The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 7

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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 …

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The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 6

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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.

The Alchymist’s Cat | Chapter 5

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

They were great islands of rag, looming out of a tattered, filthy sea of shreds.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I realised on reread that a lot about this story makes me think of traditional fairytales. If Peggy Blister is the classic queen/crone; desperate to cling to her lost youth, self-serving and devious, then Molly is the princess archetype; fair and kind, bearing up despite abject poverty, and a bit unlucky in love. To take this further, Lingley is every pompous, honey-worded courtier, while Spittle lives and breathes the role of evil magician. Will is, of course, our young hero, but whether he will turn out to be a prince or be slain by the many dragons which assail him remains to be seen.

Speaking of dragons, during the The Whitby Witches, Matt pointed out the first symbolic, malevolent reptiles in Robin Jarvis canon with the mention of the serpents which St Hilda supposedly cast down. Now, we have two more references to esoteric reptilia – the tomb upon which Imelza gave birth, and the ‘dragon in the rags’ of this chapter.

I’ve spoken of my dislike for Spittle already, but I admit his periods of ridiculousness (being caught in his nightshirt by Lingley, being mauled by Mr and Mrs Gobtrot’s tiny dog) are quite comedic, for all they emphasise the contrast between his opposing moods. It’s also fairly hilarious to think that the good doctor held the World’s Shabbiest Magic-user Award until he stormed upon the raghouse and started dressing for the job he wants rather than the job he has.

I said above that he plays the role of evil magician, but it’s scenes like the one in this chapter which really highlight that at this point, it is a role and only a role. We’ve yet to see Spittle demonstrate any tangible power – even the display which so terrified Jessel and Carver was trickery and sleight-of-hand as opposed to the devil’s work. Then again, perhaps grim old Elias has a spark of magic in his veins that will show itself in time.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: It’s nice to see another appearance by Molly again. I can’t remember too well what we find out about her character, so I’m assuming she is the equivalent of Nancy from Oliver Twist – a lady of the night with a good heart? Or am I just reading the stereotype onto her? (The great thing about the way it’s written is that it’s ambiguous enough what she is that kids would be totally oblivious. Certainly I don’t remember thinking anything much about what Nancy did for an occupation when I was younger.)

And also a shout-out to Heliodorus the rat as well. Great rat character right there. I’m also interested in the throwaway line that he ‘could tell tales … of the monstrous creatures that live in the boundless seas’. I like to think – though I’m not sure if this works out in practicality – that there is one vast Robin Jarvis Universe in which all of his stories take place. And that the monstrous creatures of the boundless seas might be the Lords of the Deep (or perhaps some of their infernal servants?).

But all of this very quickly is over and done with as the action shifts to the great set-piece of the chapter: the raghouse. I think this is the only time this location and the magnificent characters of the Gobtrots appear, but they stick in the mind straight away. This is one scene that I could imagine working well in 3D, because there’s something thoroughly immersive about the towering piles of rags and the filth and squalor. At one stage, there was talk of an Alchymist’s Cat movie and I could imagine set designers having a field day with a place like this.

At first I was thinking that it was an amazing coincidence that the one guy who so desperately wants to find the Philosopher’s Stone happens to find the very garment that has the recipe for it conveniently sewed onto its surface. But I like to think of this as more than a plot device. In the same way that there was something dark and devious about Jupiter’s father, could it be that all the circumstances of this tale are being controlled? Are there dark forces at work, ensuring that just the right circumstances take place in order to raise up a power to dwell miles below in the sewers? A long dark game, if you like it, designed to bring suffering upon the world in several centuries’ time.

Or it could just be that Spittle happened upon the very cloak that he needs and that’s all there is to it … Either way, who can put the book down now?

What do you think?

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?