“Book Review: Knightmare Arcanist”
Reviewed by Joshua Ryan Bligh
An underdog tale in a world against literal leviathans, Knightmare Arcanist is a magic-wrapped adventure through the murky waters of adolescence.
Shami Stovall’s Knightmare Arcanist is a young adult adventure set against a backdrop of towering magical creatures and a plague that threatens to corrupt even the most legendary of heroes.
An orphaned son of criminals and an active gravedigger’s apprentice, Volke exists on the fringes of society, shunned from some of his island’s most important traditions and celebrations. But that doesn’t deter him from his dream of becoming an arcanist, a magic-wielding hero bonded to a mythical creature. So, when he has to barge into the coming-of-age ceremony where the island’s brightest young adults bond with phoenixes to become arcanists, he is well-prepared.
A half giant never shows up for Volke with the good news that he’s a wizard. He receives no owl-borne letter that invites him to a school of witchcraft and wizardry. And Volke certainly doesn’t have a nest egg in a goblin bank. His parents are out of the picture, but that is where the similarities to Harry Potter end. Volke is stubborn and a little small-minded at times, but his determination is what wins the reader over.
So, when he finally bonds a mythical creature through a display of courage and bravery, the reader can’t help but smile. He then sets off to join an arcanist guild with a few coins in his pocket and the dream of becoming a hero buoying him along. It’s a rags-to-riches story, but without the cheap tricks of a fairy godmother.
Every step of Volke’s growth and achievement is something he has earned. He works toward his success. And the fact that he fails at his first challenge only further sets me cheering him from the sidelines. He doesn’t ever seem to know what he is doing, but he does it nonetheless.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Harry Potter, but this story is a vibrant foil to that series in how it approaches entering a magical world. There are many parallels (a Quirrel and Snape pair of professors being the most prominent), but the story also seems to pull inspiration from multiple sources, weaving them together to create a tale that is always familiar, but fresh enough to keep you invested.
In turns, the story brings to mind The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, His Dark Materials, Pokemon, Eragon,and a few more.
But all these similarities are only surface level, visuals that seem reflections until you look closer at the story, realizing just how unique of a world this is. There are familiar beats and characters throughout, and there are enjoyable hints at further character developments down the road, windows into the complexity that Stovall’s characters may display in the subsequent books.
Oddly enough, the worldbuilding is where I find myself moving slightly out of the story. Not the novel, I am always in the novel, but the world nearly overshadows the story. The plot is sturdy and well-constructed, but I find my mind wandering more into the surrounding world than it does in the characters’ actions. Part of this might have been that the book description revealed a few major plot twists so I knew what was coming, but I think a larger part is that the story takes part in a very narrow corner of a world bright with magic. I find myself brimming with questions and anxious to leave the island turtle of the Frith Guild and wander the streets of Fortuna, climb the Astral Clocktower, or visit the far-off lands of Hexa’s people and chow on scorpions.
Now, this is less a criticism and more a hope for the future books in this series. Though it doesn’t break new YA ground, Knightmare Arcanist is a promising first installment and a seaworthy vessel for Stovall’s world. My hope is that the following episodes will explore that world more thoroughly. I have questions, questions that need answering.
But this is the kind of YA fantasy we need: a story that encourages young people to grind toward their goals. Not sit at home waiting for letters that will never come. Knightmare Arcanist is quirky at times, a little rough around the edges, but founded upon a solid moral. It’s one of those stories that readers can use to build themselves up.
Paperback: 364 pages
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