Wednesday 4 April 2012

Review: Black Arts by Prentice and Weil (The Books of Pandomonium Book 1)

Elizabethan London: a teeming city of traders and thieves, courtiers and preachers, riff-raff and quality, cut-throats - and demons. When scrunty Jack the 'Judicious Nipper' picks the wrong pocket at the Globe Theatre, he finds himself mixed up in an altogether more dangerous London than he could have imagined - a city in which magic is real and deadly.

An outbreak of devil-worship has led to a wave of anti-witch fervor whipped up by the Elect, a mysterious group of Puritans recognizable from their red-stained right hands, led by the charismatic Nicholas Webb, a growing power at Court. Rumour has it that he wants to purge the city entirely and build a New Jerusalem. Jack has his own reason for hating him: he saw him kill his mother.

Helped by Beth Sharkwell the Thief Princess of Lambeth, Kit Morely the Intelligencer and Dr Dee the Queen's Wizard, Jack pits himself against Webb's Puritans. But this is no straightforward struggle. Things are not as they seem. In fact, ever since his encounter with Webb, there has been something wrong with Jack's vision. He keeps seeing things. Demons.

March 2012 has to have been one of the greatest months ever as far as the release of totally brilliant children's and YA books is concerned. I stopped announcing my Book of the Month some time ago, but if I was forced to make a decision (and it wasn't for a certain sequel by Will Hill) then Black Arts by Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil would be an incredibly strong contender indeed.

I received an early proof copy of Black Arts back before Christmas, courtesy of the lovely people at David Fickling Books, and I the information on the press release simply shouted "Read me now!" and so I dropped everything and did as instructed. That press release mentioned: the setting, London (London is unsurpassed as a setting for magical fantasy/horror in my opinion); in the year 1592 (one of my favourite eras for historical fiction); Satanic atrocities; a shadow world of criminals and fanatics, spies and magicians. I almost felt as if that press release had been directed at me personally, it ticked so many boxes. I was not to be disappointed.

I'm a little bit lost on how to start telling you about this book as there is simply so much I want to say. It is the perfect blend of fantasy, horror and historical fiction, with none of these 'genres' elbowing for dominance over the others. I mentioned this to my friend Liz from My Favourite Books as she had just started reading it, and we agreed that some writers of fantasy/horror set in an actual historical period (as opposed to a fantasy world of their own creation) often get bogged down in trying to ensure that all the historical details are correct, meaning that a great deal of the fun in their story gets forgotten about. The reason for this is the history nerds who seem to take great pleasure in hunting through books like this desperately trying to find some kind of historical inaccuracy. I can't attest to the accuracy of the historical aspect of Black Arts (and frankly I don't care in a story this good), but the writers certainly made it feel very real to me, and yet also managed to ensure that their story was an incredibly rewarding, fun read (some people may think I am a little bit twisted for finding fun in what is such a dark book.... perhaps I am?!) 

Sometimes when reading a book you can tell that the author had great fun writing it, and I have no doubts at all that this was the case with Black Arts. The primary piece of evidence that suggests this to me is the dialogue between the various characters. In a lesser book, the characters might have come across as stereotypes of the traditional Oliver Twist street urchin/crime story, albeit with healthy doses of magic and horror added to the mix, but the quality of the dialogue in Black Arts makes the story stand head and shoulders above its peers. Having met Prentice and Weil at the recent launch of their debut I can now easily imagine the fun they had in writing the dialogue for their richly imagined characters. The characters themselves are perfectly created, especially the villains of the story who are particularly nasty and ruthless (and again, more fun must have been had in the creation of these bad guys - P & W make exceedingly good bad villains).

12+ children who have read all of the Harry Potter books and particularly enjoyed the darker aspects of those books as the story progressed to its final conclusion could do a hell of a lot worse than turn to Black Arts for their latest fix of dark horror. The plot is exciting, and it twists and turns constantly as characters cross and double-cross each other, and with this much mystery and suspense I defy any young person to read this book and find it boring. 

David Fickling and his very small team really know what makes a fantastic children's/YA book. They don't publish many but it seems that everyone that comes out from them is an absolute corker. The impression I am always left with in finishing a David Fickling Book is that David and his team have a passion for great stories, and getting these into the hands of young people. Long may this continue!

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