Clayton takes her readers to a magical fantasy world where Ella, an 11-year-old girl, longs to use the Conjuring skills she has inherited from her Black family in the Arcanum Training Institute – a school in the sky run by another magical faction, The Marvellers. When her application to join the Institute – opening its doors to outsiders for the first time – is accepted, her happiness knows no bounds. However, she is the only Conjuror to attend the Institute and this, coupled with her dark skin, makes her a ready target for bullying and discrimination, two practices she never thought to find in a place with such a good reputation for its codes of conduct. After many slights, sneers and false accusations from both staff and students alike, she is in despair – until she meets Brigit, who can knit the future and Jason, who can talk to animals. Together they work to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Ella’s beloved teacher, Masterji Thakur, the only member of staff who has tried to help and guide her.
This is a book of two halves in terms of pace and plot. In the first half the world of the Marvellers and the Arcanum Institute is described in minute detail, exhaustively covering every last corner of Ella’s new home-and everything in it. Vocabulary is often repetitive, with ‘star’ often overused and characters who too frequently ‘plop down’ and ‘fuss,’ for example. This is a story pitched at ‘middle graders,’ yet it is 403 pages long-more than enough to deter many young readers. A stronger editorial hand would have helped to ensure that the Marvellers’ world was rendered as breathtaking and beautiful as the author intended. Further, the excess of pure descriptive detail means that characters lack development in the early stages – just when readers should be hooked in and thus eager to read on. A great number of people are introduced when Ella first arrives at her new home and their many teaching responsibilities and special gifts may feel more like lists than characters about whom readers want to know more.
The second part of the book is where the action really begins and the three main pupil protagonists start to take centre stage. As readers learn about them the pace of the story quickens and mysteries are uncovered and their resolutions pursued. A credible villain – Gia Trivelino – emerges and her ruthless determination to find her missing daughter and strip the Marvellers of their gifts as revenge for imprisoning her provides a rollercoaster ride, with the kidnap and eventual rescue of Masterji Thakur at its core. Finally, with Gia temporarily dispatched – to return in the next book, no doubt – Ella is now hailed as a heroine and the ending is a positive one.
The Marvellers tackles diversity, discrimination and the nature of friendship and of power and for that it is to be praised. Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn with the Harry Potter stories but that is too convenient and simple a construct. It is to be hoped that the next books in The Marvellers series carve their own niche in the magical fantasy genre, building more succinctly on the strengths of this initial instalment.