Freax and Rejex | Felixstowe, 1936

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘The Dancing Jacks will pave the way for His return among us.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter was quite a shock – pun very much intended – to me when I first read it, because it’s so different and yet so like the rest of Robin Jarvis canon up until this point. It’s got all the things he does well and is known for; devilry, period elegance, a grimy villain, terrified minions falling on their faces as their Lord approaches. Even a Rowena Cooper 2.0 in the character of Irene.

However, this is that, but with all the filters turned off. If there’s jokes about how the aristocracy are all cultists, there’s jokes about how the aristocracy are all cultists. If we’re mentioning skinny dipping and hard drugs in the same sentence, we’re mentioning skinny dipping and hard drugs in the same sentence. If Austerly wants to lick his mistress’s eyeball then by Satan he is going to lick his mistress’s eyeball, and no editor nor age rating on Earth is going to stop him.

I’m calling it now, if Robin wrote for adults it’d just be this chapter for four hundred pages – a no-holds-barred sleaze parade of 30s glamour, duplicitous journalists, weirdoes in animal masks, and human sacrifice. Absolutely atrocious. I love it.

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter is extraordinary – not least in that you could almost drop it anywhere in the trilogy. It could have been an extended prologue at the beginning of Dancing Jax and it would have set the scene perfectly. However, there’s something about circling back to the origins of the evil book when we are at the height of the persecution of our aberrant heroes that just gives it an extra weight and intensity.

In other words, if we’d started with it, it would have been like many other occult bad guy scenes – the kind that used to occur at the end of James Herbert novels. There would be some sort of plot that threatens to take over the world but we wouldn’t have worried too much because plots like this usually get foiled at the last minute before they do much damage.

But located here in the midst of Freax and Rejex it’s pretty creepy. While it does provide a welcome relief from the POW camp, it also reminds us of just how long all this has been plotted and how dire everything actually is. Mooncaster is sinister, but the Dawn Prince is far, far worse.

It also introduces the idea that the Al Bowlly music might not have been Austerly Fellows’ idea so much as Augusta’s. Which leads to an interesting speculation about which musicians would the Fellows’ have picked to lock into their Bakelite devices had they done this in the 60s or 70s or 80s. What do you think they might have picked?

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 18

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Jesus!’ he cried. ‘They’ve got guns!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: An incredibly tense chapter, and a horrible contrast to the farce of Chapter 15. There is certainly a wild chase over the lawn involving a Doggy Long-Legs, but the context could not be more different, or more dire.

When he was first introduced, I said that I hoped Marcus would have his own character arc and begin to show some endearing qualities, and now he demonstrates both brains and courage to help a fellow prisoner in need. Sadly, that may not be enough to bring an end to the Punchinellos’ reign of tyranny, and with firearms involved, there can only be worse in store.

Matt’s Thoughts: This little escapade of Marcus’, while only to deliver water, is the first thing to (mostly) go right for the kids since they’ve arrived. (And I did find it rather amusing that the Doggy-Long-Legs got nicknamed Gnasher.) So it offers us a glimpse of hope.

But it simultaneously ratchets up the stakes further now that the Punchinellos have their guns. I can’t see anything else going that well after this.

Also, I feel so sad for Spencer – he’s one of my favourites and to see him entertaining suicidal thoughts is tragic.

Finally, a couple more items from the Bakelite playlist: Ukulele Lady (which I forgot to link to last chapter) and Three O’Clock in the Morning.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 17

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘For the final time I will say this: you are the lowest form of unwelcome parasite to crawl upon the surface of this dream world.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Another chapter, another soul destroying say in the New Forest. And it really is soul destroying. These children may not have had their identities sucked out of them by Dancing Jax, but their morale and will to live is being destroyed in other ways. Jangler and the Punchinellos are definitely thorough, not just in their punishments, but in depriving the aberrants of the things that have kept them going since Austerly Fellows took over and the world went to rack and ruin.

Alisdair having his guitar and then his hand broken is a truly awful moment, but what’s just as bad, in a different way, is Spencer having his Westerns literally and figuratively taken off him.

Alisdair has enough fibre and backbone left to have a chance at recovery if he ever gets out of this ordeal alive, but Spencer was clearly hanging on by a thread, and now that thread has been cut. To my mind what Garrugaska the Punchinello does is a kind of mental torture; making it so that Spencer has nowhere to escape to even in his imagination. It might get not be as visible as Jody’s wounds or Alistair’s hand, but it’s torture all the same, and Spencer is just a kid. They’re all just kids.

