Freax and Rejex | Chapter 29 & Epilogue

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘You’re the first genuine, tangible hope we’ve had so far.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: A solemn bagpipe for Alisdair. It is a little cheesy for him to go out to ‘O Flower of Scotland’, but it makes sense given that he’s probably heard that song all his life, and he’s not exactly going to be going through his mental playlist while the Punchinellos aim their guns at him. That said, it’s also a bitter callback to what Jody mentioned earlier about him having ‘a song for every occasion’. Even in his last moments, Alisdair seeks comfort and defiance in the only thing that Dancing Jax hasn’t ruined for him – music.

After the claustrophobic nightmare of the camp, it’s strange to be reminded that the main plot, as it were, is still going on in the outside world. The Ismus continues to built Hell’s kingdom on Earth, Carol’s baby has been born, and Martin Baxter is still ‘at large’. There’s more, and worse, for Lee and the others to endure before the final page turns.

Matt’s Thoughts: This finale was exhilarating on every level – Lee takes out Jangler, Spencer takes out a Punchinello and the kids escape. It’s barely a blip on the radar when you consider that Dancing Jax has taken over most of the world, (except maybe Australia where we were too busy drinking beer, watching football and going to the beach to read books, of course).

But in the course of two books in this trilogy – and long ones at that –  it’s the first time someone has struck a blow against Mooncaster and succeeded. So in many ways, it offers a great spark of hope.

Poor old Alisdair. Just as you start to like him, he goes down in a blaze of glory. Not being from these parts, I hadn’t actually heard of ‘O Flower of Scotland’ the first time I read the book, but it didn’t matter – I got chills reading that passage. (More so when I heard the actual song as well.)

And I got the same chills this time as well. It goes down as one of the great Jarvis Heroic Sacrifices of all time. I would have loved to have seen what Alisdair could have become given more time, but then that’s what we say about all of Mr Jarvis’ heroes that get taken out too soon.

So as I finish this book for the second time, I still think it’s my personal favourite of all Jarvis novels – the perfect blend of characterisation, intensity and imagination. But it requires a stronger stomach to read than perhaps any of his previous works (except maybe parts of the Wyrd Museum). So if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I would also understand that as well.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 28

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘We’ve got a chance to escape from this place.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: And so the truth about Christina finally makes it to the main cast. I like that this is a ‘possessed little girl’ scene that just gets straight to the point with no frills. All that happens is that Austerly backchats the teens and gets locked in the loo, and there’s none of that silly crawling backwards up the wall, heads turning all the way around, ‘the power of Christ compels you’ nonsense. Robin allows the mould effect to, er, bloom by itself, and it’s all the creepier for it.

Matt’s Thoughts: It’s all action in this penultimate chapter and there is a certain exhilaration to seeing their escape plan potentially being executed.

I will admit, the first time I read this, I was sort of hoping that Lee wouldn’t give into his dark side and try to kill Jangler. But going through this a second time, I realise that any mercy showed to Jangler would not be repaid in kind and the level of sadism and suffering that man has inflicted has been horrendous. So this time around, I’m on Lee’s side.

Also, if the Ismus is right about Lee’s gang background, it’s almost as if he’s ‘unleashing the beast’ one last time, right?

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 27

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘You is aksin’ me to kill Jesus?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Finally, we’re allowed to spell it out. At just over halfway into this trilogy, we can now toot from the rooftops of the White Castle that the Dawn Prince is Satan, Mooncaster has been colonised for Hell, the Bad Shepherd is Jesus (and, apparently, every other major prophet) and what does that make the Ismus, boys and girls? You guessed it – the antichrist! Well done everybody who cottoned on the minute he started barbequing himself on the iron throne way back at the start of Dancing Jax. It’s been a long haul to get to this revelation, but just what kind of series this is is out in the open at last.

Now the dance can truly begin.

Matt’s Thoughts: While I’m sure the fate of Charm was the shocking moment to many people, for me – as a Christian – this chapter was the one that got under my skin from this book. (And it wasn’t spoiled by my sister, so it was actually a shock!)

