Encapsulate the book in one sentence? Ancient evil is rising from the deep to threaten the seaside town of Whitby, and Verne and Lil are all that stand in its way. Intriguing, tell me more. In Whitby, two warring forces of dark magic will pit East Cliff against West Cliff, dredging up secrets and betrayals from the path, and threatening the lives of teenagers Verne and Lil, and the brightly-coloured oddball witch Cherry Cerise. Why this, why now? I am a fan of Robin Jarvis’ writing — he does timeless children’s fiction with more than a large helping of genuinely creepy darkness to it. I’m a particular fan of his series The Whitby Witches, partly because I think they are excellent books, and partly because the town of Whitby is my favourite place on the planet; his first trilogy did a great job of conjuring the atmosphere of the town.
For those not in the know: Whitby is a small fishing town on the edge of the North York Moors, split on either side of the harbour, with the West Cliff home to Captain Cooks whalebone arch and the royal crescent of grand hotels, and the East Cliff home to Whitby Abbey, at the top of its famous one-hundred-and-ninety-nine steps. If you’ve heard of Whitby, you’ve probably heard of it from Dracula. I adore Whitby (seriously: I have plans to retire there, and I curate The Whitby Bookshelf on facebook.)
So if that gives you an idea of how excited I was when it was announced Robin Jarvis would return to writing about Whitby for a new series, imagine how I was when I came across the ARC on netgalley and discovered I was already pre-approved by the publisher. What genre would you say it is? The Power of Dark has the feeling of classic children’s fiction, somewhere between horror and adventure, with strange creatures hidden in the shadows and ancient evils lurking in history. This particular volume has a more contemporary feel to it than I’m used to, partly because of the mobile phones and video chats and the like, and partly because it reflects Whitby as it is now (a tourist destination, full of gothic shops that cash in on the enormous influx of people at Whitby Goth Festival; it’s accurate enough that the book even boils itself down to a stand-off between goths and steampunks which, if you’re familiar with goth weekend, is a hilarious injoke.) Did you finish it? Did it work for you? I loved it.
I loved it, but with all apologies, because really the reasons I loved the book are quite personal, and if you’re reading this to get an objective review then this won’t be much use to you. I loved it because this book felt like it had been written for me.
Not in a universal or general way, but in a terrifyingly specific way. Let’s start with the characters of Verne and Lil. Verne is the awkward boy who starts the story being bullied by a bunch of older girls. His best friend, Lil, is an artsy misfit whose parents are arch-goths. Her family surname is the Wilsons. Now, let me give a quick summary of my adolescence: an awkward boy (who was picked on by everyone but yes, on occasion, girls). My best friend was an artsy misfit whose parents were arch-goths (their house was painted inside to resemble a castle. My parents didn’t allow Halloween, and the only one I ever attended was at theirs.) Their family surname was the Wilsons. (Plus, just like me, Lil has an obsession with old and forgotten words… I mean, come on. Witchcraft is afoot.)
Pile all that on top of the perfectly-evoked Whitby setting, the sheer enjoyment factor that always comes with Jarvis’ prose, and the nicely-balanced mix of spooky mystery and childish escapism, and the confection as just right. I could not have asked for a book better tailored to me.
If I’m trying to be objective, though, this is still a great book. The opening quarter is spectacular, as a storm rips through Whitby, exhuming skeletons from the graveyard and scattering them over the rooftops below. Although the book relies on the separation of Verne and Lil from about a quarter of the way in, their friendship feels real and genuine, and Cherry Cerise is a scene-stealer that I look forward to more of in the future. There’s also a few things in the mix that stand out from the usual supernatural-mystery atmosphere, including a diverting switch-up in tone when half the town becomes masters of clockwork and machinery overnight, like a rather macabre Professor Branestawn adventure. And the ending segues nicely into what I assume will be a further two books in the series.
My only niggle is, finishing the book, I was left with a faint feeling that Goths were the butt of the joke in the book. (The raised army of evil paint themselves up as Goths; there are swipes at ‘adults living out teenage fantasies’; the heroine’s triumph is sabotaging Goth weekend with brightly-coloured knitting.) I suspect I’m being overly sensitive; after all, Goths are the first to mock themselves, and would no doubt appreciate being fictionally resurrected as an army of evil… Give me a good quote: (Not the most representative, but so evocative of my own childhood I couldn’t possibly pick any other:) The boy cast his eyes round the Wilsons’ eccentric orange-and-black kitchen. It was a weird combination of Macbeth and IKEA, just what you’d expect from a couple of modern-day witches. He loved coming here. It was the complete opposite of his own home above the amusement arcade where his dust-phobic mother vacuumed the carpets and curtains daily and nothing was ever out of place. Lil’s parents were well known locally, being the owner of an occult shop in Church Street called Whitby Gothic, selling all manner of peculiar and supposedly magical things. They loved dressing the part too, mainly in black with a strong Victorian twist, which they had also foisted on Lil from the day she was born. Is it available today? Out now, from Egmont. Soundtrack of choice: I’m going with Run Boy Run by Woodkid