Black Arts by Prentice and Weil

Last night my eldest niece and I popped along to Waterstones Islington (a beautiful shop btw) to meet the authors of Black Arts and get our books signed, of course. It was so good to say hello to Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil, and I can now confirm that despite having written a terrifyingly scary book they are actually not at all scary in real life. In fact, they are so very lovely that next week I will have a little treat to share with everyone on the blog courtesy of the chaps. Until then, here is my review of the first Book of Pandemonium…

Black Arts: The Books of Pandemonium

Welcome to Tudor London, one of my most favourite places to be, especially when it is as coated in magic and adventure as in the Black Arts. Jack lives in the Southwark slums, with his old ma, following the family tradition of thieving for a living. As the book begins he is testing out for Mr Sharkwell, the most afeared and organised gang-master south of the river. Jack’s performing pretty well, and pickpockets an impressive haul from a foreign gentlemen. He’s welcomed into the band of thieves, but unfortunately his light fingers have caught the eyes of a most sinister man – Nicholas Webb, preacher and man of God, apparently. Seems that Jack has picked the wrong pocket entirely.

In amongst his share of the loot, Jack takes a clay pipe for his ma. Whilst having a look at it he dislodges some powder that shoots straight into his eye. It hurts like the devil and more disturbingly it alters his sight. The world looks very different through his afflicted right eye. His day doesn’t get any better when he returns home and finds Webb waiting for him, with some nasty tricks up his sleeve to get what he wants from the boy. Jack’s life is in the balance until a stranger handy with a sword intervenes. Jack is in one heap of a mess, and the safest place for him is with the motley crew of thieves under Sharkwell’s supervision.

There are some glorious characters in Black Arts. Sharkwell’s granddaughter Beth is a mistress of disguise, gulling innocent folk into parting with their valuables. She’s hard-edged and fierce in her loyalty to her granddad’s rules. She reluctantly takes Jack under her tutelage, but she has her suspicions about him. Mr Smiles is all bounciness and patter, talking ten to the dozen in often unfathomable slang. He’s a cheery fellow most of the time, and his way with words made me smile often. When Jack turns up with an eye-patch to soothe his angry injury Smiles declares it:

Quite the piratical, circumnavigatory, mariner-wolfish facial furnishment‘.
Jack himself starts off as a chirpy scallywag, but events make him obsessed with revenge. His world has become very dark and bleak. He gets drawn further and further into a plot filled with sorcery and evil, the effects of which he experiences first-hand. But, the more I learnt about Jack, the more I was sure it was no coincidence that it was him that had stumbled across the secrets of the fanatical preachers under Webb. Jack has the courage and resourcefulness needed to walk a terrible path, and perhaps has a natural sympathy for magic he never knew about.
Black Arts is sometimes scary, often bloody, and always brilliant. I loved this alternative London of the 1590s, complete with real historical figures as well as truly imaginative ones. The appearance of Dr Dee is always welcome to me, he is one of the most interesting chaps to have ever walked the streets of the capital. I also enjoyed the linking of the main story with one of the very founding of the city, a ceremony steeped in ancient magic and bloodshed in a misty past long-forgotten. The residual power of that time is seeping through; whether it is harnessed for good or ill depends greatly on young Jack. It’s a lot of responsibility for such young shoulders, but innocence was a rare luxury for those at the bottom of society. It’s a gritty underworld version of the past we get here, imbued with a huge amount of very vivid imagination. It also has humour and camaraderie, treachery and imps. I’m not sure what else anyone could ask for!
I received a copy of Black Arts from the publisher (lucky me) for review purposes. It is available now in Paperback, from David Fickling Books.

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