There are a number of disturbing concepts piled in here. Where do I start?

First up, the idea of the Good Shepherd being portrayed as the Bad Shepherd makes sense, in a warped way. If Mooncaster is indeed ‘the distorting prism of the Devil’s own playground’ – which pretty much gives away where we’re heading if you hadn’t guessed already – then it makes sense that that’s the kind of portrayal they would want to give of ‘the Nazarene’.

But that leads to the second disturbing thing: with all this evil power taking over the world, and nearly everyone fallen under its power, where is God? If there is a Good Higher Power, why does He/She/They/It seem to be taking a back seat and letting things fall into darkness? Especially since it’s not like a voluntary thing for the inhabitants of Earth. If the story was about a bunch of people who had chosen to follow the Ismus and his dark master, then that might make sense. But they have been brainwashed into the world of Mooncaster, so couldn’t some power have intervened against that?

And then the third disturbing concept is this: if Jesus did get into Mooncaster, why does he have to be bound by the ‘terms and conditions’ of the place? Are we saying that Jesus / the Nazarene / The Prophet / the Good Shepherd has less power than the evil forces in this world? (Contrast this, for instance, with the Narnia books, where it is made very clear that Aslan is always more powerful than the White Witch, even if she’s allowed to get away with her eternal winter scheme for quite a few years.)

There are very few Christians I recommend this trilogy to, for fear of how they will take it. After all, if Harry Potter is questionable in some circles, what are they going to make of a series where a Satanic book takes over the world and a kid is asked to literally kill Jesus to get his girlfriend back? I’d rather not go there!

Having said that, I feel very much that Robin writes the stories that he wants to tell. I doubt that he was too worried about Christian groups and how they might react. (I suspect they would have had problems with The Dark Portal, let alone the whole Longinus’ Spear stuff from The Raven’s Knot. So if he was going to draw heat, he already would have done so.) Also, in the same way that he has drawn on many ancient myths to spin his tales, why not draw on current religions as well?

And so from that perspective, reading this again after a few years, the concept becomes more interesting. First time I read it, as I said, I was horrified at the idea that Jesus could be put under the power of Mooncaster like this. But thinking about it now, it actually makes me realise that that was how the story of Christ was viewed in the early days anyway.

For centuries before Christ, Judaism had foretold of a Messiah, and people expected it to be a conquering king with a mighty display of power. When instead the Messiah turned out to be a guy who wandered around talking to fishermen and arguing with the keepers of his own religion, who then managed to get himself killed in his early 30s, it really didn’t sound like a convincing portrait of a powerful God-man at all.

And if that had been the end of the story, it would probably have been a pretty feeble tale. However, it instead became a story of resurrection that captured the imagination of the world for the next 2,000 years. What looked like weakness at the time was in fact the grand plan all along.

So the idea of the Good Shepherd being bound by certain curses – like the weakness of being able to be killed by the Castle Creeper – in exchange for entering into Mooncaster, now sounds more possibly like he allowed that to happen, rather than something that was done to him. In which case, it’s possible that the Dawn Prince and his crew have underestimated the trouble they are in. Or maybe they do know, and that’s why they need Lee more than he realises.

Either way, can you think of many other YA books that raise questions on this level?

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 26

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘What would she want you to do?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Characteristic of this series, we go right from the bleakest horror into only slightly less bleak parody, as Maggie and Spencer end up pulled into Mooncaster with Lee. As well as the already-mentioned YA trends, the Dancing Jax books also riff on the conventions of children’s classics, and the main one I’m getting on my parody-detecting bakelite this chapter, is the infamous and much-discussed Chronicles of Narnia.

A while back I mentioned that the four Jacks and Jills resembled a warped echo of the Pevensie siblings, and a couple of chapters ago Lee actually describes Mooncaster to Charm as ‘Narnia on crack’, but here is where it really shows.

