The fourth book in Taran Matharu’s young adult fantasy Summoner series, The Outcast is actually a prequel expanded from a previously available eBook novella Origins, the tale of Arcturus, a teenaged orphan raised in the workhouse and who now toils in the stables, beaten by his master and fed on slops, until a chance encounter sets him apart from the other commoners.
The ability to summon demons strictly the preserve of the noble classes and inherited only by the firstborn, when Arcturus unintentionally summons the juvenile Canid whom he names Sacharissa it makes him a target for the outraged noble for whom she was earmarked, Charles, son of Lord Faversham, a close ally to King Alfric.
Yet beyond the immediate insult to the nobility and the novelty of his powers, Arcturus represents something else: with Alfric unpopular with his subjects, heavily taxed to support his ruinously expensive projects, the dwarves one step away from rebellion despite their previous defeats and orcs raiding the borders, he is also a threat to the already uneasy balance of power upon which the kingdom of Hominum is built.
And yet, if it can be determined how the power manifested in a commoner, if that can be harnessed, Arcturus could also be a useful asset to Alfric, and so he is taken to Vocans Academy to be trained in the use of spells even as he is studied. A second class citizen upon whom even the servants look down, raised in the gutters but with the inheritance of a noble he may be the only one who can weave a path between the two sides when the sparks of civil war turn to flame.
Wearing its influences too readily, The Outcast shifts the setup of this Harry Potter scenario to a more fantastical setting of men and mythical beasts in a Medieval monarchist society of squabbling houses, but in fact this is little more than an overlay of Game of Thrones on top of a considerably less exotic setting.
The nobles houses numbering the Favershams, the Cavendishes, the Forsyths and the Raleighs while the demons classes of Canids, Felids, Vulpids and Arcachs correspond to outsized dogs, cats, foxes and spiders, each requiring a specific energy level to summon, the feeling is of fantasy-lite, that as Arcturus enjoys his conventional breakfast of bacon and eggs that actual invention was just too much effort for Matharu.
With little distinction of tone or shade it is a world built of primary colours, fields of green, yellow and brown beneath the white fluffy clouds, the prose functional rather than evocative and the simply constructed characters broad strokes as Arcturus quickly realises who are the school bullies and who can see beyond his humble birth to become a true and loyal friend, the short chapters often establishing little more than a single dramatic point.
To say the female characters are poorly developed is an easy accusation, for in truth the men are no better, and with Arcturus summoning his first demon only four pages in it would seem casting spells is no great challenge, the task as simple as Matharu’s language, and while some books have appeal beyond their targeted age group the first hundred pages of stodgy scene-setting will vex both children and adults.
Fortunately these opening chapters are a poor barometer for what follows, and beyond this point the quality of writing of The Outcast improves enormously as the pace quickens and the exposition and childish shenanigans give way to a more solid plot, Matharu more comfortable in kinetic action scenes and in the heat of battle, plotting and double-cross than in the stuffy confines of his magical school.
Summoner: The Outcast is available now from Hodder Children’s Books