Matt’s Thoughts: I think one of the elements that makes this book so potent is the real-world nature of its brutality. If they were just up against monsters, that wouldn’t be so bad. But this chapter’s guitar-smashing, hand-breaking, solitary confinement and other assorted horrors tend to cross the fantasy barrier for me. There’s not a lot left in this book that is fun.

Also, I can’t clearly remember who the Fellows splinter is – though I have growing suspicions. So there’s a certain anxiety for me every time they start talking about their plans in front of each other.

The bright spark in all of this is that Mr Jarvis inserts wonderful character interactions that we wouldn’t get otherwise if it wasn’t for this series of events. So the conversation between Charm and Maggie is beautiful to see. Personally, I think the characters in Freax and Rejex are some of the best Robin has ever written and their arc of growing and trusting each other is one of the highlights of the book.

 

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 16

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

A Victorian romantic painter like Millais could have conveyed the intangible bloom in her cheek, the lustre of her curls and the hint of a smile that pulled and played at the corners of her lips.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter is classic Jarvis sadism. We already know Mooncaster is a weird and terrible place, this point does not need further elaboration, and yet what’s to bet Robin just really wanted to write about a tiny adorable fairy princess getting chewed to death by a carnivorous toad monster.

It’s not so much the event itself that’s pivotal to the story, but the way Lee reacts to it. He’s only shown genuine terror once before; when he caught a glimpse of Austerly’s spores in the New Forest, so it’s clear that not being able to save Telein from her awful fate is highly traumatic for him in quite a personal way.

This reveals something very interesting about Lee’s character. He goes on and on about not getting involved with Marcus’s escape plans and keeping to himself around the other aberrants, but secretly I think he in some way feels responsible for them, and maybe feels pressure to be the one to save them, especially now that he’s discovered his Castle Creeper power. With the way this series is going, however, that will be easier said than done.

Matt’s Thoughts: Now this was just savage. The character of Telein was introduced so beautifully, there were a couple of pages there where you could almost see her being a sort of ‘friend on the inside’ for Lee when he is in Mooncaster. Maybe becoming another regular character and perhaps dying heroically in the finale of Book 3.

Instead, she is eaten by a giant toad by the end of the chapter. Just like that. The brutality in this book is escalating in all the worlds.

Finally, another couple of musical interludes again. Al Bowlly returns with Roll Up The Carpet with those hideous Bakelite devices. But the really nice touch is Fields of Gold which does indeed become a tear-jerker in the context of this story.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 15

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Four spindly jointed legs, spiky, with coarse black hairs, clattered and slithered on the shower tray, trying to get a grip.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: If you can put aside the slave labour and the starvation and Jody’s dire predictions for a moment, this chapter is almost funny. The Doggy Long-Legs are frankly adorable, and the fact that they’re an unscheduled nuisance rather yet another torture the Ismus has dreampt up just tips the whole thing over into farce. Charm has unwittingly taken on the role of scream queen (probably her best performance to date), the camp ground is in chaos, the Punchinellos are losing their tiny minds, and Jangler is reduced to thwacking the errant many-legged beasties away with his clipboard from atop the helter skelter.

After all the horror and suffering in recent chapters, it honestly comes as a relief to read about Marcus fending off the fearsome foe with a shoe, and Maggie having at it with a masher and a cordless food processor. Go team.

Matt’s Thoughts: What’s somewhat impressive about this book is that despite the limitations of its setting – a bunch of cabins in a fenced-off compound, Mr Jarvis seems to be able to come up with endless horrors to torture our young heroes.

Like spider-dogs climbing out of the shower drain. It’s a great scene of creature action, but how freaky are these things? It’s the two things that most ordinary people hate – spiders and vicious dogs – mixed into one miserable creature!

And then Punchinellos wanting guns? It’s not looking good!

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 14

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘I believe in this here neighbourhood they call me the Castle Creeper.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Another harrowing chapter, with Lee and Marcus having to dig Jim’s grave and Maggie trying to figure out how to safely clean Jody’s wounds. This is definitely the point at which you say ‘it can’t get any worse’ only to see that it most certainly can.

