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Dark Waters of Hagwood cover

In 1989, towards the end of my first decade of life, Robin Jarvis published The Dark Portal, the first volume of the Deptford Mice trilogy. On paper it is nothing remarkable, an anthropomorphic children's fantasy of the sort that are ten-a-penny in any school library. Picking it off the shelf, however, I discovered something rather more alluring on the back cover blurb. I am going to quote the whole thing because I still find it pretty remarkable:

In the sewers of Deptford there lurks a dark presence which fills the tunnels with fear. The rats worship it in the blackness and name it Jupiter, Lord of All. Into this twilight realm wanders a small and frightened mouse. Far from family and friends he perishes, and in so doing is the unwitting trigger of a chain of events which hurtle the Deptford Mice into a doom-laden world of terror and sorcery.

Bloody hell! At the time, the benchmark for mouse stories was Brian Jacques's Redwall series (the first book was published in 1986 and Jacques managed pretty much a book a year until his death in 2010). I loved those books too but the Deptford Mice trilogy was on a different level. One of the pagan rats has a potato peeler lashed to the stump of his arm, except it is called a mouse peeler and he is called Skinner and yes, this is a kids' book where happy little mice get flayed. Frankly, Cluny the Scourge would have cacked his pants. The second book, The Crystal Prison (also published in 1989), then ramps up the terror by making the threat as much psychological as physical, using Arthur Miller's The Crucible as template. I still vividly remember the trauma of its ravishing unfairness on my preteen psyche. The trilogy was then concluded by the appropriately titled The Final Reckoning (1990).

I re-read the original series in my teens when the final of three prequels, Thomas, was published in 1995 and was pleased to find that they were everything I had remembered. (Redwall, alas, was not, so I am happy to write off that portion of my youth and caricature the books as pseudo-medieval mouse adventures that involve a lot of sitting around eating pie with otters.)

So when in 1999, towards the end of my second decade of life, Jarvis published the first volume of a new series, Thorn Ogres of Hagwood, I was not surprised to find that it was good. I reviewed it at the time and I would, however, have been surprised at how true the final sentence of my review would prove: "I imagine there will be more than a few disappointed readers waiting desperately for that book, since this one whets the appetite so tantalizingly."

Because it was not until into my fourth decade and with a child of my own that the second volume, Dark Waters of Hagwood, finally appeared. Publication dates had been given of first 2005, then 2009, then 2015. I actually wrote to his publisher, Puffin, to ask if the book was ever going to appear and they confirmed what at this point seemed obvious, that the series had been abandoned. Never mind the five-year gaps between volumes of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire; people have literally been waiting for this book more than half their lives. But, just as I'd given up hope, at the end of last year Open Road Integrated Media acquired the rights to the series, republished Thorn Ogres, and announced a firm date for Dark Waters.

Was it worth the wait? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let's begin at the beginning with the opening sentence of Thorn Ogres: "Beneath the early glimmering stars, the ancient, sprawling forest of Hagwood was crowded with menace and black branching shadows." The rest of the prologue goes on to detail the brutal evisceration of a vixen by the titular monsters:

Across the empty heath and the flat surface of the mere, her pain-filled yelps went sailing as a score of bitter spikes needled into her flesh. Vainly she wriggled to escape from the thorny darts that hooked into her skin, but the more she struggled, the closer and fiercer the capturing barbs gripped her.

Then the laughter began again.

 . . . By the shores of the Lonely Mere the vixen perished, and as the frenzied claws ripped and tore at her wilting body, her very last thought was for her cubs—who would feed them now?

I can safely say I won't be reading it to my son for a good few years yet. With that opening and a table of contents that promises chapters with titles including "lair," "murder," "death," "trial," and "betrayal," Jarvis can't be accused of deceiving us. The first chapter, however, is, if not exactly sunny, definitely a bit warmer.

Gameliel Tumpin is not a mouse but nor is he a human, rather he is a wergling, a small shape-shifting creature confined to Hagwood. Today is his first day of school and we get what we would expect: the embarrassing and loving father, the embarrassed and unloving sister (with a crush on the popular kid), the schoolmaster who deliberately hones in on weakness, the classmates who do it instinctively. Given his tubby form and affable but anxious personality, we aren't particularly surprised to discover that he is rubbish at his birthright; he is the only one of his classmates who cannot make the elementary transformation into—what else?—a mouse. But to his surprise, Finnen Lufkin, the object of his sister Kernella's affections and best wergler, takes him under his wing.

I'm not going to describe any of Gameliel and Finnen's awful adventures because that is a thrill best discovered by the reader herself (chapter eight is truly terrifying), but I do need to explain the geopolitical situation in which they find themselves entangled. Hagwood is ruled over by the tyrannous High Lady, Rhiannon of the Hollow Hill, a combination of Titania and the White Witch. Years ago she murderously usurped her father the king and locked her heart in a magic casket, leaving her deathless and without remorse. But one of her court was wise to her treachery and stole the casket's only key, a key that falls into the possession of Gameliel and Finnen. They try to warn their elders but the werglings in their little corner of Hagwood are much like the hobbits in the Shire—inbred, ignorant, and complacent—and are entirely unprepared when Rhiannon sends the thorn ogres to scour their home to find the one Ring. It is a massacre and scores die but the werglings manage to repel them and earn temporary respite. The novel ends with the words: "This is the first of The Hagwood Trilogy. The story will continue."

