Black Arts is a YA novel by Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil being published by David Fickling Books, March 2012.
It’s 1592 and the dank streets of London are a dangerous hive of thieves, murderers and fanatics. It already sounds bad enough but when young thief Jack cuts the wrong purse he finds out that magic is real and that there are much worse things than thieves and murderers.
In the midst of horrific Satanist atrocities and with danger round every corner, Preacher Webb steps forward to purge the city of evil. But Jack knows where the evil in London really lies. Embroiled against his will in a battle to save London and to find out the truth of Webb’s involvement in the murders, Jack has his own reasons for wanting to hunt the preacher down – revenge.
As Jack and Webb pursue each other through London’s murky underworld there are deadly encounters with magicians and fearsome devils. Yet in all the danger and violence there is room for friendship, as long as Jack knows who he can trust.
From the opening chapters as Jack attempts to navigate the nerve-jangling initiation into a gang of thieves Prentice and Weil plunge us into a vibrant, imaginatively crafted London. You can almost smell the sweat, muck and worse as the bustling life (and death) of the city’s dangerous streets threatens to burst off the pages. Jack immediately stands out in these surroundings as being a spirited and tenacious boy, he’s a fun character to follow; brave, cunning and not averse to taking a risk or two. From the dangerous gang-leader Mr Sharkwell and the mysterious, sword fighting ‘Intelligencer’ Kit Morely to the sinister Preacher Webb the entire cast of the book are a tough bunch and their exploits are fun to witness. As the mystery begins to unravel and the tension is ratcheted ever higher these characters clash with increasingly thrilling and devastating consequences. My favourite character, an Imp named Imp, provides some wonderful humorous and tender moments to the story and affirms my belief that every Children’s book needs some sort of talking creature or animal.
The dialogue in Black Arts is superb and contributes generously to Prentice and Weil’s wonderfully atmospheric imagining of London. Sharkwell’s swaggering East London dialect and Imp’s hectic, almost nonsensical diction add a depth to the prose that makes the world and the characters more convincing and ultimately more enjoyable.
The thrilling and terrifying story that ensnares London is well-plotted, told with great accomplishment and its progress is enthralling. There is enough mystery and suspense to silence even the most raucous Elizabethan playhouse audience and as the separate strands of the story spiral ever closer you can be sure a big finale awaits. This is an undoubtedly exciting story but it is the uniquely entertaining characters, their relationships, their dialogue and battles that turn this into such a terrific book.
Update: This review has been posted on Periscope Post, here.
For those familiar with Brian Selznick’s previous work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the size of his latest book should come as no surprise. The hefty tome is the second produced in his part-graphic novel, part-illustrated story style but this time the text and illustrations tell different stories, set 50 years apart, that interweave until finally merging in the latter stages of the book. The text tells the story of Ben, who in 1977 following the death of his mother, runs away to New York to try and find his father after finding clues to his identity in his mother’s belongings. The illustrations, set in 1927, tell the story of a girl named Rose who also runs away to New York. Both children are deaf; Ben – born deaf in one ear, later loses the hearing in his other. Rose was born deaf in both.
The illustrated passages immediately stand out, Selznick describes them brilliantly as “bursts of silent movies”. There is a ghostly, etherial beauty about his drawings. Particularly enjoyable are his sequential images that zoom cinematically onto some detail in the drawing. Compared to these, though, the prose can seem a little flat. The drawings evoke far better the emotions and feelings of the characters and seem much more atmospheric. Though this is due more to the success of the artwork than any failings of the prose.
The book is a wonderfully produced object one can enjoy owning. I think, perhaps, that it is because of the innovative way in which Selznick tells the story that Wonderstruck (as well as The Invention of Hugo Cabret) seems so unique. In an increasingly saturated children’s market an author/artist such as Selznick must be a publisher’s dream. Wonderstruck is a lovely story, it’s told well, illustrated brilliantly, and unlike anthing else I’ve experienced. It only remains to be seen whether Selznick is prepared to carry on in his unique text/illustration medium and perhaps innovate it further.
Magnus Mills doesn’t disappoint with his latest novel, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In. Mills takes his trademark deadpan prose and creates a captivating fable-like fantasy setting. The citizens of Greater Fallowfields are without their Emporor and find themselves, like many of the characters in his other novels, in various tail-chasing, dead-end situations. The Astronomer Royal can’t use his telescope without first inserting a sixpence into the slot and in any case knows nothing of astronomy. The conductor of the orchestra knows no music theory. You get the idea. With his imagination Mills seems able to create an endless supply of humourous situations in which to insert his characters but his prose and dialogue, which I love, add another couple of levels to the comedy.
