Dancing Jax | Chapter 1

Scan_20180613

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Some books are harmful, even dangerous.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The Mooncaster Trilogy, as I long ago began to call the Dancing Jax books in the absence of an official series title, is many things at once. As Matt said in the Up Next post, it is confrontational. It was at the time of publication, and still is, widely misunderstood by readers and critics alike. It goes where no Robin Jarvis series has gone before, or indeed, many young adult series’ on the bookshop shelves of today. Whatever you’ve heard about these books, whatever conclusions you’ve come to if you’ve read them, there’s one thing I think everybody will agree on: this trilogy has a strong personality.

This was the first series in Robin Jarvis canon that I had the opportunity of reading more or less as it came out. Dancing Jax was published in early 2011 – I didn’t catch wind of it until it appeared in my local library about a year later, but I ended up following the release of the next two books closely, which, if you know about Robin’s publication history, you will guess was an adventure in itself. To this day I find it darkly comedic that the one Robin Jarvis book to turn up when I wasn’t looking for Jarvis offerings at all was the one which would signal the greatest departure from ‘Robin Jarvis canon’ as a whole. Dancing Jax was, and still is, a revelation.

Let’s dive right in, then. Oh boy.

I think anybody who reads Martin Baxter’s entry will immediately know that something is up with author intent here. Martin’s statement about harmful books is a very bold move to make in the opening pages of what was marketed as a piece of young adult fiction, and has probably contributed to the book being misinterpreted quite regularly.

In an example from my own experience, I can remember handing it to a friend. He read the first page, and was instantly repelled. ‘What point is the author trying to make?’ I can remember him saying, indignantly. ‘You don’t just advocate censorship and not elaborate, it’s completely ham-fisted.’ Right away, Dancing Jax had elicited a strong response, and in that way, it had worked perfectly.

I admit that the intent of this series was lost on me up until the second book came out, so, with the memory of my own sad confusion and my friend’s offended horror uppermost, I feel I owe it to this project to, er, lay all the cards on the table.

The Dancing Jax books are a parody. They are a deconstruction of the trends popular in young adult fiction at the time of writing, of the publishing industry, the British press, the way British history is commodified, celebrity and mass media culture, the New Age movement, and quite a few other things besides.

This series is one giant ‘haw haw haw’ from start to finish, so please, be offended. Be confronted, be aghast, be shocked and awed. Hate the protagonists, loathe the antagonists, groan as the characters make pretentious speeches about the state of society and exchange tired pop culture references. Wince at the tabloid-like portrayal of Felixstowe and its inhabitants, shiver at Austerly Fellows’ way-too-realistic cult leader act. Call it ‘horror’, call it ‘genre-busting’, call it a seething, riotous mess or a new era in writing for young people. The point is that you’re thinking, and engaging, and reacting. The point is that you’ve joined the dance.

 

Matt’s Thoughts:  Where to start with this one? While the details are coming back to me, I still remember clearly the first time I read this, the sense that Robin Jarvis was trying something radically new. First up, there’s that outlandish cover. It’s garish, it’s monstrous, it’s terrifying. What is that creature with the blazing red eyes on the front?

Then the use of language, even before we arrive at the start of Chapter 1, signals that this is going to be a book for an older audience. And once we arrive at chapter 1, there are even more tip-offs that we’ve arrived in an older Jarvis world – the off-colour dialogue (e.g. Tommy’s comment about ‘girly mags’) and the adult concepts (e.g. the insinuation that Shiela, barely 20, is the lover of Jezza, seemingly a lot older).

Which, of course, all sets up an expectation: if Mr Jarvis is pitching the overall story at an older audience, does that mean that the scares and darkness are going to be much worse as well? In other words, if mouse-peeling rats, werewolves, and ginormous serpents were all fair game for 8-12 year-olds, what on earth is he going to do to torment older teenagers?

The answer is – quite a lot. But we shall take that ride together for mutual moral support!

I love the way this book opens with two completely opposite welcomes to the same story. One is a few paragraphs from Martin Baxter, a character we have not yet met, warning us that some books are harmful, even dangerous. They should be banned or destroyed. Then over the next page, we have an old-school introduction from Austerly Fellows written in the 1930s. It invites us to read these ‘rousing pages’ so that we can ‘escape the travails of those earthly measures that daily erode your humble spirit’ and offers a promise that ‘we shall coddle you, safe and close’.

