This thrilling, fast-paced and utterly absorbing work of fantasy fiction is ostensibly aimed at the young adult market, but with its dark, complex themes, witty dialogue and page-turning twists, it will appeal to many adult readers too.
The story’s central character is the eponymous James Clyde, an 11-year-old orphan who dotes on his grandfather Wilmore – a caring but somewhat mysterious character who appears to be hiding a dark past.
When adventurous James and his two friends Ben and Mary Forester stay at Wilmore’s grand but spooky mansion one winter, their lives change in ways they could never have imagined.
The children have grown up hearing tales of the legendary land of Orchestra and its three diamonds – said to have immense powers. Legend holds that each diamond grants the holder a power or gift of their choosing, and that the three diamonds together grant immortality.
The children soon discover that the land is more than mythical, and that they are about to become part of its story. Wilmore is in fact the holder of one of the much-coveted diamonds, and a sinister ‘Man in Black’ will stop at nothing to get it back.
When James discovers his grandfather dying, having been attacked, his world turns upside down. His grandfather gives James the diamond, tells him to use its powers to escape the deadly Man in Black and the murderous winged beasts that flock around him, and James and his friends take – literally – a leap of faith which transports them to the magical world.
In Orchestra, the two kingdoms of Zara and Darken have been locked in bitter battle ever since an act of grave betrayal was carried out by a knight of Zara – a shadowy character called Gilbert who turns out to be the Man in Black himself. The evil Queen of Darken wants all three of the diamonds, and power over the entire kingdom.
James is heralded as a returning saviour, and discovers he is heir to the throne of Zara, and a skilled swordsman to boot. What’s more, it is his destiny to restore peace to the embattled land
In his debut novel, author Colm McElwain has created a captivating world where good and evil do battle, but he has avoided a simplistic approach. Even principal ‘baddie’ the Man in Black convinces himself he is acting in the greater good when he betrays his kingdom.
The characters of the book are complex rather than caricatured and one-dimensional, with their back stories revealed throughout the course of the book, and we see how the lure of the powerful, beautiful diamonds has brought death and disharmony to Orchestra.
James and his friends face some truly terrifying moments – and ultimately learn to trust each other’s strength and resilience even when their situation appears impossible. The witty banter between the young characters adds to the appeal of the book, and brings a touch of the real world into this fantasy land of magical Orchins, dark Dakotas and dazzling diamonds with the power to grant eternal life.
James proves himself a worthy successor to the throne, and in a touching moment, is reunited with the mother he believed was dead. The dark forces have been defeated for now, but the ending leaves readers desperate to know what happens next for adventurous James and his loyal friends.
The author has drawn on influences from literary greats such as Roald Dahl, C.S Lewis and Tolkien (and comparisons with J.K Rowling are perhaps inevitable), but the book is refreshing in that, alongside the fantasy elements, it reads like a thriller. There are moments of great suspense and some outright scary sections that make it a real page-turner.
The book is cinematic in feel, too. The rich descriptions make it easy to imagine the events unfolding on the big screen, and the pages are alive with the sense of swashbuckling adventure that makes films such as Indiana Jones and Back to the Future such enjoyable romps.
The theme of enduring ties and the power of friendship are emphasised in the novel, which delivers a strong moral message about loyalty and ‘doing the right thing’, as well as about the power of self-belief.
It’s a fantastically absorbing fusion between the day-to-day dramas of teenage life and out-of-this-world adventures. Think The Goonies meets Lord of the Rings and you’ll be somewhere close.
The conclusion paves the way for a sequel and those drawn into Orchestra’s spell will certainly welcome an encore.