A mere fourteen years later, it did, but before that a word on the book I now hold in my hands. It is much uglier than the previous volume. Jarvis is a trained graphic designer and his distinctive artwork graces the covers of his UK editions, but Open Road Integrated Media have done their best to obscure this with a design from Andrea C. Uva that submerges the image in murky colors and then cages it in a clumsy font. The results are as clumsy and generic as the publisher's name and inside Jarvis's black and white chapter heading illustrations are also compressed. It is also much bigger: 297 pages rather than 244 but with considerably smaller type and spacing, meaning it must be more like twice as long.

This might be explained by the fact Dark Waters is the closest Jarvis has come to writing epic fantasy (with the possible exception of The Oaken Throne [1993], the second Deptford Mice prequel). So in contrast to the tight scope and furious pace of the first book, we get the curse of The Two Towers; a middle volume that involves splitting up your original party and sending them off on a fantasyland travelogue. I'm not implying that Jarvis has simply produced a knockoff of The Lord of the Rings, but the fact that parts of Dark Waters map across so readily does point to the fact this is more generic. He also rashly out-Tolkiens Tolkien by separating his emo Frodo and his doughty Sam.

This means that Finnen is stuck with Kernella, the sort of stupid and selfish character who only exists to always do the wrong thing, with Gameliel following after with Yoori Mattock, the leader of the council. Yoori is the only adult wergling in the story and one who seems to have become suddenly much more worldly than in the previous volume. Conversely, Gameliel seems to have become denser, his character arc in the first book forgotten. This is puzzling as he should be a character close to Jarvis's heart, given the unusually long biographical note at the end of the book which states:

Robin usually includes one small, portly character in most of his books. This character is not a hero, but instead a friend or brother of the protagonist—someone a bit clumsy a bit too fond of supper. The character is, in fact, Robin. In the Hagwood books, Robin decided to include himself as one of the principal characters for a change.

Despite this and despite Galamiel being the center of Thorn Ogres, he spends a hundred pages in the middle of the novel entirely absent. Instead, the book focuses on the minor members of the original group of children, Tollychook (a fool of a Took) and Liffidia (erm, a Quaker), as they follow a passing gypsy to the pool of the dead. You can tell this isn't going to end well, can't you?

At one point Jarvis writes: "Their pace was faster now, and Kernella no longer thought of it as a romantic adventure. The sooner they escaped this gloom, the better" (p. 76). But the pace never does quicken sufficiently and the adventure is neither romantic or gloomy enough to satisfy. In fact, there is something worryingly pantomime about it all, a feeling intensified by the dialogue. The Queen's provost talks in overwrought Middle English: "Truly their cunning outmeasures their paltry size. What shalt thou do now, O Queen?" (p. 8). The werglings are mush-mouthed yokels: "We'ms all dead anyways. Warning's won't do no good 'gainst them" (p. 17). (I should probably apologize for the crack at Brian Jacques early as this is firmly into his "burr, foremole" territory. I'm pretty sure one of the characters even says "girt.") This unfortunate use of dialect was also present in Thorn Ogres but you didn't notice it; now all the things that distracted you are gone. You can most clearly see this in the change of the Queen's foot soldiers, who are now spriggans (essentially orcs so further evidence of imagination being watered down) and seem to be channeling Winsor Davies: "I'm the captain, and it's my nose what can sniff out assassins and their awful conspirings" (p. 100). The thorn ogres were genuinely scary, the spriggans are more comic relief and menace.

Through all this, moments of adult irony wink through but this talking over the children's heads feels exclusive rather than an inclusive way of drawing the whole family in as at a panto. Towards the end there is a spark of what the novel could have been like if it had reconciled childish enthusiasm with grown-up intelligence:

"But how does it work?" Gamaliel asked, squinting up at the craggy rocks high overhead.

His sister shrugged.

"It's magic," she said flatly. (p. 230)

As this suggests, Kernella remains a lump throughout. This is a widespread trait (Liffidia finds Tollychook a similar millstone around her neck) and one that contributes to sinking the book; too many characters in the book are simply too thick, something that will have any clever kid pulling their hair out. But the Gamaliel we parted with at the end of Thorn Ogres has finally resurfaced—here is a character who questions the world rather than waiting for the latest plot coupon or expositional speech to fall into his lap. Sadly, it is just a glimmer. What I've always loved about Jarvis is how much respect he has for his audience, but it seems absent here. Frankly Dark Waters reads more like his Deptford Mouselets series for younger readers (2004-).

So, after waiting so long for it to arrive, it is a shame to report that Dark Waters of Hagwood is a damp squib. Perhaps that is why it took so long to appear. But, though the reader may feel disappointment when they reach the contrived conclusion of this book, at least they can rest assured that the final volume of the trilogy, War in Hagwood, will be out in November.

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.

Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
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