I am sick of job applications and it is depressingly long and stressful work, so I am taking a break to write a post. Enjoy.
I’ve actually been meaning to write this for months but life kind of got in the way. A while back I wrote a review of a book by one of my favourite Authors, Robin Jarvis. I predicted at the time, due to his recent writing pattern we may never see a sequel despite it ending on a cliffhanger but I was pleasantly surprised to see the sequel appear on schedule without so much as a cough. I only found it on one of my weekly tours of Waterstones to pine over things I want. Anyway, I bought it and read it that week most evenings after work. I have not been reading at all lately and when I do it is mainly poetry and it goes to show that was months ago now and I have only read one ‘Novel’ since. Either way, it was nice to have that feeling of running home to a book you are enjoying again but now living my life in my flat means I’d probably get through a novel in a day and to be honest I’ve got more important stuff to be doing at the moment.
Dancing Jax, the first novel in the series, I thoroughly enjoyed but pointed out at the time that A). It was not a kids book and B). It was going to date very badly. For the second installment he has stuck to A) and taken it further but scaled back on B). This, in my opinion, makes it the stronger of the two.
Freax and Rejex is set after the first novel and is set in a Britain that has fallen under the spell of the evil book Dancing Jacks and its creator. There are wafts of post apocalyptic and zombie stories towards the start as Jarvis sets the scene in brutal and unforgiving fashion. The main bulk of the story deals with the lives of a small group of teenagers who are immune to the effects of the book who are rounded up to be brought into the fold. When this doesn’t work the children, and this is what I mean about it not being for kids, are locked in an internment camp where they are tortured, starved and forced into dangerous labour to the delight of their, literally, monstrous guards.
The premise may be preposterous but it is a testament to Jarvis’ writing style that he can write about something as silly as a book hypnotising the entire planet and monsters being brought to earth from another dimension but make it terrifyingly real and unpleasant. The group of children are very well observed and, like the book before it, not drawn from stereotypes. The dialogue is believable and enjoyable too. All of this adds up to characters you invest in which makes Jarvis’ sheer delight in literally torturing and then, without wishing to spoil anything, murdering most of them all the more scary and harrowing.
There are a couple of mystery plot threads concerning one child who can apparently flit between the dream world of the book and the real world as well as one of the group of children is a spy for the enemy but you don’t know which is which till the end. This merely serves to connect the book to the over arching story and keeps the plot trundling along but in general Jarvis seems far more concerned with the characters and their interaction with their slowly disintegrating world and the brutal and monstrous guards, all of which are honestly horrific. It is the details which make it appalling: The punchinello guards are alcoholics that vomit and defecate wherever they please, they pick their own clothes dressing as a cowboy, a priest, a gangster rapper and superhero, they break a boy’s hand to stop him playing guitar, they whip a young girl, they lock the same girl in a shed for three days without food or water, a guard tries to rape one of them, one of them is shot to death, one is impaled on a spear that the rest of the children are then forced to bury and all of this culminating with, without a word of a lie, fucking CANNIBALISM. Can be found in the Young Adults section, ladies and gentlemen.
This novel is flat-out horror. None of this wishy-washy teenage vampire/werewolf emo toss, this is grotesque and stomach churning horror. It has monsters and fairies and children running away and spunky protagonists and derring do like any other kids novel but this is buried beneath the chapter by chapter cruelty and child abuse you have to read through. I hear The Hunger Games is pretty brutal and would quite like to read/watch that too but you would really have to be going some to even approach the pervasive menace and pitch black tone Freax & Rejex achieves. Like Alice in Wonderland set in the Gulag.
And I LOVE it.
Jarvis, for good or ill, has never shied away from very dark stories despite using tropes and settings from books for children: talking mice, children and magic, talking teddy bears, etc. This is why he is one of my favourites. As a child, reading The Dark Portal was like finding the book you weren’t meant to be reading and I loved it. It was an adventure, it had magic and monsters in it, ghosts and fortune-telling, sword fights, dark gods, mystery, but was so willfully subversive by putting in truly horrific and scary and violent scenes creating this really dark and creepy atmosphere. There is something so delightfully fucked up in the way he does it, like someone taking a kids finger painting and drawing a realistic and veiny cock on it. The zenith of which is a scene where to avoid detection two of the good mice must hide beneath a pile of their fellow mice’s skins to avoid detection. How messed up is that? And yet how brilliant.
Jarvis seems incapable of writing a light or ‘fluffy’ book. Your favourite characters don’t survive a Jarvis book, the bad guys tend to win more than they lose, love does not conquer all, you are going to be shoved through the ringer for the emotional high, you’ve bought your ticket, you take your seat, you watch the horrors unfolding. Jarvis is one of the best horror writers because he understands what makes something horrific: Characters who are like you and who are sympathetic and complex, forced to confront the evils of human nature and, even worse, that which they don’t understand. Freax and Rejex is probably a career high for Jarvis in this respect. He pulls no punches and really stretches out. The result is an engaging and enjoyable book that puts the likes of Stephen King et al to shame. I never put down a true blue “Horror” novel with a feeling of nausea but this one I did. I think the main reason is that no other author will subject children (in the novel and their readership) to such horrors.
Obviously, this isn’t for everyone, but I do think young adults will enjoy it just for its grotequeries if nothing else. With the likes of the insidiously evil yet somehow still bland Stephanie Meyer and her clones clogging up the teen novel market I think kids will appreciate an unvarnished and not-dumbed-down tale of horror and adventure that will keep them reading through the night. If you are a horror fan I would urge you to read it too as I am yet to read anything quite so unsettling. Robin Jarvis fans should check it out to as it is probably his best written novel so far and delivers on many things he has shied from in previous books. Dark Portal and Thomas still resolutely hold my No.1 in his cannon but objectively this is probably his best.
I ask for little from a book other than it take me out of my boring life and put me somewhere different and Freax and Rejex does that and more. This one comes highly recommended.