Review by Christopher G. Nuttall
Book I – The Marvellers
Book II – The Memory Thieves
One of the issues with Harry Potter, as many commenters have noted over the years, is that it is very parochial in many ways; the series is deeply rooted in the British Boarding School genre, there is very little ethnic or racial diversity (it is a curious paradox that there’s actually more racial diversity than there should be), and at no point does it step outside that framework. It calls out and/or lampoons problems in society, but those problems are tied to the framework and often incomprehensible to people who weren’t raised in Britain, to the point that fans have had to put together guides (also see here) to British culture for non-British fans. Indeed, the series casts a long shadow over the entire genre, something that is both good and bad. On one hand, Harry Potter serves as an entry into a wider world and if you enjoyed the series you might enjoy other works (such as mine <grin>); on the other, it is very hard for any other magic school book – even one written decades prior to Harry Potter – to stand on its own.
That said, the parochial nature of Harry Potter leaves plenty of room for novels set outside Britain, drawing on cultural traditions from right across the world.
I first became aware of Dhonielle Clayton through an essay she wrote entitled ‘We Don’t Talk About Harry Potter,’ which discussed the problems faced by authors when they try to write books set in the same universe, problems enhanced by publishers keen to tap into the magic of Harry Potter and use it in a bid to sell more books. One can hardly blame publishers and agents for trying to boost profits as far as possible, but it can also be deeply frustrating if you’re being accused of copying Rowling’s work, or deconstructing it, or even creating a ‘woke’ Hogwarts. There is no shortage of people willing to pour scorn on you, or twist your words, or just make up random nonsense about you that is both maddeningly difficult to refute and pointless, because every time you do two more pop up. This gets worse because Harry Potter has so much cultural dominance that it is very hard to come up with something that doesn’t lean into it, leaving you with the choice of accepting the comparison or trying to push back (often nothing more than a waste of time).
There are two types of magic within the Conjureverse – Marvellers and Conjurers. Marvellers use controlled, high magic; they draw on magical developments from around the magical world and build on them. Complicating things is that each Marveller has a Marvel, a magical talent, that adds to their power; some of those talents are regarded as dangerous, even monstrous, and the government tries to suppress them. Conjurers are deeply rooted in spiritual traditions, such as voodoo and related systems; they pass their knowledge through word-of-mouth, save their memories for later generations, and can even call upon the dead for knowledge and advice. For unexplained reasons, Marvellers look down on Conjurers (despite being willing to assimilate magical knowledge from nearly everywhere else) and the two societies have lived largely separate existences, until now.
The heroine, Ella Durand is the first Conjuror to attend the Arcanum Training Institute, where Marvellers study and practiced magic. (Her aunt is also hired to teach conjuring magic.) She is delighted to have the chance to attend, but she rapidly finds that it will be harder than she expects. Many of her classmates distrust her, a handful of her teachers are openly opposed to inviting Conjurers into their school, she finds it hard to make friends until after she is told to change rooms, whereupon she eventually makes friends with a couple of other students and is gradually drawn into a mystery involving an escapee from prison and a long-ago Conjurer who was apparently involved in building the school.
The secondary chapters follow the escaped prisoner – Gia Trivelino, one of the dreaded Aces – as she regains her power, discovers her daughter is still alive (no, it isn’t Ella) and plots to enact her revenge on the Marvellers. In both books, Ella is accidently drawn into her plotting and finds herself playing a key role in foiling both plots.
I’m going to be honest and say I genuinely like Ella, who reminds me very much of Luz Noceda. (Fans of The Owl House will probably enjoy these books.) She’s intelligent, brave and capable, walking into a world that isn’t always kind to her even though it is against the advice of much of her own community. Her close friends are also likable in their way, although they both have secrets and I do feel one of those secrets should have been shared a great deal earlier. She’s a keen student, with decent and loving parents (not always common in magic school books), and she’s willing to do the right thing even at a cost. Her mentor, Masterji Thakur, is also a genuinely decent person, one who has learnt from his past mistakes and yet keeps some secrets of his own. Comparisons to Professor Snape are unfortunately inevitable at this point, as it becomes clear Thakur made a very similar mistake when he joined the Aces:
“[The Aces] gave me a group. Protection. Belonging. People who said they cared, said they’d do something about the bullying. And most of all, they, we, became feared. No one messed with me anymore. I’m not justifying any of our behavior, and I wish kids—and frankly, adults too—didn’t feel the need to do this.”
He says this, after standing up for Ella and calling out her tormentors in a manner that deserves praise:
“You say that we must honor the Marvellian way. To honor order and tradition. But what happens when most of it is rooted in prejudice? We recently opened our doors to Conjurors as we should have done long, long ago, but we placed Ella Durand under a microscope. She had to be perfect, and even then, she was not accepted. Our society has always struggled as new people joined, but the way we’ve treated the Conjure folk of the world is abhorrent. Only some of us get second chances. Or third chances.”
“I know I have. All of you know that I was a misguided youth, and yes, part of the Aces. I once considered Gia Trivelino my best friend. The whispers are true. But you found space for me here and believed me when I said I’d learned and changed.”
There is a genuine freshness around much of the magic system, with links between the different schools of magic that are clearly visible, as it draws on traditions from all over the world. Ella explores all kinds of different magics, including the spice-based traditions taught by Masterji Thakur. There’s also a sense the system is growing and changing, as both Ella and Gia combine the two magic systems to produce newer effects. The students are very diverse and yet they are also very human; prejudice, bullying, and all the other problems of real-life schools are clearly present. Being rooted in America, many of those problems have an American twist; one character, with a Conjurer in his family tree, is desperate to hide it at first. He later becomes more accepting of his ancestor.
The setting also has hints of much to be revealed, as the exploration of the universe goes on. There is an enduring mystery surrounding the first Conjurer in the Arcanum Training Institute, hints that Ella’s father may have connections to Gia which may or may not be a red herring – there are suggestions it is in The Memory Thieves – questions surrounding the remaining Aces and just what deal Thakur made with his former boss. There is a sense of history waiting to be revealed, with a truth hidden under censored or restricted history books; a deepness, I think, that the Potter books lack. (Harry isn’t curious; Ella is.)
The setting also draws on many other American influences, to mixed results. There are aspects of the setting that remind me, very much, of the 1930s. Others are more modern – the more reactionary Marveller politicians use “make Marvelling light again” as a slogan, a very clear riff on MAGA, and at least one other candidate for office was once an Ace, with a monstrous marvel for convincing people to go along with him. It also comments on the American culture of celebrity, and how fleeting it can be. Ella is famous at the end of the first book, but – as she muses herself – it doesn’t last.
The only major weakness in the books is that the setting can be very overwhelming. Ella is not, of course, a stranger to conjuring society and she is very much aware of the details of Marveller society, at least in theory. This makes it harder for the books to gradually ease the reader into the world, as Ella is already familiar with the details and the world doesn’t unfold around her as it does for us. The pacing of The Marvellers suffers a little because of it, although the book does reward a second reading and The Memory Thieves is much better paced.
Overall, the two Conjureverse books stand very well on their own, and put their own spin on the genre. There’s a fun and likable main character, a diverse world worthy of exploration; the books are clearly aimed at younger readers, with no mention of sex and sexuality (let alone explicit sex scenes). If you thought Harry Potter was bland and parochial, you might like these books; if you didn’t, you might like them anyway. I did.