The winter weather coats all the realm in picturesque chill, but there are no surprise fur coats or fauns offering tea and cake for this intrepid trio. Peculiar and enchanting forest rituals pass before their eyes, but none of these creatures have been sitting around waiting for sons of Adam and daughters of Eve; they’re too busy welcoming the sun at another Winter Solstice. A sleigh draws up, and it definitely isn’t the White Witch, nor, as Maggie points out, is it Saint Nicholas, for as we all know, there are no churches in the Dawn Prince’s Kingdom.

What I love about this how you can sense the quiet glee in all of it. Robin has created a Satanist Narnia in Mooncaster, a devil’s fairyland where the powers of Abrahamic evil have bulldozed their way through an ancient pagan Otherworld and twisted it’s inherent magic to their own advantage.

It’s probably a little on-the-nose of me to say that this is a mirror held up to the way Aslan rules Narnia, but what is the purpose of analysing this series if not to point out the many and varied ways in which it’s awfully cheeky? Narnia is ruled by four kings and queens from a white castle. There is a silvering sea, trees that are aware, strange outcasts beasts from bygone pagan times living in the forests. The whole place is a clumsy, narrow allegory for the afterlife, spoilt by the presence of beings which are not part of its apparent Creator’s grand design.

It’s all there in the text, as Austerly might say, and it’s wickedly clever.

Matt’s Thoughts: In some ways, this marks the first return to familiar Jarvis territory in the whole book. There is now an Artifact to find (in this case, Malinda’s wand) and our heroes know what they have to achieve. (That said, I can’t think of a Jarvis Artifact that has worked exactly as expected, can you?)

I know we haven’t spent a great deal of time following Spencer in the last few chapters, but I love the way he has come back from his dark place of suicidal thoughts and is now proving his courage. ‘We can be your posse!’ he says and we all feel a spark of hope in the midst of the darkness.

And then, at that very moment, the incident with the Jill of Hearts occurs, giving them a magical object they need to get to Malinda. Is something working in their favour? Or is this all too easy?

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 25

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

It was a heart-shaped, pink diamanté stud.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I really hate to think of the horror movies and serial killer documentaries Robin probably had to watch to come up with something as sickening as what happens in this chapter. I have to hope that he got the idea from some slasher film, because the alternative is that he thought it up all on his ownsome, which is both a terrible thought and a very, very good argument for him never being allowed to write for adults. If this is what YA let’s him do, I shudder to think what horrors any potential adult work may hold.

There’s so many layers to unpack, and each one is worse than the last. How the Punchinellos ‘never lost their gleeful enjoyment of sausages’. How Lee wanders around the camp at the start of the chapter, and hopes that Charm is thinking of him ‘wherever she is’. How Jangler, now officially the most hateable character in all Jarvis canon, seems to take some perverse enjoyment from the psychological torture he inflicts. Then, as if all of that weren’t enough to make you lose your lunch, the scene with Jody at the end.

Matt had this particular bit of awfulness revealed to him early, and frankly I’m mildly jealous, because I was totally unprepared and could’ve done with a heads up. Forewarned or not, however, I would still be sworn off sausages for life.

Matt’s Thoughts: Okay, so Mrs Benedict does make a reappearance and I’d completely forgotten. Mainly because this chapter is so dominated by the final pages, which for me – I can’t speak for everyone else – contain the most horrific thing ever to have been put in a book aimed at young people.

I told this story back when we started this blog which I can now tell in full: I was about a third of the way through Freax and Rejex the first time I read it and texted my sister – the only other person I knew who had read it. I think I said something like, ‘This book is full on.’ And she texted back – thinking I’d read the whole thing – ‘I can’t believe they turned that girl into sausages. She was my favourite character!’

It’s okay, my sister and I are friends now.

But it does mean that I will never know what it was like to hit the end of Chapter 25 and get that shock that the main characters had. But despite that, this scene is so well executed in its nastiness, that it still packs a punch, even if you know it’s coming. And it raises questions as well – what about all the other sausages that the Punchinellos have been eating? Are there even adult camps in England? Do we even want to know?

