Prentice and Weil, Black Arts

David Fickling Books, 2016, ISBN 978-1-910200-79-7

Black Arts is a gripping fantasy adventure set in London in 1592. An Elizabethan backdrop then, but this is not the Elizabethan London of courtiers and luxury so often presented in books and on screens. This is a London of darkness, squalor, decadence, devil-worship, public hangings and crime; a London whipped to anti-witch fever pitch by charismatic preacher Nicholas Webb and his Puritan sect, the mysterious Elite.

Jack is a talented thief, well taught by his resourceful mother, and newly apprenticed to Sharkwell, the ruthless head of a vast and highly successful criminal network. Jack's luck takes a dramatic downward turn when he spots a well-dressed man at a theatrical performance, an easy prey to his cut-purse skills. There's a peculiar pipe in his haul. Jack inhales the powder in it, and his life changes. A rust-coloured stain appears on his hand, and one of his eyes becomes intensely painful. He starts to see terrifying images. Far worse, Webb kills his mother in front of him. He vows to avenge her, but must keep his plans secret even from Sharpwell's quick-witted granddaughter Beth, a brilliant con-merchant and disguise-artist, with whom he is set on thieving and spying tasks. Jack is drawn further and further into intrigue, sorcery and danger. He will need all the artistry, help and magic he can summon if he is to escape with his life.

This is a very impressive debut novel. The portrayal of an alternative reality late sixteenth century sub-world is totally convincing, even down to the slang. Jack and Beth are compelling protagonists, and there is a strong supporting cast, not least Jack's familiar, an insect with both aptitude and attitude. At nearly 500 pages the book demands some perseverance, but lovers and fantasy and suspense will lap it up - and swiftly move on to the second in the Books of Pandemonium series, Devil's Blood.