The Summoner Trilogy, Book One
By Taran Matharu
Available now from Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan)
Taran Matharu's THE NOVICE, the first book in the Summoner trilogy, was a hit on Wattpad. Between that and the generic cover - it looks rather like a Sarah J. Maas book - I didn't have high hopes for anything but a reasonably entertaining fantasy read.
To my surprise, I really liked THE NOVICE. Protagonist Fletcher is an orphan raised by a blacksmith. He defends himself against a deadly attack, but goes on the run because it is his word against a rich boy's. He ends up in the school for summoners because he has the talent to bond himself to demons. THE NOVICE is great for anyone who loves magic school stories, because there is lots of detail about how a person's magic works, how a demon's works, and what they know of where the demons live. I also appreciated that Fletcher wasn't ridiculously gifted. He's got more natural skill than some of the others, but he has to study hard and think fast to keep up.
Probably why I really loved it is all the fantasy politics. I love some good fantasy politics. There are four main races in the story: humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs. Dwarves live peacefully with the humans, but are denied many of their rights. Many desire to rebel again. The elven front is where old warriors go to retire; it is naught but a cold war. However, negotiations are opening for peace. Meanwhile, a bitter war is being fought (and lost) against the orcs (who can also use magic). Humans don't think much of the dwarves or elves, but they're being allowed to learn summoning because the army needs all the mages it can get. The summoners are also divided between those of noble blood and those who are commoners.
THE NOVICE dives deeper into the dwarf culture than the elf culture. Matharu bases much of it on South and Middle Eastern customs rather than Western customs. It is a refreshing change, and done with much sympathy. Fletcher is a bit too good at times, so much less racist than all the other humans despite not having exposure to any of the sympathetic political movements growing up. But he does have his blind spots, including attaching himself to the more talented commoner students while ignoring the others.
I'm not going to pretend THE NOVICE isn't derivative or that it isn't predictable. But it uses those standard trappings well. The themes of class and racial inequality run deep, and the politics plot adds more interest and action to the school story. I'm not even that mad about the cliffhanger ending.