Review of Conjuror: Orion Chronicles by John Barrowman
Conjuror: Orion Chronicles
by John Barrowman
I signed up for NetGalley last week (as of the time I’m writing this review). I’ve been aware of NetGalley for a while but never gave it much thought because I have enough books to read as it is. Lately, though, I’ve been getting excited about more and more new releases and thought this was a good opportunity to try to snag ARCs for some of them before they come out. In this case, Conjuror has been out for a little bit now, but I still got an ARC! However, as I began reading, I genuinely started to wonder if there had been a mix-up and I’d been sent the wrong book—that or the Goodreads description was wrong. Because the Goodreads description talks about twins named Matt and Em being “Animare” and therefore able to “animate into” paintings, but this book is about a guy named Remy who can sing. Matt and Em do show up, but only about eighty pages in. So colour me confused until then, and that confusion is a thread running through my entire experience with this book.
It’s cool that John Barrowman and his sister, Carole, are writing YA fantasy. I know Barrowman also makes music; polymaths are awesome! I haven’t read their Hollow Earth trilogy, which apparently features a younger Matt and Em, but I hope it’s better than Conjuror. This is a book with its heart in the right place but is in dire need of editorial assistance. The characters, the plot—the pieces are there, but they are disorderly. The whole novel feels very sloppy, sorry to say.
As I mentioned above, it takes far too long for the people billed as the protagonists by the cover copy to show up. Maybe this is just a marketing miscommunication, an attempt to sell this book based on its connection to the previous series. It’s all very confusing, though. Worse still, the Barrowmans never really get into what it means to be an Animare. The twins and other Animare can “fade” into paintings and somehow use these for travel. The rules behind this are left very ambiguous. Matt and Em join a secret organization dedicated to protecting and policing the Animare, but we don’t get a sense of what that organization is like. It seems to be run by one dude. It would have been nice to see some more typical operations before Remy and the Camarilla show up.
I like Remy and his origin story. The idea of magic powered by song and music is nothing new, of course, but the Barrowmans pull it off very well. The Barrowmans weave his personal history into the political history of the slave trade, acknowledging Remy’s African American identity and making it part of the reason he has these powers. Unlike the Animare issue noted above, we get a better idea of what Remy can do with his powers and what his limitations are.
The bad guys, the Camarilla headed up by Don Grigori and the Grand Inquisitor, are a nebulous threat. I like the sense of danger that follows Grigori as he tears up his henchmen while going after the twins and Remy. The omnipresent flies that he controls are a gross and sufficiently disturbing image. Unfortunately, we never really learn the nature of the threat that the Grand Inquisitor represents. We just get frustrating eschatological hints that he’s some kind of demon who wants to bring about the “Second Kingdom”. I assume this is supposed to be groundwork for future instalments of the series, so I’m willing to forgive. Nevertheless, it detracts somewhat from the punchiness of Conjuror as an introductory read. If you scrub these mentions, if you ignore the prologue (which is superfluous), and you focus solely on Matt, Em, and Remy’s fight against Grigori, you get a better and more straightforward narrative—almost too straightforward. A lot happens in this book, but at the same time, not much happens.
There is a fun story in here. I genuinely enjoyed the characters. I like their interactions, the way that Matt and Em don’t always get along like siblings do (obviously the Barrowmans are drawing on their own experience!). Remy’s arc feels very true, very significant. Conjuror has small moments, glimpses of brilliance. But these are embedded in an all-too-familiar cloud of confusing plot twists and seemingly-unrelated scenes, resulting in a book that confounds itself as much as its reader.