We also have a moment of character growth for Charm. Abandoned by her mother and faced with the realisation that Mooncaster is not the fairyland she’s hoped for, her hatred for Dancing Jax finally takes root. She’ll need that hatred to keep her going from now on, as will all the children.

And of course, who guessed Lee would turn out to be the Castle Creeper! Finally, a whisper of hope for the resistance.

Matt’s Thoughts: Other readers may have different opinions, but I’m not sure Robin has ever conjured up more visceral evil than what goes on in this concentration camp. The kids are violated at every step of the way – no medical treatment for Jody, no food, slave labour, lecherous guards, having to bury Jim’s body themselves.

But the reason he can get away with it is because it is the turning point in which our protagonists start to cooperate with each other. When it was just a dodgy weekend away, they were at each other’s throats. Now that they know what they are up against, they band together. Would they have been able to pull off the stunt of taking a secret photo with their phone a couple of days ago? I don’t think so.

They still have their issues – the painful scene of Maggie binging chocolate made that clear – but we have some hope for these characters.

And the relevation at the end – that Lee is the Castle Creeper – is great news. Lee has been so tough and suspicious from the day one, with his own wily way of doing things, that knowing he is the one who can sneak into Mooncaster is just exhilarating. If anybody can wreak havoc in the Kingdom of the Dawn Prince, it will be Lee!

Finally, we have another mention of religion, as the kids poignantly try to create a funeral service for Jim. The part I always find distressing is Lee wondering where God is in all this. It’s a good question – with so much darkness, why is there no light?

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 13

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘That’s the way to do it!’ Their odious nasal voices rejoiced. ‘That’s the way to do it!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I’ve never met a single person who liked Punch and Judy. Apparently it’s a beloved staple of British seaside entertainment to this day, but nobody I’ve ever come across has expressed anything other than mild horror at the mention of it. When I was a kid, there was an aged Punch and Judy exhibit at my local library that my mum and I used to run past because it was so uncannily threatening – the combination of the sombre Victorian architecture with that grinning Punch face under glass was like something the Webster sisters would find familiar, and I’m reminded of it in this chapter.

I think I dislike the Punchinellos so much, not because they’re scary (though the really are) but because I feel nebulously let down by them. They could’ve been great; they’re grotesque, imaginative, bona fide Robin Jarvis beasties. All they want is to gurgle mockingly and skin you alive, no more or less than any Mallykin, rat of Deptford, or Spriggan of the Hollow Hill.

However, this is Freax and Rejex, and the rules are different. Here, the Robiny beasties murder twelve-year-old kids and get their kicks from public floggings. Here, they’re the guards of a prisoner of war camp, propping up Austerly Fellows’ regime, and are probably Robin’s most hateable minor villains. I can’t help but feel that the older rating and the YA parody elements of this series have done the Punchinellos a rum deal – now they can’t just be nasty, they’ve got to go ‘beyond the pale’ as well in order to stay relevant, and I can’t say I applaud.

Matt’s Thoughts: And so the story turns into that most classic of British stiff-upper-lip storytelling – the POW camp tale.

There is some great character detail in this chapter, as we get more info on Maggie’s back story and Charm and Lee have a great little moment.

Even the Jockey shows up again, doing that fascinating thing from Book 1 of inadvertently helping out our heroes, even though he is presumably acting in his own cracked self-interest. He is the true wildcard of the Mooncaster universe.

But all of that is swept aside by the horrific entrance of the Punchinellos. Within four pages, Jody is flogged and, even worse, Jim is dead before we even got a chance to really know him.

The bottom has dropped out of the Dancing Jax world.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 12

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

It was a man – but a savage, brutal distortion of a man.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Even if Freax and Rejex is a deconstruction at its core, you can still see the genuine enjoyment Robin takes in writing the medieval fantasy of life in Mooncaster. Everything from the living neep lanterns to, yes, the nine giant cats, is very traditional to the Robin Jarvis model, and all the more dramatic and enthralling for it. My personal favourite moment is Rhonwen, the tiny stonemason’s wife, clinging to her towering husband – there’s something so cartoonishly adorable about it. And of course, there’s that talking fox. He makes the Hobbers look positively shabby!

Matt’s Thoughts: I love how seamlessly this moves – Tommy and Rupesh and their possession takes us straight into Tully and Rufus and an extended fantasy horror sequence.

