Owen Macready is your average 13-year-old boy. In fact, he prides himself on his averageness: average grades, average looks, average life. When Owen obtains a magical spell book, however, his life becomes anything but average. He must keep the book safe from the evil Euclideans and mafia henchmen, protect his friends, and try to bring his family back together.

Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Boy finds spell book, boy finds he can do magic, boy must fight evil in order to save the world. It’s been done before, you might think. But Sorcery for Beginners, like its protagonist, is far from average. The book is formatted as a textbook, so that the reader can learn magic along with Owen. Owen’s story is presented as a case study, demonstrating the practicalities and pitfalls of learning magic, and the values expected of magical candidates. Accompanying the case study there are instructions for spells, diagrams, and tidbits of trivia.

It’s a clever way of presenting a classic good versus evil story in a refreshing way. The illustrations and typography by Juliane Crump are fantastic—I especially love the pages outlining how to do spells, and the images of the Codex Arcanum. The trivia asides are often very funny:
Cryptozoology is the study of animals whose existence has not been proven (or accepted) by the world at large. It is but one of many so-called Arcane Fields, which include Sorcery, Alchemy, Time Manipulation, Paranormal Studies, Inter-Dimensional Travel, and Cryptocartography. Each is deserving of its own easy-to-read help guide, but I do have a life, you know. (p.402).
Occasionally, however, both trivia and illustrations were a little distracting. I found it off-putting that sometimes the illustrations do not match up with what is described in the text (on pp.359-360, for example, a “line of dark figures” is replaced with a helicopter in the illustration). When in a particularly tense sequence, having to break the flow of the story to read an informative footnote broke my sense of immersion. This could have been helped by having more trivia towards the beginning of the book, and less at key plot points.

The plot itself is action-packed with plenty of excitement to keep you reading. The prose is lively and accessible, and the characters engaging and relatable, especially Owen and Perry. I particularly enjoyed the imaginative spell-casting, which combines some sort of Tai Chi-inspired somatic movements with magical objects and incantations in various languages.

There were a number of formatting issues in the kindle edition I read, which I understand have now been resolved.

Overall, a hugely enjoyable read, ideal for fans of Eoin Colfer and Lemony Snicket.

Favourite quotation: “Old English is an early form of the English language that was used by residents of Great Britain between at least the mid-fifth century and the mid-twelfth century. Its alphabet was comprised of runic letters and pre-dated Latin. To read it is to be amazed that the Brits ever learned how to communicate.” p.28.

Matt Harry, Sorcery for Beginners (Inkshares, 2017)

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