Book Review: The Novice by Taran Matharu

I want to get the fact that I enjoyed this book out of the way right now because I plan to take a bit of a rabbit trail.  The Novice is one of those rare novels I have come across where I find the author more interesting than the book itself.

After I read The Novice and looked up information on the author or how the book was written, I chanced upon an interesting bit of information.  Taran Matharu is actually relatively young, he had been writing and posting at Wattpad for a while, and he was actually approached by a publisher because his YA (Young Adult) novel The Novice got millions of views on Wattpad.  Yes, millions.  Since I discovered this incredible author story, I have actually signed up on Wattpad myself, started writing on there, and I’ve checked out some of Taran Matharu’s other work.  It’s amazing to see how he grew as a writer and it’s all right there online.

I’m going to put on my I’m-not-young-anymore hat here and speak directly to my younger readers: You have no idea how good you have it and how awesome your opportunities are.  When I was a teen and in my early 20’s, the internet was still in its infancy and nothing like Wattpad existed.  What’s more, to get a novel published generally required a terrible, painful, soul searingly difficult journey to every publisher under the sun in order to be rejected at least once.

Now people can post their writing online, share tips with other writers, and be discovered and signed by a legitimate publisher.  We truly live in the future.  I’m extremely excited that all writers get a fair shake now and merit matters again – not just connections.  I’ve been an avid supporter of indie writers for a while now, and the idea that joining their ranks is even within /my/ reach simply floors me.

::Takes off the I’m-not-young-anymore hat::

Okay, now for the review.

I hate to disappoint some rabid, and I mean rabid Taran Matharu fans out there, but The Novice‘s story has been done a million times before.  It’s a coming of age story with the stereotypical boy from humble origins who is actually so much more, hidden potential, blah blah Eragon blah etc ad nauseum.  The Novice is a mishmash of How to Train Your Dragon, Pokemon, and Eregon.

However, The Novice is also proof that just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done again.  The Novice is a YA novel, and the feel of the story makes this obvious.  All that said, despite the been-done storyline, the PG13, Nickelodeon feel, and two dimensional supporting characters, this is a well written story — especially as a writer’s first commercial effort.

There are four stand out portions of this story that the author completely delivers on:

  1. The first is our main character’s demon. Point of note:  I am not talking about fire and brimstone, Biblical demons here.  These are extra-dimensional, weird animal types of demons.   I don’t feel I’m giving away any plot points because the demon is on the cover art and referenced in the book’s title.  Anyway, it’s not easy for a writer to make readers care about sufficiently alien characters/creatures without cheating and anthropomorphizing them too much.  However not only is the main character’s demon mysterious and unique, all of the demons in the story are interesting and come across like living creatures, not just throwaway plot devices.
  2. The second is social injustice and how it’s meaningfully portrayed.  In Taran Matharu’s universe, Dwarves are second class citizens.  Not to beat a dead horse, but Dwarves are oppressed in this story just like Elves in the “Dragon Age” world crafted by BioWare.  However, just like the Dragon Age games, it’s done well and effectively offends our Western morality.  There were several times I wanted to reach through the novel and punch someone in the nose which brings me to my next point.
  3. Villains are done well in The Novice.  This is not to say they are done gracefully; pretty much every villain is a mustache twirling caricature with no redeeming qualities.  But you know, I actually viscerally /hated/ the villain characters.  This is a sign of good writing, especially since they elicited such a strong response from me despite the villains’ overt villain-ness being so obvious.  Sometimes actively hating a villain in a story can make up for a lot of other stumbles.
  4. The fourth and final thing I thought was really well done was how the main characters technologically innovated.  Like many other people, I enjoy a story where the main character can win with brains as well as brawn.  The author gives us several simple but very satisfying ways the MC and his friends meaningfully created new technology within their world.  This gave the climax more weight than it otherwise would have had.

Now for the parts I didn’t like… Thankfully there aren’t many.

I know I am nitpicking on this point but combat and sword fighting are really silly in this story.  I know most people reading The Novice would not notice, but this is WordSteel blog where I purport to know at least a smidgen about swords and sharp pointy things.  Thankfully, most actual sword fighting is glossed over in the story, but there are few specifics worth mentioning.  One is that the main character uses a sword called a khopesh.


It looks kind of cool and it’s different, right?  It’s actually an Egyptian weapon that was evolved from axes and originally made in bronze before being made in iron, all of which is somewhat irrelevant to my next point:  The main character uses his sword backwards.  He’s even holding it backwards on the cover art of book.  What’s more, the sword is correctly identified in the story so it isn’t just a sword that looks like a khopesh and is sharpened on the inner edge for some reason.  Nope – it’s a khopesh, and even while being taught how to use it by an arms master in the story, the MC is taught incorrectly.  I will admit I laughed a bit.

I’m honestly not that concerned about this point – most fantasy writers don’t know much about sword fighting, gun fighting, or violence in general so I’ve learned to suspend my disbelief with a little bit of effort.  I just thought that since the sword used in this story is so unique and its mentioned multiple times in the story, it’s even more jarring when the MC is somehow using one effectively while holding it backwards.

My biggest negative point is that none of the characters really got much depth which was partially because the ending was so rushed.  Seriously, I felt like I was watching a movie-style training montage in written form towards the end of the book right before the climax.  What’s more, since most of the characters were so simply drawn, when the MC has a falling out with anyone, I didn’t really care as a reader.  Anyone who wasn’t in the Harry Potter-ish inner circle or a villain just didn’t rate as important to me.  While I don’t think this is necessarily that big of a deal especially in a YA series, it was obvious that the author didn’t intend his readers to be so unattached to the supporting characters.

As a YA story, I give this novel a solid 3.75 out of 5 stars.  It’s a quick read, it’s fun, and it hits all the right high notes.  If you like light fantasy without a lot of gore or human suffering or you like YA stories, this one is for you.



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