Dancing Jax by Robin Jarvis

The Blurb On The Back:

Some books should be banned or destroyed.  This is the story of one of them …

In a coastal town, a strange, out-of-print children’s book is found, full of colourful stories of castles, knights and unicorns.  But the book is no fairytale.  Written by Austerly Fellows, a mysterious turn-of-the-century occultist, it is no mere entertainment.  In fact, those who start it find that they just can’t put it down, no matter how much they may want to. 

You can order Dancing Jax by Robin Jarvis from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Martin Baxter is a maths teacher and secret SF and fantasy nerd who lives and works in the Suffolk coastal town of Felixstowe with his partner Carol (a nurse) and her 11 year-old son Paul (who helps Martin with his considerable memorabilia collection and attends the school where he teaches).  

Shiela is one of Martin’s former pupils who’s fallen in with Jezza, a petty criminal and bully.  She suggests to Jezza that he check out an abandoned house that’s notorious in the town as it used to belong to Austerly Fellows, an occultist linked with some truly terrible deeds, to see if there’s anything worth stealing from it.  But there’s something evil in the Fellows house, something seeped in its walls and it worms its way into Jezza and his associates Miller and Tommo, taking them over.  Changing them.  

In the basement of the house are crates full of books written by Fellows, entitled Dancing Jacks.  Jezza has them removed from the house and is soon distributing them around the town.  Everyone who reads them also becomes changed, taken over by a character in the book and determined to find a way to Mooncaster, a magical fairytale kingdom ruled over by the enchanter Ismus and a court of kings and queens.  None can resist the book’s power and it soon becomes clear that Ismus has plans for the world, plans that no one can apparently stop …

Robin Jarvis’s dark fantasy novel for children aged 11+ (the first in a trilogy) is a weird, sinister affair that bucks many of the conventions in children’s literature (including by having a largely adult cast) and takes a jaundiced view of modern life and the attitude of teenagers.  However the way Jarvis intermingles backstory with the plot works really well and the body swapping is really disturbing such that I want to check out the sequel.

This is a genuinely weird book.  It’s one of the few children’s books I’ve read where the majority of the cast are grown ups and many of those grown ups (including Martin, who’s the closest the book has to a protagonist) really don’t seem to like teenagers much and are constantly criticising their poor attitude and the world in which they live.  This is further reinforced by the fact that many of the teenagers in the book (such as Emma and her friends Ashleigh and Keeley who all dreamy of being rich and famous) are really unlikeable and behave in unpleasant ways.  Some of the recurrent themes in the book relate to the emptiness of modern life and the lack of belief systems or integrity that people have in their day-to-day lives and I did wonder at times to what extent the target audience would be able to relate to that.

However, there is a certain fun to be had in seeing how the Dancing Jax book takes over some of the nasty characters and its true sinister genius lies in how it also affects more likeable characters such as Connor (who has realised he will never be a footballer and dreads a dreary life in a factory or shop), Sandra (smart and pretty and bullied by Emma because of it) and 11-year-old Paul who loves Martin and enjoys sharing his hobbies.  The body snatcher nature of the book means you’re never quite sure who is going to be next or who has been taken already and is hiding it and that’s genuinely creepy.

I really enjoyed Jezza’s transformation into Ismus and the slow reveal of his agenda, which mirrors Shiela’s growing horror and concern about what’s going on and her attempts to warn others.  Also good is the way Jarvis wraps in the world of Mooncaster and the backstory of its residents with their takeover of the Felixstowe residents, showing the links and differences between their personalities while the way the book nods at INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS and THE WICKER MAN will please older readers.

However, the plot is quite lumpy in places in terms of info dumps slowing down the pace and a storyline involving Paul’s piano teacher, Gerald, doesn’t really go anywhere – not least because it doesn’t add a huge amount to the backstory and the inclusion of Gerald’s alter-ego doesn’t bring anything meaningful.  Additionally, there’s no explanation for why some characters appear to be immune to the book and yet succumb to the minchet fruit (or indeed the relationship between the fruit and the book) and there’s a lot of set-up here whose only pay off is an abrupt ending.  For all that though, there is something about this book that gets under your skin and the premise is interesting enough for me to want to check out the sequel. 

Thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy of this book.

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