Mills’ prose has been described as ‘deceptively simple’ and it’s so true. You can read this novel on many levels and there are elements of satire and allegory glinting teasingly throughout. I also find his writing quite addictive – for me, he is one of the funniest, most entertaining writers out there. I’ve been rather late writing this review (I finished the novel nearly two weeks ago) but even so I often find myself running through my favourite parts of this book and giggling to myself.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is Mills at his best. The prose and humour are the same we know and love – but better, and in a much more ambitious setting. Magnus Mills is one of those writers who I enjoy so much I feel they must be writing specifically for me. I urge you to read this book, oh and if you haven’t already, all his others as well. I must also say it’s one of the prettiest cover designs I’ve ever seen.
Read, read, read!
I’ve only just found time to read Andrew Miller’s latest novel, Pure, and I’m very glad I did. In 18th-Century Paris the cemetery of Les Innocents has reached capacity, has been shut, but is overpowering the neighbouring area with a decaying stench that permeates the food, the air, the people. A young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is charged with purifying the cemetery. It is a challenge the forces him to challenge his own identity, his place in society. Will he allow this project to threaten his life – does he have a choice?
Miller nails every aspect of this novel; it is faultless. His prose is sublime – the atmosphere of Paris, the smells, the people, are seamlessly transformed into vivid images in your mind. The similes are wonderfully crafted, used adeptly. Miller is exploring a vastly different world to our own, yet he seems to do it effortlessly, he makes 18th-Century Paris feel almost familiar.
Jean-Baptiste, as with all the characters, is superbly fleshed out. His methodical engineering mind does not always grasp the subtleties of human interaction. He is wary, perhaps even paranoid of the men he has working for him at the cemetery. But this is balanced by the friends he meets along the way; Armand the church’s flamboyant organist, Jeanne the sextant’s granddaughter, Heloïse the quietly educated whore. There is a lost, helpless quality that endears Jean-Baptiste to the other characters, to the reader. The relationships and interaction between the characters, even the non-action, are a joy to behold. Amongst all these people, in this vibrant and changing Paris, J-B has to learn how to live as himself, his own man, in a society that seems to restrict such ideas.
Pure is a wonderful novel, as I finished I felt like turning back and starting again as it seems a shame to enjoy such skilful writing only once.
The book begins with a chase through the streets of Calcutta in May 1916. Lieutenant Peake pauses for breath outside the ruins of the Jheeter’s Gate station knowing that he only has a few hours to live. Inside his overcoat he is sheltering two newborn babies – twins, a boy and a girl. Pursued by his would-be assassins, Peake runs at full tilt to the house of Aryami Bose, to whom he entrusts the children. In 1932 we meet the boy, Ben, and his group of friends the night before they are due to leave St Patricks orphanage. They have formed a secret club, The Chowbar Society, that meets each week at midnight in the old ruin they have christened The Midnight Palace. Their final meeting is due that evening but then Aryami Bose turns up at the orphanage with Sheere, Ben’s sister, and tells them the story of the parents they never knew. Their father was an engineer and writer who died in tragic circumstances at the inauguration of Jheeter’s Gate station. But as the novel unfolds, there is more to this story than meets the eye and they are lured by a shadowy figure from the past into a final showdown in the ruins.
The Midnight Palace is one of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s young-adult offerings that encompasses horror, thriller and mystery elements. Written over seventeen years ago it tells the tale of a brother and sister, and their friends, over two short periods in 1916 and 1932 as they are confronted by a terrifying spectral figure from their unknown past. It’s an exciting read, the pace is fast and the suspense is kept up throughout. The setting of Calcutta and the various locations within the Indian city featured in the novel are described in ways that add to the horror and mystery of the novel. At various points, whether due to the translation or not, I feel the standard of the writing can drop and the emotions of the characters are merely stated rather than shown through actions or dialogue.
The Midnight Palace contains the thoughts of one of the characters some fifty years after the events which creates a bittersweet, retrospective tone to the book that works well. The novel races along to a gripping climax and as the author states in his opening letter you should find something to enjoy whether young or young at heart.