The Alchymist's Cat (Deptford Histories) by Robin Jarvis

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The Alchymist's Cat (Deptford Histories) by Robin Jarvis

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Will gets trapped as an alchemist's lackey in 1660s London. While his feline friends have bearing on the rest of the Deptford series, this adventure is a very dark fantasy, which is recommended for its success, with a warning to its excess.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: November 2007
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0340950487

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Will Godwin has just buried all his close relatives. He would like to stay in his village and run the family farm he has all but inherited, but an urgent plea sends him to meet with his uncle in London.

Close family friend Mr Balker does not really want Will to witness the den of iniquity that is London in the 1660s, but decides he needs to go there as well, so chaperones him there. Balker, fan of the bottle, and with a secret of his own, is right to be alert - their first night in the capital he is murdered, and a Doctor Spittle snatches Will from the grasp of the bandits responsible, only to use and abuse him as a lackey cum slave cum apprentice in his apothecary.

Dr Spittle is intent on doing more than doling out lotions and potions to warty, foppish aristocracy, however. Already quite talented in the dark arts, he is after the fantastic goal of all alchemists - the philosopher's stone.

Will is trapped in servitude, and can barely do anything to drive the story along. Beyond reacting to the peril he encounters, he steals into a secret attic, and brings some cats home to the apothecary, and bingo we're a quarter of the way through the book. However one of those cats will become known as Jupiter - and while that name will mean a lot to fans of the original Deptford trilogy, this book is low on animal life, and very high with a heady sense of a dark fantasy world.

The animals - cats and more - will come into the story as a strong element, but for me, having only read one previous Robin Jarvis book, and targeted to a younger audience as well, I was surprised by the human story here, which again circles around his first series but offers a completely self-contained adventure. And by contrast what a gloomy adventure it is. The dead are raised, evil is done by many, disease is rampant - look again to where and when it's set to work out which in particular - and hope is but a glimmer. This is really best for the eleven+ audience. And should it become a film it would be howled off the screen for the numerous times animals get kicked, slapped, injured, killed...

Will has a notable struggle to get through the nightmares here, although we don't - despite the initial segments where he is not pro-active enough for my taste the story rattles along with gusto. Again and again you are not sure where the story is headed, be it featuring rats, a stolen soul or Will and his initial, thwarted errand. All the time the writing uses a familiar high quality. I did think people spoke in yokellish tongue too much initially, which seems to have been ironed out by the second half, but I can't think of anything else wrong with the writing. Despite being a reprint of a much older Deptford book, written for a completely different generation to those reading it today, it really stands out well as a strong teen read.

I was reminded at times of Philip Pullman's non-Dark Materials books, both those mentioning rats, and the Sally Lockhart books, with their teen trapped in the big city with adult mysteries to solve themes and strong historical setting. But such comparisons do not disguise the fact that this book is distinctive enough to stand on its own two feet as a dark teen fantasy.

If it were to be freshly written for 2007 and not in the late 1980s I would have hoped for a chance for Will to do more, and perhaps just twenty or so pages being shaved off in tiny bits here and there. But this is a welcome reprint, and one I can recommend - with a repeat that it might not be for the squeamish animal lover. It loses tiny bits of marks here and there, but still gets a strong Bookbag score.

We can only thank the publishers for sending us a copy to sample then.

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