“Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students” — Winning YA Urban Fantasy from Lackey and Edghill

Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill is about Tomas Torres, a fifteen-year-old from the barrio.  Tomas saves himself and his younger sister, Rosalita, from a nasty encounter due to his previously unknown talent for pyrokinesis — fire-starting, but with the additional ability of being able to move the fires he calls about.  But in doing so, he calls attention to himself and ends up working for the local padrone — a very dangerous man — until he quickly ends up behind bars.

Fortunately for Tomas, he’s sent away to St. Rhiannon’s School for Gifted and Exceptional Students (“St. Rhia’s” for short) in upstate New York for three years of probation rather than hard time for arson.  St. Rhia’s is a place where psionics like Tomas, or magicians, like his friend and love interest Valeria Victrix Langenfeld (always called “VeeVee”), get trained.  Because they’re in the middle of nowhere, that limits the damage these untrained kids can do; it also allows these kids to fight against some really noxious magical things without anyone in authority getting wind of it.

Of course, Torres doesn’t believe in magic, much.  Nor does he believe in anything beyond what he can do himself.  This is something that needs to get knocked out of him, fast.  And as Tomas has adventure after adventure (some with VeeVee, some not), he starts to realize that the world as he knew it is a whole lot bigger — and a whole lot deadlier — than he’d ever imagined.

Fortunately for Tomas, he has experienced help at the ready, as Arcanum 101 is an offshoot of the “Bedlam’s Bard” universe.  That means such well-known characters as Eric Banyon, Kayla Smith, and Hosea Songmaker either teach at St. Rhia’s, or are counselors, and can help as needed.  The reason for these characters to help at a school like this is simple; none of them want these kids to have the types of growing pains they did.  And while none of the teachers overtly state this, the point still came across.  (Loudly and clearly, too.)

So there’s a rationale for the school.  And there’s a rationale for why these kids are better off at this school than they would be if they were simply left on their own.  Which is why Tomas, once he settles into it, decides he rather likes St. Rhia’s, even if it is rather far from civilization.  And his liking is not simply due to “get on the bandwagon” psychology, either — instead, it’s actual fellowship, which is hard to write well.  (Lackey and Edghill not only wrote it well, but got me to believe that Tomas indeed wanted this sense of fellowship, even when he didn’t know what it was.  And writing inchoate longing is even harder than writing about the sense of fellowship without it turning to treacle.  Full marks for the pair of them!)

At any rate, Tomas’s and VeeVee are good characters and I enjoyed reading about their adventures.  Better yet, I believed in their nascent romance, complete with ups and downs — some of which will be familiar to every teen whether they have Gifts or not — and believed it added greatly to the book as a whole.

Bottom line:  Arcanum 101 has magic, teens, a boarding school that’s nothing like the “Harry Potter” series, adventure, a believable, PG-rated romance . . . in other words, this is a winning effort, Young Adult-style, from the gifted duo of Lackey and Edghill.

The only minor drawback is that this is a short novel, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 words.  But as it’s obviously meant to be the start of a whole new crop of adventurers in the “Bedlam’s Bard” universe — complete with Elves, Guardians, and bad guys galore — it works out just fine.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab the e-book today!  (Then do as I did, and devour it in a few hours, cold.  Then enjoy the re-reads.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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