Goodreads: The Marvellers
Series: The Marvellers #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Eleven-year-old Ella Durand dreams of attending the prestigious Arcanum Training Institute, which previously had accepted only Marveller students and not Conjurors like herself. So, when the opporunitey comes, she seizes it–only to realize that not everyone wants her there. Ella will have to avoid all the whispers and stares if she is to succeed. But things only become more complicated when a notorious criminal escapes from a Conjuror prison, and the Marvellers start pointing at Conjurors like Ella.
Dhonielle Clayton’s The Marvellers was one of my most anticipated reads of the year. I adore a good magical boarding school story, and I was eager to read a more diverse representation of that genre. However, despite strengths such as some winning characters and plenty of diversity, I found the worldbuilding lacking and the pacing slow and uneven. I think The Marvellers will appeal to many readers, especially the young readers for whom it opens a door to a new magical world they can see themselves in. It is simply not immersive enough for me to want to read the sequel.
A detailed, logical world is one of the things I value most in fantasy stories, and I was looking forward to seeing what kind of world The Marvellers would transport me to. Sadly, however, exactly how and why this world works is never really explained. Much of the “magic” of the world is given in shorthand–everything in the Marveller world, for example, seems to have “star” appended to it to indicate its enchanted nature– “star ink,” “star post,” and so forth–without any real explanations of what those things are and how they work. The most extravagant descriptions are left to the food–most of which seems to either fight or talk back–and the rest is simply there. Most unfortunately, the really big things are never explained–the politics, the history, and the different types of magic.
The whole premise of the book feels uncertain without any explanations of how Ella’s world works. The starting point is that Conjure folk (such as Ella and her family) have been shunned by the Marvellers. Conjurors, who seemingly practice growing magic and who look after the Underworld, are looked down upon by Marvellers and thus must live upon the ground with the wretched Fewels (non-magic folk, whom the book routinely dismisses as cruel, dangerous, and bad without saying why, which seems ironic in a book preaching the values of inclusion–but maybe that conversation is for the sequel?). The Marvellers live in the sky cities and have their own light magic and their own schools. Ella desperately wants to attend one of the most prestigious Marveller institutions, and she does so once a new law is passed allowing her to do so.
Why exactly do Marvellers hate Conjurors? Why does Ella want to learn to be a Marveller instead of (or…in addition to?) a Conjuror? Why does she stay all year in a school where everyone except about four people hate her and the teachers constantly try to get her expelled? It’s never explained. I don’t even understand the difference between Marveller and Conjuror magic, or even the categories of Marveller magic (which are divided into five Houses of sorts, each one with its own (not very creative) catchphrase, such as, “The ear listens well!”). Being able to understand Ella’s motivations would have made the story fall more into place for me. But, as it was, I have to wonder why Ella is so desperate to be part of a world that does not want her and that she seemingly does not need, when her own family is at the top of the Conjuror hierarchy.
The plot pacing did not really save the story for me. It feels slow, even with the lack of worldbuilding, and does not pick up until about 190 pages in. At that point, stuff finally starts to happen–but in a stop and go manner. The ending in particular feels rushed and uncertain, with Ella and her friends saving the day too quickly and too easily. Then a few chapters are appended after the climax to tidy up loose ends such as Ella’s future at the school and her sorting into a magical category. And then readers still have to read the little epilogue to set up the sequel. I would have preferred a book that jumped into the storyline more quickly, kept the pacing consistent, added more to the climatic scenes, and removed some of the housekeeping at the end.
On top of all this, I found myself truly distracted by all the authorial name dropping in the story. Kwame Mbalia, Ellen Oh, and Anne Ursu are teachers. Lamar Giles is an author of magical books. Justin A. Reynolds, Tochi Oneybuchi, Angela Thomas, and Julie Murphy are students. Other authors appear glancingly, with their last names only–Mark Oshiro as the chef Oshiro, L. L. McKinney as the presumed owner of McKinney’s Mojo Mansion, Zoraida Córdova as the presumed owner of another shop, and Bethany C. Morrow as “Ms. Morrow” the beauty shop owner. I assume Ella’s friend Jason Eugene is actually named after Jason Reynolds. I imagine all these references are supposed to fun, or a nod of acknowledge to people Clayton knows and respects. However, I found it all a bit distracting, both because it feels like an Easter egg hunt, with readers on the lookout for how many names they can spot, and because, when the full names are used, I now imagine the actual authors as teaching and working in this fictional world–and I don’t really know if I’m supposed to. I do wish that Clayton had stuck to first names only to acknowledge her friends and favorites, as this would keep me immersed in the story and not wondering which real life people were going to pop up next.
Despite all this, The Marvellers is a solid enough book. I can see it appealing particularly to tween readers who love fantasy (and who are often more agreeable than I am in their assessments of literature, in my experience). If you love magical boarding schools, it’s worth a try. You might find yourself transported in a way I was not.