Book Review: The Novice by Taran Matharu

Genre: Fantasy, YA
Publishing Info: Hodder Children’s Books (2015)
Pages: 390

Back Cover Summary:

ONLY HIS POWER TO SUMMON DEMONS CAN SAVE THE EMPIRE.

Fletcher is just an orphan training as a blacksmith’s apprentice when he discovers he has the rare ability to summon demons from another world.

Now one of the gifted few, Fletcher will be taught the lost art of summoning at the Vocans Academy.

Fletcher must endure deadly lessons to gain control of his gift and prepare for the end of year Tournament that will determine his fate in the Empire’s war against the orcs.

But sinister forces infect new friendships and rivalries grow. With no one but his demon Ignatius by his side, Fletcher must decide where his loyalties lie. The fate of the Empire is in his hands…

The debut novel in Taran Matharu’s Summoner series shows great promise in suggesting an interaction with the xenophobic nature of fantasy worlds and with how several key characters are represented. This is stifled though by sequences taking place in the Vocans Academy, and its tournament, which doesn’t feel suitably exciting for a conclusion.

In terms of uniqueness for a fantasy series, there isn’t much that is out of the box here. Men, Elves and Dwarves are distrustful of each other but are united against a common enemy in the form of the Orc. The concept of soldiers having demons fighting alongside them on the battlefield, companions if you were, is an interesting one. This has been done in other fantasy series and, apart from the protagonist, Fletcher, having a salamander which feels alive, others feel very restricted. Putting a numerical system of mana (the amount of magic you can wield and use) into the lore and applying that to what demon individuals can control also restricts the amount of personality and freedom they are shown to have. This may have been intentional on the part of the author, since these are purely for the battlefield and not a general companion, but it feels like more could have been done with this concept. I think there is a feeling within the novel of the author holding back in some regards, possibly to not let the reader see everything in the first book of the series, which can be seen in how the narrative slows down once Fletcher has arrived at the Vocans Academy.

The restrictive nature of scenes within Vocans trickles through to many aspects of the novel, including the central narrative. I understand why it is important for the protagonist to attend this location – it will allow so many more doors to be opened for the author if Fletcher has access to the battlefields and the politics behind them. However, quite a lot of elements came off as static after the vibrancy of the first quarter of the novel, except for several of the teachers and the Dwarf and Elf who were studying there – with these individuals showing promise for good future character development. The plot within this location was leading up to a big tournament between the pupils to see who will get recommendations to join the military in a leading position, but I found this as a choice for the climax underwhelming. Instead of being excited by it, I found that the general direction of the narrative was quite predictable, like the characterisation of most of the students. I would have loved to have been thrown a twist that I didn’t see coming.

On the flip side of this, the general quality of the novel was much higher when the characters were away from the Academy. There is a series of chapters starting with a routine trip by the students to the nearest town. I am not going to spoil what happens within this part of the book but the toxic atmosphere and attitudes of the human townsfolk differ massively from that of the Dwarven residents, and I found that, and the reaction of the protagonists towards it, very interesting. This kind of racial bias is something that readers will be able to spot in certain aspects of modern society. It had also been suggested at various points of the book (why the Orcs are all stereotypically painted as evil, how the Commoners are treated as second class students compared to the Royalty). There is a scene towards the end of the book, before the tournament, where one group tries to commit mass genocide against another, and I found that infinitely more interesting than the tournament; I would have preferred it if these two events swapped and this act was the climax. I am glad that the ending of the novel suggests a return to Fletcher’s hometown of Pelt or at least away from the restrictions of the Academy – the writing feels better when the wider context of society is shown.

As the first book in the Summoner series, The Novice sets up Taran Matharu’s fantasy world well, with many interesting layers and concepts that I hope will be tackled in future books. It is this potential and scenes that looked at the xenophobic nature of fantasy series in general, that make me want to continue with the series. I hope that restrictive settings such as the Vocans Academy aren’t the focus of these future books.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆

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