The modern reader can’t throw a pebble without hitting a number of any ‘gifted child goes to a special school’ narratives. Originating from the likes of Jill Murphy and her Worst Witch books, and popularised by Hogwarts and its author, there’s plenty of options out there for any reader who wants to follow a spirited protagonist on their journeys into magical or superpowered education (see the excellent Amari series from BB Alston or the Onyeka series from Tola Okogwu).
Isi Hendrix’s Adia Kelbara and The Circle of Shamans is the latest to join this pantheon, following the eponymous Adia as she escapes her abusive rural life and heads for the Academy of Shamans, a lauded school where children with abilities are given the space to learn and grow, potentially becoming a fully-fledged Shaman. Adia herself is squarely drawn in the hero mould, downtrodden but resilient, easily amassing a squad of allies (and an enemy or two) as she goes through the first gauntlet of her series-long adventure.
The novel is at pains to explore Adia’s experiences at religious trauma, a clear parallel to the widespread impact of witchcraft accusations in Christian communities. Hendrix is careful about her use of this analogy, ensuring that Adia’s powers are explored alongside the context of an invading religion, one that classifies any children who don’t fit in as ogbanje (the Igbo equivalent to changelings), all but sentencing them to isolation, exile, and potentially death. This exploration is the most fascinating part of the novel, even to its detriment, as the reader might wish to spend more time examining the way that magical individuals are treated and explore their identities inside of this hostile religious environment; one in which mentioning the false god causes actual paroxysms of anger.
What follows is a more rote affair as Adia goes on a series of smaller quests, finds herself battling spoiled students at the Academy, and eventually discovers what lies beneath one of the book’s biggest questions, following a series of effective twists and turns. Hendrix doesn’t reinvent the wheel with these moments, but with a heartfelt exploration of mythology and folklore, they are at least enjoyable enough and well-paced enough for any middle grade (or higher) reader to appreciate the journey, along with the handful of supporting characters who touch on topics such as status, religion, freedom of expression, and controversial topics such as skin bleaching and colourism.
It’s hard to comment on where the rest of the series will go at this earliest of early stages, but Adia Kelbara and The Circle of Shamans is an enjoyable, engaging opener, with a zippy pace and a tone expertly balanced by Isi Hendrix who ensures that enough levity and humour is brought in to balance out the darkness of the religious colonisation parallels, so as to not dissuade the target audience from reading. If nothing else, Adia herself is a thoroughly rootable heroine and interest is certainly piqued by journey’s end as to where she goes from here. This reviewer for one, will be eager to see what is next.
Adia Kelbara and The Circle of Shamans is out on 28th September from Usborne Books.