath ritual in The Dark Portal, but to me, Spittle’s necromancy almost reads like a dress-rehearsal of that.

His pedantic and distracted counting out of the ceremonial equipment and irate chuntering (not to mention Will’s long-suffering trepidation) kind of kill the evil glory of the scene, rendering it more like a humorous parody of a summoning than the real deal. When the demon appears, it’s even more like a deliberate send-up of the ‘occult horror’ subgenre; Spittle has essentially failed in his ritual and summoned the wrong thing by accident, a common mistake of amateur conjurors everywhere.

With Jupiter’s timely intervention, however, Spittle’s soul is saved from perdition and Magnus Zachaire’s is bottled for later. Here’s another character who I feel like I didn’t truly appreciate until now – Zachaire is fantastic in and of himself, but I also noticed how he’s a rather graceful herald for the Elizabethan world of Deathscent, which we’ll be looking at next year. For now, though, the year is 1664, the night is cold, and there’s a riddle waiting to be unravelled.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I don’t know about you, but this chapter takes me straight back to The Dark Portal and the grim scene in Blackheath. It’s the middle of the night, there are candles and circles and other paraphernalia and an unholy ritual that shouldn’t be done. With young Jupiter there to witness it all …

I can’t remember if I’ve said this on the blog before, but if there was a filmmaker I’d love to see have a crack at Jarvis, it’s James Wan (another fellow Aussie!) who directed the early Insidious and Conjuring movies. They don’t necessarily have complex plots, but when he wants you to jump out of your skin, he’ll get you to do it.

It’s these kinds of jump scares that I visualise with the demon that appeared in this chapter (and also that horrific bit a few chapters ago when Will was trying to pluck a hair from the corpse on the gallows). The book is still ultimately a YA dark fantasy, but there are just these horror moments in there which would work well in a film. It’s also a nice entrance for one of our new characters – the shade of Magnus Zachaire.

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