The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘He that walks in darkness’ – that terrible presence which waits in the shadows and whom every cat knows it will meet one day.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Imelza smiles wearily, at one with every proud mythological queen who has at last produced the longed-for heir. Widow Mogs, the honoured midwife, holds up an orange ball of fluff, presenting it with suitable pomp to the glittering heavens. The stars wince in foreboding, but the comet passes in a graceful arc overhead, bathing the scene in a nimbus of celestial fire. The bats take flight from the nearby church, muttering about how they bliddy knew it n’ thank the Lady we won’t live to see how this pans out. All over London, rats get the inexplicable urge to bow down. Somewhere in the depths of Deptford, a Hobber ritual goes awry with fatal consequences for everyone involved.

I think Jupiter’s arrival into the story deserves some sort of award for sheer grandiosity. Born in an unhallowed graveyard, encircled by the coils of a fearsome stone dragon as winter grips all London in its deathly embrace, murmured of by the farseeing bats and heralded by an honest-to-goodness comet? I mean we know he’s going to grow up big and strong and all that, but talk about OTT.  Simba ain’t got nothing on this guy.

While I was rereading this chapter I couldn’t help but laugh imagining a descendant of Widow Mogs being present during the events of The Final Reckoning. All the other cats are cowering or frozen to death or whatever, and she’s there with her knitting, watching it all unfold from a safe distance, nodding sagely. “My great great great great great great granny delivered that’un, y’know. Strangest call she ever had. ‘Watch out fer Imelza’s sprogs,’ me ol’ mum used to say. ‘One of ’em is still around, pox on ‘im! He’ll make trouble for us all eventually.'”

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Two words: cat midwives. For me, this is the most genius thing in the whole chapter, if not the book so far. You could have easily dropped the midwife on the cutting room floor. Imelza could have just wandered into the graveyard and had three kittens by herself.

But, no, there are apparently two cat midwives in London. And that just makes this chapter awesome.

There are also tantalising bits of mythology that I wonder about here. First of all, the mention of ‘he that walks in darkness’, which I put in the quote above. I love that one. But the one that I’d never noticed before is in the opening of the chapter. When describing St Anne’s Blackfriars (the graveyard still exists, by the way), the chapter reads: ‘Inside St Anne’s the gospels were preached but beyond its walls the dangerous realm of the old goddess flourished.’

Maybe this is explained elsewhere, but I’d be fascinated to know which goddess is being referred to and what this dangerous realm is. Is it a feline realm? Or a human realm? We’re familiar with mice and rat beliefs, but cats are a whole new level.

Anyway, it’s a cracking concept and that moment where we first see Jupiter can’t but help send a thrill down the spine of all Deptford Mice lovers.

 

 

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 3

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Something evil lay through that door, he told himself.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I think Doctor Spittle was the first Robin Jarvis villain who I actively hated. With the rats, they were nasty in an entertaining way, and with Roslyn Crozier, at least she had a solid motivation behind her cruelty.  In contrast, there is absolutely nothing fun about Spittle. He is petty and narcissistic and abuses Will just because he can. I’d compare him to Isaac Nettle in terms of sheer unpleasantness, but Spittle is arguably worse because he doesn’t even have misguided faith to cling to. He’s out for himself from start to finish, and his actions in this chapter show us just how hateful he really is. In this case, I hazard that first impressions may turn out to be correct.

Spittle might be a villain, but he is also a complex character with plenty of sinister secrets. Clearly, the apothecary business is a front for his true endeavours, which, judging from that mysterious attic door, are most definitely magical in nature. At this point, whether he really is an ‘alchymist’ is as debatable as his dubious London Pharmacopoeia associations (I highly doubt that he is, in fact, affiliated with any official medical institutions, and even if he is speaking the truth, I expect that his qualifications are forged) but there is evidently something going on behind the scenes.

In the finale of The Dark Portal I mentioned Felidae, and I beg your pardon, Readers all, for bringing it up again here. When Will finds the attic door, I could not help but think of the beginning of that book, in which Francis, the feline protagonist, senses something deeply unsettling from the upper storeys of his owner’s new home and determines to investigate. The Alchymist’s Cat does in some ways have a similar claustrophobic atmosphere to Akif Pirinçci’s novel, and both are certainly stories of cats and murder!

 

Matt’s Thoughts: So this chapter gives us the Alchymist part of the title – we have to wait a wee bit longer for the Cat part.

I haven’t done a lot of research on the habits of apothecaries (or alchemists, for that matter) from the 17th century, but it all feels very real to me. The grubby shop, the strange bunch of herbal medicines that we barely knew how they worked. It just seems like a miserable time to ever become sick. You really would be trusting to your immune system moreso than anything that could be offered by medical science.

