Taran Matharu’s “The Novice” took me by surprise. Fletcher, a blacksmith’s apprentice, discovers he has a talent for summoning demons and after a nasty brawl with the village bully, flees his home forever. Soon enough, he is directed to summoning school and meets a diverse group of peers.
Although “The Novice” does have typical fantasy tropes, including a magic school, demons, and creatures from middle earth, it turns them into something refreshing.
If you like your fantasy to contain lots of world building, “The Novice” does not disappoint. Much of the dialogue revolves around discussing every detail of every demon and the culture of dwarves and elves, two species living often in conflict with humans. Often these descriptions become longwinded and the plot comes to a standstill. However, I didn’t really mind due to some unusual political commentary.
“The Novice” deviates from the norm in fantasy and frequently discusses race relations and inclusion. There are clear parallels between the dwarves and Sikhs. The message opportunities for foreign or disadvantage communities in education is clear. The only elf and dwarf in the summoning school encounter challenges due to discrimination and prejudice.
The hero Fletcher provides the reader with a role model. He never discriminates, although his peers can be cruel to elves and dwarves. He asks the elves and dwarves polite and curious questions about their culture and breaks down cultural barriers.
Compared to the racist nature of his peers, Fletcher’s open attitude seems to be an anomaly. And this was my small problem with the characters – there are very few morally grey situations. Either people are horribly racist or extremely politically correct.
Also, I’m curious about the main villain in the book – the orcs. They also are their own race with their own culture. And yet, dwarves, elves, and humans are convinced they are pure evil. (Although the summoning school investigates some of the orcs’ summoning practices.) Hopefully, this will be addressed in the next two books in the series.
I liked “The Novice” a lot. Often literary lovers complain that fantasy is pure escapism and “The Novice” definitely challenges that statement. Although, the demons are pretty cool and the final battle is epic, so if you’re looking for escapism the “The Novice” delivers that as well.