The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis

The Blurb On The Back:

”The most dreadful monster ever created came ashore at Whitby …”

When orphans Ben and Jennet arrive in their new seaside home, they soon discover that it is a very extraordinary place. And with mysterious creatures on the shore and a deadly beast prowling the streets, it becomes clear that Aunt Alice and her friends are also not quite what they seem.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

12-year-old Jennet and her brother, 8-year-old Ben were orphaned several years ago after their parents died in a car crash. They’ve been in foster care ever since, never finding a permanent home because Ben claims to see people who aren’t there and tells people things that he couldn’t possibly know.

Then their social workers are contacted by a great aunt they never knew existed: 92-year-old Alice Boston who offers to take them into her home in Whitby.  But Alice is no normal old lady – sprightly and incisive, she’s part of a group of old ladies who regularly gather for scones and chit chat and she’s keen for the children to settle down and adopt the seaside town as their home.

Whitby, however, isn’t all tourists and amusements. Ben can see strange people – Aufwaders – who live in caves along the coast and befriends Nelda, a young Aufwader girl seeking her father and uncle who have gone missing.  Then Jennet discovers that Alice’s scones and chit chat sessions are actually something much more supernatural and a newcomer to the town arrives – the mysterious Rowena Cooper – who takes up residence and is quick to befriend Miss Banbury-Scott (a wealthy woman who was part of Alice’s circle) to the exclusion of the other old ladies.  And that’s when thinks take a dark and deadly turn …

Robin Jarvis’s horror novel for children aged 9+ (the first in a trilogy) is a creepy, sinister read but the pacing is uneven and the antagonist two-dimensional, which is a shame as there are some stunning scenes while the developing relationship between Jennet, Ben and Alice held my interest but not enough for me to automatically check out the sequel, although I would read Jarvis’s other work.

First published in 1991, the novel was reissued in 2017 as part of a Modern Classics series and it’s easy to see why this qualifies as it’s a genuinely sinister read with Jarvis unafraid to kill characters and make sly nods to Whitby’s place in horror fiction (notably its references to Dracula).  At the same time though, Jarvis shows empathy to his characters even if they’re slightly ridiculous – so the silly Miss Droon who’s more devoted to her cat Eurydice than Eurydice is to her has some sympathetic moments in her storyline and even the vain and greedy Miss Banbury-Scott has a poignant moment. Jarvis is also good at showing the suspicion and damage that Jennet and Ben suffer from as a result of being orphaned, especially through their cautious attitude towards the twinkly and yet pragmatic Alice (a layered character whose concern for her wards is in part self-motivated by a desire to explore Ben’s gifts).  However I wished there’d been more of the Aufwader characters, who don’t really arrive until a third of the way in, especially given the resolution of their storyline, which is tragic and sets up a potential plot line for the sequel.

The writing is a little rough at times – Jarvis head hops between characters mid-scene a great deal, which I found threw me out – and the pacing is uneven with the plot not really getting going until Rowena Cooper arrives (a character whose background I really wanted to know more about although it’s possible this will come out in future books).  I also felt that the Aufwader storyline didn’t quite balance with the Jennet/Ben storylines, which made it a little lop-sided at times.

That said, the set-pieces are well done – especially the ending where a time travel element is brought in to spectacular effect – and I did like the gleeful way Jarvis dispatches hapless characters.

Although I wouldn’t automatically read the sequel to this, I will definitely check out Jarvis’s other work on the basis of this.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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