The ideas come thick and fast – the turnip lanterns, the talking fox, Haxxentrot, the Bad Shepherd, Malinda. And, of course, the Castle Creeper. So we know that the Fellows splinter didn’t take over the Creeper’s body, but we still don’t know who this shadowy character is. (Though earphones might be a clue!)

And then back out again to Tommy and Rupesh, now sadly possessed. A friend of mine who was massively into film read this book a few years ago and was particularly in awe of this chapter and how cinematically it played out. I’m inclined to agree. Every trip to Mooncaster seems to raise the stakes higher.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 11

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘I bring unto ye the Word,’ the Ismus cried, ‘And the Word is – Enter.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter is wild from start to finish. The pageantry of the day, the choir, the trumpets. The four Jacks and Jills seated upon thrones like an extremely warped homage to the Pevensie siblings. Lee and Alisdair are genuinely afraid, Marcus is cringing, and Charm is still desperate to get to Mooncaster. Cameras are going off, the press are there, Kate Kryzewski is half herself and half Columbine. And then you’ve got the Ismus, being, well, the Ismus, coming out with such smug regurgitations as ‘Suffer the little children unto me’ and ‘I bring ye the Word’, and having the cheek to do the cruciform pose again. Jody doesn’t know how right she is about Austerly Fellows’ ego influencing the tides – this guy is nothing but messiah complex and evil ambition held together by literal rot.

Actually, horrible thought: if the reveal about a child dying as the spores of Austerly possessed them last chapter is to be understood, does that mean that Jezza is, in fact, long dead, and the Ismus really is a walking corpse? I’m just thinking in type here, but, if that’s the case, he really has ‘risen again’ in a grotesque parody of the Resurrection. Considering how the chapter ends with him floating above the stage on wings of fire, I think we all know where this road of bad intentions is going to end.

Matt’s Thoughts: The Christ-like imagery on this one is what makes it so potent – the descent to earth by the Ismus, followed by his ascension.

And all the time preaching a Word – but a dark one.

I am still desperately hanging out for the movie of this book.

Freax and Rejex | Chapter 10

sodding punchinellos i hate em

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘It is their most favourite game of all. They call it “Bite of the Werewolf”.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: As if the whole Camp Brainwash business weren’t bad enough, we now know that Jangler (and by extension, the Ismus) will sink to drugging young children to achieve their evil ends. This is doubly horrible when we recall that Martin predicted it last book, suspecting the Ismus of plying the youth of Felixstowe with hallucinogenic substances.

Among the awful descriptions of Jody and Spencer suffering through the ‘Queen of Hearts’ May Cup’, there’s probably the saddest story in a whole collection of sad stories; young Jim, who has retreated into his own fantasy world when the real one grew too much for him. Considering the trauma these children have already endured, Alisdair is right to be surprised that more of them haven’t had similar reactions.

For the youngest, the boundary between fantasy and reality was probably not quite set in their minds beforehand, and the arrival of Dancing Jax has likely robbed them of this vital part of their development. If even their parents and teachers are telling them that monsters are real and that there’s a magical land called Mooncaster that really exists, is it any wonder some of them have drawn the conclusion that their favourite fantasy and sci-fi characters must be real too?

It’s heartbreaking to see Jim cling to the idea that Dancing Jax doesn’t work on him, not because he is immune or aberrant, but because he is special. We, and Alisdair, know that that isn’t the case, but I’m glad that Alisdair doesn’t try to disabuse Jim of the fantasy he’s created to cope, recognising instead that it’s probably kinder to leave him as he is for now. As I said a few chapter back, it does make you wonder how many other young people never made it far enough to be rounded up as aberrantsm=, and what their stories might be.

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter is sinister and intriguing in equal measures, really. Sinister because the mass drugging of a bunch of young children is disturbing enough, before you throw in lurking black mould in the trees.

Also, the tragedy of young Jim, who has spaced out into some sort of superhero fantasy in his mind is really sad. This surely can’t go well for him?

But the splinter of Austerly Fellows is my favourite plot twist because it really sets up an espionage element to the book. If you think about it, we have the Castle Creeper, who is sort of like an aberrant spy, able to infiltrate Mooncaster. So now the splintered youth – assuming Fellows didn’t possess the Creeper himself – is a counter spy, able to infiltrate the aberrants. I love this elaborate plot layering. Even as we’re cringing, we can’t wait to find out who is who.

Finally, Marcus and Maggie – how will that turn out in the sober light of day?