For me, this will always be That Chapter in the Jarvis canon – the darkest place he’s ever taken us.

If there is a way for the kids to break out, we’re all ready for it.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 24

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Young maid!’ she called suddenly. ‘If I was your mother, I should be so proud to call you daughter.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Here I am shedding actual tears again over this wretched book! If Mr Jarvis has it in for his characters, he has it in for his readers too, with crushingly depressing scenes like this.

As if it wasn’t bad enough for Marcus to die so suddenly or for Charm’s mother to abandon her, we’ve got even worse here, just to twist the knife. Honestly I can’t decide which is more disturbing – the implication that Marcus’ soul never found rest, or that Mrs Benedict will now have to face the loss of the most important person in her life, knowing that she might’ve been able to reach Charm had she only realised a few moments earlier. Robin why.

Matt’s Thoughts: Well, there’s nothing but heartbreak here, as well as a bit more insight into the world of Mooncaster. The idea that you end up here when you’re dead (as seems to have happened to Marcus) is just distressing.

But nothing is more distressing than Charm’s scene with her mother. Even though her mother’s shallowness was probably largely to blame for Charm’s similar path – and Uncle Frank – the love that Charm has for her mother is beautiful.

Which leads us to the second ‘deconversion’ in the series as Mrs Benedict realises her true identity. Which would normally be great but given that the last person to switch back like this was Shiela in Book 1, I don’t hold high hopes for her future prospects.

And also, to deconvert just after Charm leaves is such a Jarvis thing to do. If this was an American book, they’d have had a sniffly reunion and then possibly gotten rushed by Punchinello guards. But the idea that Charm never realises that she cures her mother. Aargh! Why do we keep reading these books?

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 23

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

This was how he always remembered her, bathed in that gilding light.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: A lot of gut-churning revelations in this chapter, and some very important moments too. Lee trusting the others enough to tell them about his Castle Creeper power. Alisdair having a very profound, very sad, and quite emotionally mature realisation seeing that he’s made his own bed and regretting not being a part of the main group. Spencer still having the wherewithall to worry about other aberrants in other parts of the world, despite his own suicidal ideations.

And Charm. Oof. That’d be heavy in an adult series, but for teens to be reading about her ‘uncle’, someone she should have been able to trust, grooming her from a young age under the guise of helping her with her career? Incredibly important. It’s awful to say, but that small page of backstory could be a lifeline for a real young person in a position similar to Charm’s. It’s so powerful that she’s never blamed in any way, not for Bezuel’s nauseating attention, and not for the sick intentions of her mother’s boyfriend in the past.

It’s all the more painful when she describes the many dreams that Dancing Jax took away from her. Facing an uncertain fate in a world that has become a living hell, I think we can all agree that Charm deserved better from life. I can only hope that her time with Lee and the others will be the one good thing to come from the overwhelming evil of Austerly Fellows’ reign.

Matt’s Thoughts: A chapter that is simultaneously beautifully crafted and yet so full of bad news. Christina turns out to be the Ismus – which really leaves us open to the possibility that almost every plan of these kids is known in advance. The Punchinellos, with their grotesque costumes, are now becoming more distinct characters – but distinctly hideous.

Which all leads to the tragedy of Charm. Any suspicions we might have had about ‘Uncle Frank’ now become clear. But tragically – despite whatever we may have thought of her originally – we see a beautiful side to her personality. But clearly, with the type of foreshadowing we’re getting here, things are not going to end well.

One of the things I love most about this book is the arc of the kids’ journey – from obnoxiousness to vicious in-fighting to finally starting to become friends. It’s why I feel so sorry for Alisdair – in many ways, he had a good heart and was originally the one emerging as a leader at the beginning of the story, but now he’s found himself isolated away from the rest of the group.