Again, a shout-out to the secondary characters – both Lingley and Molly immediately become distinctive and nuanced in just a few paragraphs. How does Mr Jarvis do it?

As for Spittle, what a miserable old man. Did he have a Madame Akkikuyu sort of tale, where he started life as a young man with good intentions, but gave over to a lust for power and dark knowledge? Does he have any soft spot underneath? (Not so far, it appears!)

But the real highlight of the chapter for me was the door. There’s just something in stories about Locked Doors That Must Not Be Opened that never fail to tantalise and this one is no exception.

One other advantage of having the original version is that the back cover, from memory – I lent mine to my sister a few years ago and now only have the silver editions – had a beautiful full-colour illustration of the upstairs attic room. Brilliant stuff.

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 2

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

London had cast her spell with great success, never was there a more willing victim to her charms.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Matt mentions that this chapter is a mirror of the first pages of The Whitby Witches, but I noticed as I was reading through that it’s also a rather clever little book-end for the Deptford Histories as a whole.

Our young hero and his travelling companion wind up on a questionable errand in a confusing and forbidding city. Thinking to find someone whom they have travelled a long way to meet, they enter a seedy dive, whereupon they become targets for sundry evil-doers with dark secrets connected to the main story-line.

In the third book of the Histories, an almost identical scene preludes the finale, but here it is our opener, setting up our secondary villains Jessel and Carver (what fantastically rat-like names!) and delivering Will into the clutches of the loathsome Doctor Spittle.

The scene in the Sickle Moon is one of my favourites in the Histories, and Peggy Blister has got to be one of my favourite minor characters. What I love about her is that she could so easily have been a bit two-dimensional; just another ‘tavern wench’ to provide mildly uncomfortable comic relief. Instead, she leaps off the page as boldly as our protagonists, make-up flaking, rotten teeth clacking, queen of all she surveys (even if all she surveys happens to be the dingy environs of a down-at-heel public house). She is rather gloriously unpleasant, and despite her lies about Will I cannot help but like her for the larger-than-life caricature that she is.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Oh, the bleakness of this thing! It’s like a mirror image of the opening of The Whitby Witches. In that book, our young heroes – also orphans like Will – head to a new town, not knowing what to expect. To their surprise, they find love, friendship and a town that is special.

The exact opposite happens here. The city of London – cast in all its ominous 17th century shadow – rises up to swallow Will. Instead of community, the one person he has in the world is violently dispatched and a young boy is on his own in a rather nasty city.

The only ray of light in the whole thing is that John Balker, before he exits the stage, finally seems to make peace with the past. (I’m starting to wonder if it’s a bad sign to make peace with your inner demons in a Jarvis book! It seems to shorten your life-span.)

So we’re left reeling from the shock of what happens to John, only to have the arrival of the mysterious Dr Spittle. (More on him later.)

In the meantime, do Jack and Jessel not remind you a lot of the rats? Opportunistic, out for themselves and no worries about using violence.

It’s going to be a grim 14 chapters. (And I’m loving it.)

The Alchymist’s Cat | Prologue & Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

… and so the seed of terror was sown.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Up Next Reminder | The Alchymist’s Cat

As a reminder, in just a couple of weeks we’ll be switching gears to Book 1 of the awesome Deptford Histories trilogy! (I can just sense that all our enthusiastic commenters out there on the Mice trilogy can’t wait to sink their teeth into these back-stories!)

The Alchymist’s Cat tells the origin story of the original and (arguably) greatest Robin Jarvis villain of all time, Jupiter! Set in London in the 1600s, with a mixture of human and animal characters, this story has absolutely everything: heroes, villains, charlatans, cats, rats, magic, ghosts, the Black Plague, the Great Fire. Everything.

And unlike a certain sci-fi trilogy that attempted three ‘prequel’ films to set up its iconic villain (only to annoy nearly every fan out there), in just one book, Robin Jarvis hits it out of the park. There aren’t many villain-origin stories that work as well as this one, and I can’t wait to read it all with you.

Okay, a word on editions, as always. Sadly, this book still remains out of print, so you will have to go hunting for a second-hand edition. It does mean, however, that you get a choice of some good ones.

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The original illustrated version. I love this cover and the illustrations inside are brilliant.

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Also featuring the illustrations are the silver editions, which will line up to give you a great image across the side if you collect all three.

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As a final note for our readers in the US: the American publishers of this book have seen fit to change the archaic spelling of the title to The Alchemist’s Cat, but please be assured that the text is the same. 

Whichever version you go for, do get it quick, because it’s going to be an awesome read, starting in May!