This, of course, sets up a fascinating theme right out of the gate: could something that seems to offer comfort and escape from the cares of life be such a bad thing? Surely that would be good, right?

This paradox of good and bad being mixed together next comes in the form of Jezza’s speech to Shiela about the shallowness of spending your time on the internet, inventing stuff (which is a rather amusing sentiment to be found in a fictional story) and ignoring the evils of real life. But this is paradoxical because Jezza himself is a low-life substance abuser breaking into a house to steal stuff.

The character of Jezza (certainly, as he appears at the beginning of this book) is a fascinating one that has taken on a new resonance for me in the last few months. I was recently watching a film about the Snowtown Murders, one of the word cases of serial killing that Australia has ever seen. The murders themselves, which took place in South Australia over a period of nearly 10 years were horrific both because of the methods of murder employed (which I won’t go into on this blog) but also because there was not just one killer. Instead, the crimes were committed by a gang of three or four men, led by one John Bunting.

Bunting himself was well noted for having a charismatic personality and could be quite charming at times. But the logic that he used to justify the murders, which all took place amongst lower-class Australians in fringe suburbs, was to convince his followers that the people they were targeting were themselves low-lifes that didn’t deserve to live. In short, he put forward a moral justification for one of the most horrific things to happen on Australian soil.

You get a similar feel from Jezza – he gets his followers and lackeys onside because he has a certain amount of wisdom as he analyses society. But the paths he leads them down aren’t ones that make that society any better …

Finally, the other big thing is that Robin firmly dates the book in 2010 by throwing in numerous pop culture references, more than any had that previously been seen in the Jarvis Universe. In this case, it’s the graffiti on the walls being a nod to British pop of the 70s. So what better way to end this post than with the Wombles singing Minuetto Allegretto?

 

The Fatal Strand | Chapter 20

FS

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Tap-tap-tap.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I’ve muttered about ominous chapter titles before on here, but this one really, genuinely takes the jam and pancakes for this trilogy. You can ‘Crimson Weft’ all you want, but there’s something about the combination of last chapter’s cliffhanger, that ghastly illustration of skull-headed Galatea, and the fact that there’s only ‘this much left to go’ that puts ‘The First Wave’ at the top of the list.

In The Woven Path we all guessed that the Separate Collection and its inhabitants might return in the trilogy finale, and here we finally get to see that happen, in as grand and theatrical a manner as could be hoped. Best moment for me has got to be Galatea stepping into the light as Ursula charges her to lead the defence against Woden. Really, could the Nornir have a better general than the beautiful, hollow-eyed scourge of Paphos? I have to side with Edie this time – I’d run up to the statue too!

Matt’s Thoughts: This finale is reminding me more and more of the end of Fighting Pax, in that the last third of the book is really just one unrelenting sweep of action, without pause for breath, without letup of the tension.

Also, another whole sweep of old mythology is thrown in here. I do wish I had learned more of these ancient myths and legends when I was younger so they would come more readily to mind. (Alas, my somewhat conservative Christian curriculum as a youngster tended to de-emphasise the great myths for fear of us all becoming Satanists or something like that.) But, I managed to work out that the skull-topped beauty of a statue is a reference to the famous story of Pygmalion (or Pumiyathon, which is how he is referred to here) who fell in love with a statue that he had created.

The twist here, of course, is that in the same way that the Valkyries in the previous book are monstrous versions of their mythological counterparts, so here the statue – instead of being classically beautiful – is rather terrifying and warlike. It’s never stated explicitly in this series, but there’s an undercurrent here that all legends are based on some sort of truth, but that over time, storytellers have taken the edges off the stories to make them more palatable.

Having just watched Darkest Hour, in which the story of Churchill in WWII is portrayed in the most perfectly-lit, perfectly-costumed, beautifully-shot visual version of events, there is a definitely a truth to the idea of us liking to smooth out the past into a more palatable re-telling.

And as for that last set-piece where Ursula has to choose between a roomful of school children getting killed and defeating Jack Timms …  yikes!

The Fatal Strand | Chapter 19

FS

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

From some remote region, deep within the museum, there came the distant sound of a rhythmic knocking.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I definitely get shades of The Final Reckoning from this chapter.