The first Jax book might have been interspersed with moments of black comedy, but there’s not much left to laugh about here as we head into the final chapters of Freax and Rejex.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 22

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The dark cabin was alive with violence and anger.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I kept having this vague sense of unease every time Jody was mentioned, and having reread this chapter, I think I understand why. Every other teen has a full character arc; they have trials and tribulations that fit them and make them who they are at this point in the book. Jody, however, has spent most of her page -time being tortured, and hasn’t been given a chance to grow and change, except in response to her trauma.

What do we know about her, other than that she had a happy, hippie-ish upbringing, that she distances herself from others, and that she has a naturally morose outlook? Precious little. This and the fact of her being named ‘Jody’ in a frankly horrific nod to Judy, the beaten and berated wife of Mister Punch, is really a bit telling. I don’t want to believe that Jody is a kind of example character, created to suffer so that we can see just how bad life in the camp could get, but unless she’s a long-dead husk holding the spores of Austerly Fellows, that’s unfortunately the conclusion I’m reaching for the moment.

Matt’s Thoughts: I am wondering, at this point in the story, whether the editors were tempted to question how much is too much in terms of suffering teenagers.

I mean, it’s all perfectly paced and doesn’t hold up the flow of the story, but if Freax and Rejex were a book for adults and all the things described were happening, it would be a pretty full-on sort of novel. To have it happen in a story for teenagers is extraordinarily brave of Harper Collins.

Also, I had forgotten this part with the assault on Maggie and then Jody on the skelter tower and so reading it, the fresh sense of horror at how bad things are really hit me.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 21

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Three fat, boneless tentacles of pallid, pink, worm-like muscle punched up from the bottom of the pit.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter legitimately made me shed tears. Between Charm’s kindness, Spencer’s despair, and Marcus’s change of heart followed by his sudden death, we’ve got a veritable rollercoaster of emotions.

I think you should all be able to see now how Charm is my favourite of the teens. Her arc is not so much character growth as character reveal; she has always been this lovely, but has been forced to build walls around herself. Now the life-or-death reality of the camp has swept all her false pride and internalised self-reproach away, showing the compassionate and gentle-hearted person beneath.

What really touches me is how she goes out of her way to be kind to the girls in her cabin in this chapter, naming them sweet things and doing their nails as if it were all just a big girly sleepover rather than an interminable imprisonment from which they might never escape alive. It’s very powerful that she is allowed to retain the femininity she takes so much pride in, while also having more backbone than any of the others in the main cast. Charm is a sparkling pink star of strength and kindness in the fetid black swamp of a world ruled by Dancing Jax, and I’m proud of her.

Matt’s Thoughts: No need to go into endless detail, but here we go again. We get a personal breakthrough for our characters – in this case, the beautiful solidarity that Charm shows with Maggie by drawing a moustache on her face – that leads to a bit of healing.

Only to be wiped out by some giant tentacled thing that takes out Marcus. Who expected him to be the next one?? I certainly didn’t the first time I read it. And even then, it caught me by surprise this time around how quick and sudden the Marshwyrm’s appearance actually is.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 20

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Make us suffer, make us howl in anguish, make us wish we were dead.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I’ve seen people complain that the middle section of this book drags, and that’s true, but there’s a reason for it. We feel like we’ve been in the New Forest for years on end because that’s what our young protagonists are feeling at this very moment.

It’s only been two weeks at most, and yet the trauma of the situation is such that it’s now difficult for them to imagine a life with more than old peelings to eat and no murderous supernatural guards at their backs. This is their new normal, as Jody said, though with Mooncaster being built in Kent like some sort of warped theme park, is there such a thing as normal in the world of Dancing Jax?

Matt’s Thoughts: A short chapter, but it’s another one of those tragic Jarvis things – Jody survives but she never realises how brave Maggie was. And in fact becomes antagonistic.

In other words, it’s not just the Mooncaster threat that is escalating but growing internal divisions as well.

However, while the story has been mainly based in this camp, it’s important to remember that a life-size castle of Mooncaster is being built and an awful lot of creatures have been Bakelited into our world. So even if these kids do escape, what’s going to be out there?