Pariah by Donald Hounam. Book Review
Frank Sampson is in a whole world of trouble and about to take the plunge into a whole lot more. A dead boy in the mortuary who doesn’t seem to be conforming to the behaviour one would expect from the deceased, Frank’s unrequited love for the manipulative, illegal sorcerer, Kazia, still on the loose, and the Sorcerers’ Society signing on the type of dotted line that will all end in flames with Frank in them.
It doesn’t look good.
So how, you ask, is the much put upon teenage sorcerer going to get out of this one? The answer is probably by the seat of his pants and much inventive sorcery.
Pariah, Donald Hounam’s second outing into the Gifted world, is a very fresh and unique take on the world of boy wizards. Frank’s world of sorcery is not one of glamour, but sheer hard graft. Even then your professional body might take against you if, like Frank, your face doesn’t fit. This is down and dirty sorcery with a permanently shifting set of goal posts for our hero, as he attempts to crisis-manage the rapidly unfolding events.
Like the first book in the series, Gifted , this novel has a murder mystery element to it. The first concerns the boy in the mortuary, and the second Marvo or Detective Constable Magdalena Marvell’s obsession with her sibling who was killed in a road traffic accident. The story is complex, but with plenty of satisfying twists and turns for anyone who enjoys the thrill of a whodunnit mixed with a character on the run, and a novel use of magic.
Frank is already in trouble and should be on a pilgrimage to Rome, but has jumped off the train shortly after it left the station because he has unfinished business with his old mentor Matthew Le Geyt and the ever elusive and unobtainable Kazia. So Frank finds he needs to hone his blagging and sorcery skills even more than usual, because he has the habit of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His life is also further complicated by that fact that he needs to go where his presence will alert the Society of Sorcery he has not on the pilgrimage as they have instructed.
On this outing Hounam has made sure time a reader can access Frank’s angst-ridden and darkly funny monologue far more quickly. This is partly because the author has taken time to slip in helpful explanations within the fast-paced narrative, but there is also a glossary at the end explaining terms and a bit of the history associated with Frank’s alternative Oxford. This is very necessary because Frank’s world is rich with all sorts of immensely clever magical extensions of things that are familiar to us from our own world (forensic sorcery being one), and is populated by some wonderfully wrought characters.
That Frank’s gift for sorcery comes at a price adds a subtle depth to the insecurities already inherent in any teenager who has been severed from problematic parents at a young age because he is special. Frank also lives under the shadow of a not so bright future where his magical abilities begin to fade after their peak at the age of seventeen and evaporate entirely by the age of twenty five. You can also only work magic if you are licensed. Frank has just lost his. Then of course, heaven forbid if the love (or lust?) of your life is a female, who is also a manipulative and unlicensed sorcerer. To perform unlicensed sorcery results in being burnt at the stake.
No pressure then.
Marvo is also not having such a great time, with an equally bleak future to look forward to. As a ‘tatty’ she is capable of great insights into crime, but knows that by the age of thirty she will be completely blind. All this serves to heighten the sense that there so much to do and so little time.
That Frank’s gift is a huge responsibility is made evident by the history of Oxford, which is also referred to as Doughnut City in this alternative world. After something called the ‘college wars’, Oxford was devastated by magic, leaving the centre of it (now called ‘The Hole’) just a pile of rubble and radiating with magic in a similar way to the radiation in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. The Hole is now residence of the disaffected and the poor. The price of living there is skin lesion and limb loss. This is where we find Frank hiding out as we come upon him negotiating for a shark he needs for one of his spells from one of his dodgy, yet colourful contacts.
There is so much to this original and inventive world that it’s not surprising the first book took some getting used to, particularly as it was being viewed solely through the eyes of Frank, an individual with the social skills of a halibut and a very jaundiced view of his so far dismal life. There is certainly a sense of an old head on young shoulders in the responsibilities he has taken on board in his work as a sorcerer. The result is a narrative full of grim humour and brilliantly conceived observations and one of those books you will want to re-read to see what nuances you missed the first time.
This is the kind of book that ends up in the young adult section of a bookshop because of the age of its main protagonists. But by refusing to talk down to its intended audience, Pariah makes it a hugely entertaining read for adults as well. The Pratchettesque feel of the characters and the witty banter gives the reader plenty to take in and think about. The characters and the strange love triangle of Frank (unrequited love for Kazia), Marvo (unrequited love for Frank) and Kazia (bad girl, or has she just been made that way?) works really well. Frank’s constant battle to do the right thing, ability to wriggle out of every dire situation he’s plunged really does make for addictive reading.
Pariah courtesy of Penguin Random House Children’s via NetGalley