Onceagain, our heroes are forced together by an unnatural cold and crouch, breath bated, around their meagre fire as the forces of darkness assail them from all sides. Once again, they summon the powers which safeguarded them in ages past, while their ancient matriarch, grim and grieving, despairs beneath the weight of her years.

We’re really at the finale now. Will the Nornir triumph, or will all who huddle around that fire be ‘besieged by death’?

Matt’s Thoughts: All I’ll say on this chapter, which nicely ramps things up, is that there is definitely a profound creepiness to the old song ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ Such a nice extra touch having the lyrics of that song being sung by the kids as Tick-Tock makes his way through the Museum.

Which is actually the second time in a month that I’ve encountered this particular little ditty being used to create a sinister atmosphere. Down here in Australia, we have two films and now two seasons of a TV show called Wolf Creek (definitely not suitable for children!) which I think exists solely to scare Australians from ever leaving the cities and visiting remote outback areas of Australia and to scare anyone from overseas to even contemplate visiting Australia full stop.

It’s probably the closest thing we’ve got to those horror stories that make you terrified of visiting old moors.

But, interestingly enough, for the title sequence of the TV series, they used the Cock Robin song quite effectively. What can I say? It’s just a creepy song.

The Fatal Strand | Chapter 13

FS

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘I wanted you to see that my home is not wholly filled with ugly memories.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Who else reckons that something will prevent the Chapmans from leaving the museum? Brian can fume all he likes, but the Nornir’s domain is now essentially a fortress, and Ursula still has a use for Neil. To paraphrase Quoth, depart that grooly abode they shall not. At least, not any time soon.

The rest of this chapter is the narrative equivalent of passing a difficult school test as a kid and then being given sweets as a reward. Well done, readers all, we’ve made it through the grisly description of Mary-Anne’s incarceration and demise, time for some Tudor revels to lift the mood.

And what delightful revels they are. Exquisitely detailed, with even amusing Tudor colour names making an appearance, Celandine’s last ball almost makes up for the ghastly shocks of Mr Pickering’s previous findings. It’s also interesting to see a bit of development regarding what Ursula was like before her sisters deteriorated with Nirinel. We really get a sense of all that the Websters have lost over the ages, and the blazing splendour of the past makes their present seem all the more shabby and ignoble.

This chapter is perfectly balanced. If I had to choose a chapter to represent this trilogy, it would be this. Ghost-hunting, family feuds, time travel, heartwarming and horrifying moments – it has everything. At the end of it I feel almost as overwhelmed as Mr Pickering. What will the Wyrd Museum throw at us next?

Matt’s Thoughts: Another Jarvis black/white chapter, where horror and beauty dwell side by side. The horror: discovering the fate of Mary-Anne Brindle, one which we almost would rather not have known. But then the beauty: the final ball of the sisters Webster before they became reclusive.

I’m glad, amidst all the darkness, that there was a pause for a scene like this. It gives us a rare moment of kindness by Ursula, where she allows Celandine a chance to relive her happier days. It’s finally convinced me that she is driven, not by a desire for power, but just a dedication to duty regardless of the great personal cost to her. That, I can understand.

 

 

The Fatal Strand | Chapter 5

FS

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Think of all the suffering and anguish these walls have absorbed.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: A quiet, pre-plot moment with Edie and Ursula and Veronica’s jars. All through the first two books I had been wondering why Edie seemed to have that magpie-like fascination with shiny things, and whether that might turn out to be important in the series finale.

Now I have a new theory: what if she is drawn to sparkly, precious treasures as a sort of echo to the Nornir’s first wonder at the Loom? What if she too is enslaved to it, and forever unconsciously seeks to see the threads of life and death in their unparalleled splendor?

Also, let us all take note of that vessel she takes from Veronica’s pile. After all, this is Robin Jarvis. Even some grotty old eye salve might come in handy.

Matt’s Thoughts: The plot is on the move! From the moment Pickering walks in the building and says there are ‘hundreds upon hundreds’ of ghosts and tormented souls in the walls, we know it’s going to get hectic.

And this is after Ursula has said that the loom is broken and nobody knows how the future is going to pan out from here.

I love a good Jarvis third book finale – all bets are off, the stakes are high, darkness is almost overpowering. It’s anybody’s guess who will be left standing, or even how successfully evil will be dispatched. I have no doubt that Pickering is a catalyst, but is it to a cataclysm?

