I realised I’ve never done a book review on this blog which is a somewhat shameful admission for someone claiming to be a ‘writer’. So here you go…
Not so long ago I wrote about the death of one of my favourite authors, Brian Jacques, in that post I mentioned another writer called Robin Jarvis who is now my favourite living writer. After a pretty quiet ten years or so he has finally produced a more substantial book rather than the somewhat slight ‘Deptford Mouselets’ books. His last major book was Deathscent which I thought was fantastic and tantalisingly hung the carrot of a sequel in front of me. 10 Years later still no sequel. Same with The Thorn Ogres of Hagwood. What’s up with that Robin, huh?!
Dancing Jax is a return to what Robin Jarvis does best, bleak and disturbing adventure/horror. The best way I can describe the book is as a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Wicker Man. The plot revolves around a group of petty criminals going to a haunted house to rob it and discovering more than they bargained for. A cellar filled with the mysterious books ‘Dancing Jacks’ is discovered and then slowly distributed around the nearby town of Felixstowe, whereupon the school children find themselves literally unable to put the books down.
I love Robin Jarvis because he really doesn’t pull his punches and this book is irrefutably his most ‘adult’ despite the fact it is resolutely a Young Adults book. He has never shied away from violence or mature subject matter in an effort to really scare you. It is never lascivious or gratuitous just very functional and fulfills its purpose well. Unlike The Deptford Mice, Whitby Witches or to some extent, The Wyrd Museum he is aiming at a more teenage market with this one and I think that’s a good thing. He is an intelligent writer that can appeal to a younger audience without patronising them and, somewhat subversively, teach them something at the same time. Jarvis is clearly well versed in folklore the world over as he has proved in his previous books but this one adopts a lot of the more real, and therefore creepier, British Folklore, mainly revolving around the suits from a deck of cards (hence the Dancing Jacks). What I love the most about Jarvis is despite all this he does not skimp on the more spectacular set pieces. I have always been of the opinion an action or dramatic set piece is far more impressive in a book than on film. This is because in your head you can conjure up the appropriate emotion and make the scene far grander than can be constrained in a box on-screen. Jarvis has cars exploding, foot chases, molotov cocktails, electrical storms, battles with werewolves, car chases with Demons and much more. Come on! That’s a book I want to read! This in my opinion is a balance more writers should strike. Fantasy writers often bog the reader down in the lore and ‘rules’ of their land which inhibits the excitement of the set piece and certainly the pace, whereas ‘literary’ writers just don’t bother but have the right ideas that could benefit from the odd explosion or car chase. I realise this is a very puerile appraisal of literature but I genuinely think the use of a ‘set piece’ is a highly effective attention grabber and appeals to a wider audience. The balloon chase in Enduring Love was the only bit I liked in that book.
Anyway, Jarvis knows this and whilst tension bubbles away and the character’s sanity is slowly peeled away it jars with the odd moments of violence which is very effective. Also present is Jarvis’ love of the frankly bizarre and I don’t mean courtiers, monsters and hallucinogenic fruits. One of the ancillary characters turns out to be one half of a cross dressing comic duo a la Hinge & Brackett. It also brings to the fore his sense of humour something his other books lack somewhat. There are some great one liners and hilarious puns in this book which you wouldn’t traditionally expect of Jarvis, another sign he is appealing to an older audience. People have often mentioned being ‘switched-off’ him due to him writing about anthropomorphised Mice and magical places. My first response is “Grow up” but my second would be that symbolism and projection is one of the most important ways the human mind deals with problems. Ironically distance creates a greater empathy in the human mind. When my life went south and I returned to Manchester, my friend James, whose sofa I was sleeping on, leant me a book by Samuel Johnson (the writer of the dictionary) called The History of Prince Rasselas. It was very short and more a collection of essays set in 18th century Ethiopia but with chapters about poetry and finding a path in life I felt a lot better about myself after reading it. I couldn’t be more different from Rasselas in the same way as I couldn’t be more different from the mice that live under Deptford but Jarvis uses this and creates an empathy for our characters and uses this escapism to great effect. This book, however, is resolutely set in our world. I love the way he picks nondescript towns in England to set his books (Whitby, Glastonbury, Deptford) and the choice of Felixstowe is no exception (a habit I myself have picked up, setting my last novel in Reading). This, however, is my only criticism of the novel, the one thing I loved and disliked the most about the book.
Dancing Jax is going to date. Badly. If it hasn’t already. Nary a page goes by without a mention of something that is currently in the news or around at the moment. Russel Brand, Noel Fielding, xBoxes, Jordan, Big Brother, Ricicles, BAFTA, every Science Fiction programme, Facebook, Wikipedia and much, much more are all mentioned. Jarvis is normally quite savvy about this, setting books in the past so they don’t date or setting them ‘now’ but never mentioning anything more current than a TV or a car. As my girlfriend pointed out maybe this is why he has chosen this book to indulge his gripes about our current culture and society. Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a book that gives a damning indictment on the world and God knows the world does need damning and these very clear and unpleasant flaws in our society should be pointed out to a younger audience so maybe they will realise the good from the bad. BUT whilst doing this and using this as a main theme in the plot – the idea the world is going to Hell anyway and therefore taking that pretty much literally – he is also nailing, bolting and riveting it to the mast of ‘NOW‘ which means in even 2 years time this is going to seem terribly out of date. The reason I loved the Deptford Mice is because they’re not human and their problems are going to directly affect our world. The less time I spend in this world by reading (another theme of Dancing Jax) the better and books set where all things I hate in the world (which is quite a lot) are no longer there give me a warm fuzzy feeling in my tummy. However, due to the, admittedly necessary, barrage of modern imagery I was wincing fairly often and wishing he had found another way of expressing the need for control in a very real world where “No one likes anything about themselves now: the way they look, their jobs, where they live.” A writer I am honoured to be able to claim is at the very least an acquaintance, the great novelist Paul Magrs, also follows this idea with his Brenda and Effy series (another Whitby based barrage of magic and mayhem) but that particular theme is dealt with in a more subtle fashion amidst the Supernatural Sleuthing.
This is my only criticism of Dancing Jax, though, and for that reason alone makes it a very important read. I would encourage everyone to read it not just because I am biased and love Robin Jarvis but because it is very thought-provoking, creepy, intelligent, funny, exciting, well written and just plain. Good. Fun. I would highly recommend his other books as well. Especially Deathscent. Yeah! That’s right. Buy it by the truckload then he’ll have to write a sequel. According to the end of this book a sequel is scheduled for February next year. WHERE’S DEATHSCENT 2?! Huh, Robin? WHEEEEEEEERRRRRRRREEEEEEEE?!
Dancing Jax is great and I look forward to the second installment. It is available from all good book stores and Amazon.co.uk