The Novice by Taran Matharu

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I got this book because the narrator was Ralph Lister and he’s one of my favorite performers — however I got a little nervous when I realized it was a coming of age story with a fifteen year old protagonist because I don’t always click with younger characters. Thankfully it didn’t prove to be an issue for this one, I found it charming and warm.

This is a story about an orphaned kid growing up as a blacksmith’s apprentice. Fletcher is fifteen and lives in a backwater village called Pelt at the beginnings of the Industrial age. The humans are butting up against other races since they are harvesting the Orc’s lands, mining and deforesting their territories. Naturally, this pissed off the Orcs and now there’s war… but there’s also another war with the elves on a different front. There could also possibly be a dwarven rebellion since they’re treated as second class citizens. Fletcher finds himself in possession of a book of spells that allows him to bond with a demon… things go badly though because he’s not a noble and traditionally only nobles had demons. However, since the war isn’t going well and more and more Adepts are needed, the military is letting in people they previously wouldn’t; women, dwarves, and commoners. Fletcher finds himself enrolled in a magic/military academy training to go to the front lines.

The only thing keeping the human side of the war sustainable are Adepts and their abilities to bond with demons from the Ether. These aren’t the typical evil, bloodthirsty, horrors from beyond that you sometimes see in fantasy. Fletcher’s demon, a salamander demon, is quite cute and cuddly and affectionate towards Fletcher.

One of the book’s strengths was the world building. I love old tropes when they’re done slightly differently; a world with elves, orcs, goblins, humans and tons of magic mixed with the industrial age was refreshing and exciting to read about. I think this would qualify as flintlock fantasy since there were blunderbusses and other single shot rifles and pistols. The different types of demons and how they’re classed was of particular interest to me. I am always a fan of books where there’s an animal companion and this was no exception. I loved Ignacious and everything about him, I’ve got pet snakes and I used to have axolotls, so a salamander demon hit the spot for me. The way Fletcher and Ignacious communicated through pictures and feelings rather than direct communication through language/telepathy was interesting and lead to a more emotional bond, I think. The fact that demons could be anything; salamanders, golems, shrikes, mice, beetles etc kept things interesting. Different demons are suited to different tasks and it reminded me a bit of a video game where you pick which side kick to use during a fight. The fact that summoners are ranked and can “level up” gave this a mildly video game feel. I would say that this would appeal to people who enjoyed Sufficiently Advanced Magic. The same kind of almost video game feel where both animal companions and their humanoid counterparts have levels, and through practice can gain levels.

The writing was fairly utilitarian, there wasn’t much word play or flower language or turns of phrase. However, the dialogue was decent and believable, and the prose got out of the way of the story giving this a very light feel and made for easy listening. There were a handful of times when Fletcher thought he was going to die and was saved at the very last second, and unfortunately those kinds of things really annoy me — I don’t like overused and obvious plot armor.

This isn’t the most unique fantasy in the world, it draws from a ton of common tropes. That said, I liked the twists that were there and it was enough to keep me interested. I didn’t like the fact that the orcs were portrayed and described as mindless savages, I get kind of bored of mustache twirling villians who don’t have a lot of depth to their motivations. However, I did like the nuances and motivations behind the Dwarven rebellion, and the friendship between Fletcher and one of the only dwarves allowed to be in the military academy with him — I found their relationship charming. Fletcher himself was easy to root for, he means well and has a kind heart. He’s also sort of niave but not angsty. With a character so young sometimes they come off as whiny, impulsive, angry… and it’s why I have such a hard time with certain younger characters. However, although Fletcher felt “young” sometimes with his decision making and motivations, he was fairly mature for his age. It’s a delicate things to balance because if a young character is made to feel too old that also takes away from the realism of the character.

I would recommend this to anyone looking for something that feels “familiar” but isn’t “the same” as the rest. Basically, for people who are looking for Hard Mode for Comfort Read (a new comfort read) maybe this one could be it?


  • Plot: 10/15
  • Characters: 11/15
  • World Building: 12.5/15
  • Writing: 11/15
  • Pacing: 12/15
  • Originality: 8/15
  • Enjoyment: 7.5/10

Final Score: 72/100 or 3.6/5 on Goodreads