The Fatal Strand | Chapter 2

FS

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Outside the immutable confines of this strangling reality, is there an end to care and suffering?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Something is up with Neil’s dad, and it’s definitely sinister in origin. Like Reverend Galloway, Brian Chapman strikes me as the sort of weak-willed individual that Woden would immediately single out for his nefarious ends, and judging by Mr Chapman’s behaviour in this chapter, it’s either the Gallows God or something worse who has taken hold of the malleable museum caretaker.

In The Woven Path, Mr Chapman was short with his sons, but he seemed to genuinely care for them and do his best, in his hapless, bumbling way, to be a semi-decent father. Here, however, we learn that he barely noticed Neil’s long absence, let alone thought to look for him. What’s more, the Mr Chapman of two books ago would never have stood barefoot in the cold for an extended period without good reason – he’s too practical to daydream, and too meek to be treating Quoth violently, however disturbed he might be better the raven’s powers of speech. No, there’s something going on there, and it can only lead to further rack and ruin.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: I’m not sure whether it tied in with personal circumstances for Mr Jarvis, but in this book and in his next one, Thorn Ogres of Hagwood, there is an extended sequence of grieving and saying farewell to a departed loved one. (Similar also to the overnight vigil in Time of Blood as well, now that I think about it.) In a day and age where we tend to gloss over death and its aftermath fairly quickly, I quite like an extended passage of funeral rites being put into a book for younger readers. It gives you a frame of reference for something that all of us will experience multiple times as we get older.

But most fascinating of all is Ursula’s meditation on immortality. It’s a great concept – when you’re immortal (or at least very long-lived!) and never have to face death, do you really know what happens to anybody after they die? In fact, you’re facing the prospect that most people will find out the answer to that before you.

However, we’re not stuck too long in the world of philosophy and mourning, before that horrendous end-of-chapter twist occurs … yikes!

The Deptford Mice Almanack | February

the deptford mice almanack _0004
As I questioned the present Starwife about Piccadilly, her eyes became filled with sorrow, and when she saw the drawings of him which I had drafted from the various descriptions I had heard, she could not speak and rushed quickly away.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: For this little forktail, February is all about Scalian New Year, which I decided at age ten falls upon the 4th. Do not ask me what the significance of that date is because I’ve honestly no idea, but since then, ever year, I have done something to honour Sarpedon the Mighty.

It always seemed to me a bit of a swizz that every other god in the Deptford universe  should have so many festivals and holy days, while the Scale were left standing gloomily on the sidelines. Even Jupiter has the repurposed Hobber rights of First Blood and Goregut to look forward to. Blame it on biased squirrel scribes or ancient records now lost to mould in the Starwife’s archives, but the Scale have been short-changed for high days and revels, and over the years I have done what I can to rectify that sad state of affairs.

Speaking of First Blood, that falls this month, as well as the moon entering the House of Hobb in what should be the start of a new calendar year for all Children of the Raith Sidhe. It may also be noted that these events coincide with one another in a manner that I imagine was quite difficult for Jupiter’s lieutenants to gloss over in the past. Of final note is the birthday of Wendel Maculatum, right in the Peeler – well, that explains his gift for turning sacrifices into ‘art’!

Matt’s Thoughts: I love the illustration for this month – both because it’s possibly one of the single best illustrations of Thomas Triton you’re likely to see, and also because its corresponding entry for the 10th refers to the tossing of the coin to propitiate the Lords of the Deep. Those three can certainly do with plenty of propitiation, that’s for sure!

I loved the mix of the humorous (Madame Akkikuyu’s sniffles remedy) and the tragic (the burial mound of Mr Woodruffe and the entry for Piccadilly’s birthday). Also, given that 18th marks the beginning of the Ash Month, I was actually wondering to what degree the Wyrd Museum was taking shape when this was written?

The idea that ash trees are somewhat distasteful to squirrels because of some dim dark connection to the World Ash Tree, while being completely my own reading into the passage, is an idea that I find quite appealing. You could see somebody like the old Starwife (or even the current one) knowing the whole tale of Yggdrasil and thinking it a rather pathetic example of squabbling divinities engaging in power struggles.

