2022’s The Marvellers is the first volume in Dhonielle Clayton’s Marvellerverse middle-grade magical-school series.
The Arcanum Training Institute educates Marvellers, people with extraordinary magical gifts. Until recently, Conjurors (believed to be too close to the underworld) were excluded from Arcanum. Thanks to a lawsuit, the school grudgingly changed its policy. Eleven-year-old Ella Durand, whose father brought the lawsuit, is the very first conjuror to attend Arcanum.
All Ella need do now is excel scholastically while maintaining a perfect disciplinary record; if she cannot, her shortcomings be held against all Conjuror-kind.
Among the many skills Ella’s fellow students possess by the time they arrive at Arcanum is a keen sense of social standing, as well as a working knowledge of who can be sent to Coventry despite the institute’s lip service to egalitarianism. Most of Ella’s fellow students give Ella the cold shoulder; only a few are friendly.
The administration itself does not bother to conceal their displeasure at Ella’s presence. Soon after she arrives, Ella’s room assignment is suddenly altered; she is to be kenneled with the school’s other pariah, Brigit. Rather than inform Ella of the change, she is moved while she is sleeping.
The room reassignment sets the tone for Ella’s experience at school. While she has one staff ally in Masterji Thakur, the administration is inclined to interpret everything Ella does (or is blamed for) as negatively as possible. It’s only a matter of time before someone brings a complaint (founded in fact or otherwise) against Ella that will provide a pretext to expel her.
Ella doesn’t need the distraction posed by Gia, the Marveller’s most notorious criminal, who has staged a jail break. Nor does she benefit when Gia entangles the school in one of her dastardly schemes. Alas, poor Ella is dragged into the mess that Gia has made.
Readers may wonder why, if Marvellers and Conjurors both use magic, Marvellers disdain Conjurors. Humans are all too often as incapable of compassion as scorpions; fictional humans, to the extent that they are lifelike, are no exception.
Masterji Thakur is close to useless as a mentor and protector, but it’s not because he’s ill-meaning. He has been magically hobbled by his colleagues to prevent him from discussing certain unpleasant truths.
This book appears to be inspired by the author wondering what a certain porcine-papillomavirus-themed magical school might be like had it not been written by an author often accused of classism, racism, and TERFy bigotry. When I say “appears,” I mean that it very clearly is, but I would prefer a patina of plausible deniability1.
Which isn’t to say the world of the Arcanum is free of prejudice and bigotry2. For example, most Marvellers believe that Conjurors are inherently tainted (due to their association with the underworld). But that author makes it clear that she doesn’t take the side of the bigots (even if most of the administration does.).
It’s too bad that. while I can appreciate the novel’s intentions, I was not crazy about the result. Many details of the setting remained unclear; the pacing in the first third of the novel was positively glacial. This may be because it is volume one and it was necessary to establish the setting. At times, reading this was a bit of a chore. Perhaps book two will be better.
1: This novel also reminded me of a children’s novel about desegregation I read in the 1960s … but that was a long time ago. I assume that any similarities are due to similar circumstances, not direct literary inspiration.
2: The Arcanum is also prone to institutional authoritarianism. For example, Brigit was not offered a place in Arcanum. When the school learned that she had Marveller potential, she was kidnapped from her home in New York. She is not entirely pleased to find herself at the school.