The Raven’s Knot | Chapter 22

RK

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The circlet they had come so far to find was sent spinning out of her grasp.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Back with Edie and Miss Veronica, in a chapter unlike anything we’ve yet had on this project. It’s curious and fascinating to see the way in which Christian and Norse mythologies have been blended together here, so that you get Verdandi taking treasured artefacts from the tomb of a supernaturally preserved Joseph of Arimathea in order to save Woden, who is in turn deceiving her. It’s a complex weave, and a new foray in the Jarvis canon, unless you count the brief appearance of the cherubic celestial messenger in The Whitby Child.

All that aside, we end on a dire cliffhanger. Who of the intrepid pair will make it out alive? For as we know, one does not return to the Wyrd Museum.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Nice little pastiche of elements in this chapter:

  • A nod to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • A reference to the old Catholic belief (which I always found incredibly creepy TBH) of the Incorruptibles – the saints whose body will not decay. (Photos here – but be warned, they’re a bit unsettling.)
  • Plus every other Jarvis book where they go looking for The Magic Item that will supposedly wield great power.

And I was expecting the Magic Item to fail in the end, but to have it disappear within a few pages of finding it? Ouch! The stakes are high now.

The Raven’s Knot | Chapter 20

RK

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Death approacheth,’ the raven cawed.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: That small paragraph describing the ‘crimson weft’ is quite the image, and I was surprised (and pleased) to discover that it is not just artistic licence on Robin’s part, but appears in the Njáls Saga. The Valkyries apparently also intone their grim intentions while weaving – considering some of the shrieks Sheila is described as making, I’m not sure I want to know what a singing Valkyrie sounds like!

In this chapter we see the loss-of-identity theme taken a little further, as Lauren’s stepmother turns on her. I’m reminded slightly of Meta and Pear, though I daresay Lauren is somewhat stronger in sense, and has perhaps more of a grip on the ordinary, having thus far lead a magic-free life.

I will say here that I would have liked her to have more of a voice in this book, and would’ve liked to have got to know her better as a character. Her dependability in a crisis and compassion for Sheila – despite her step-mother’s less than admirable qualities – really endears her to me. In among the ‘crimson wefts’ of this series, I feel we could do with a few more Laurens to stand against the foe, even in their own kitchen.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: There are certainly elements of classic horror films in this book and this chapter is a great example. It has everything we love to dread – Lauren wants to go back to the house, we’re all thinking, Are you crazy?

Then Neil follows and we’re thinking No!

Sheila is at home? Aargh!

We’re holding the book as far away from our face as we can possibly get when Lauren goes to speak to her mother.

And when Lauren announces there is no freaking key for the bedroom door and the NOISE STOPS?? Well, at that stage, I start getting unprintable. But I love it.

Especially Quoth. After all, if he’s worried, we all should be.

The Raven’s Knot | Chapter 19

RK

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Yet the crest of the Tor was not deserted, for a single, tall figure was standing up there waiting for them.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: I’d like to nominate this chapter header as my favourite for this book. There’s something about Verdandi, her serene expression and graceful pose, that arrests me every time I see it, and I can’t help but feel that this is a portrait from life. Who is this classically-beautiful woman who stars in The Raven’s Knot as the fairest of the Fates? It’s a curious mystery. I like to imagine that Miss Veronica might be based on an elderly lady that Mr Jarvis knew, and, in creating Verdandi, he drew from photographs of her in her youth. (I can only hope, if this is in some way accurate, that severe Miss Ursula is not also based on an acquaintance!)

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Well, this is getting more tragic by the minute, isn’t it? Veronica/Verdandi makes it to Glastonbury, uses up the last of her magic to appear beautiful for Woden and then it isn’t even him.

The thing that’s starting to stand out to me about this series is the way the kids get dragged into these extreme situations, all of which are engineered by adults attempting to out-maneuver each other – setting up elaborate plots and counter-plots, tricks and deceptions.

We know Woden – and particularly his Valkyries – are horrendous. But we’ve seen from Book 1, that Ursula can be pretty manipulative as well.

What there doesn’t appear to be is anyone who actually has the welfare of the kids in their mind. So Neil and Edie just seem to be alternately abandoned or dragged into increasingly dangerous situations. We get a feeling that those two will draw the most strength when they finally pair up and help each other, but as to how long that’s likely to take, who can tell?