Countryside: The Book of the Wise

Countryside: The Book of the Wise was written by J.T. Cope IV and first published in 2014. It is a middle grade novel about a young boy who discovers that he has ties to a magical world. The book forms the first part of the Countryside series and is followed by Countryside: The Tears of Adina (2015). At the time of writing, no further instalments have been announced.

Luke Rayburn has lived his whole life in suburban Texas, but since he turned eleven he has started seeing odd things. He has been followed by strange, dark figures that no one else can see and he’s pretty sure that he managed to save a tree spirit from some bullies. However, things become stranger after his father leaves for a year of military service. His family is forced to move to his Grandparent’s home in the town of Countryside, and he learns the secret that his parents have been hiding from him.

Countryside is a magical holding, only accessible to those who have some aptitude in controlling the Flame, and the Rayburn family are the wealthiest people who live there. Their home is a castle and they are in charge of the guards who maintain the holding’s wards and protect against the Darkmen and Soulless that would destroy their way of life.

As Luke enrols in the local school and makes new friends, he starts to learn about an ancient prophecy. The Darkmen seem to be searching for the legendary Book of the Wise – an artefact with the power to allow someone to take over the world – and it seems as though they think it has something to do with the Rayburn family. The book has been lost for centuries, but Luke knows that he must find it before it can fall into the wrong hands. If he does not, Countryside – and the world – could be in great danger.

Harry Potter has a lot to answer for. While J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus is loved all over the world, its success lead to the publication of a lot of similar series. Over the last few years, I’ve dipped into the likes of Percy Jackson, Charlie Bone, Archie Greene and Shadowmancer. Some of these were great, others were less so. Unfortunately, Countryside: The Book of the Wise falls into latter.

The world-building was pretty unsatisfying on the whole. While early chapters are set in our world, the story quickly relocates to the rural holding of Countryside. This is a magical realm that seemingly exists alongside our own, but can only be accessed by people who have an aptitude for the Flame, which is what magic is known as in this series. Countryside itself is a hodgepodge of different time periods. While it has elements of a European high fantasy setting, such as ornate castles and horse-drawn carriages, it also has flat-bed trucks, 50s-style diners and American Football.

This setting felt a bit jarring alongside the elements of the story that had clearly been lifted straight from Harry Potter, such as centaur teachers and school systems with heavy focus on the fantastical. The novel was very clinical in its descriptions, lacking the whimsy that is really necessary to make a fantasy setting like this feel natural. While I’m sure the author had a clear idea of what he was trying to describe, it didn’t really come across in the writing. I never really got a good grasp on how magic actually worked (they had one class on this, in which their teacher decided they were not ready) or exactly what the guards were tasked with doing (as the wards seemed to malfunction on a nightly basis).

The plot of the novel was highly generic, containing pretty much every middle grade fantasy trope that you can think of. It focuses on a pre-teen boy who has some weak ties to an ancient prophecy. Because of this, he is forced to locate an artefact of vaguely described power before the bad guys can get their hands on it. Said bad guys are a loose grouping of Darkmen (people who have dabbled in “the Darkness” for too long), Soulless (wraiths who were once Darkmen) and Dark Ones (powerful elder things). You might recognise this basic plot as having been better utilised in countless other middle grade franchises over the last twenty years.

On top of this, the novel isn’t very well structured. While the paperback version is only 328 pages long, it is unbearably slow. The significance of the book isn’t actually explained until page 242 and its eventual discovery is really anti-climatic. Seriously, Luke sees something in the woods and just has a sudden epiphany as to where the book must be. After this, a brief struggle occurs between him and the baddies, after which he is rendered unconscious for the rest of the climax. Naturally, this means that all of the events have to be relayed back to him after the fact.

The slowness of the story isn’t helped by its odd preoccupation with sport. Really, this novel could almost be classified as a sport story. The plot is completely derailed for a few chapters in the middle while Luke trains and plays in a few American Football matches. There is nothing magical about this sport, it just is perfectly ordinary football. After this, a further chapter is devoted to him learning how to play basketball. This may appeal to some young readers, but I can honestly say that it was not what I was expecting to find in this novel.

Finally, the author also has an odd habit of jumping between events, which is not something that I’ve really encountered before. Sometimes, you have to look at the chapter headings to gain a clue as to what is happening, as the author often springs classes and festivals on the reader without explaining what they are for. In one particularly bad example, Luke goes to bed at the end of one chapter only for the next to open with him and his friends in the middle of the woods at night. While I assumed that this was a dream, the chapter title (Astronomy 101) revealed that a non-disclosed amount of time had actually passed and they were actually going to their first astronomy class. This could just be my personal taste, but I found these time skips to be jarring and difficult to follow.

The characters in Countryside: The Book of the Wise are also highly problematic. While Luke and Matt are likeable enough as protagonists, they don’t really have any defining characteristics. Both are just brave kids who do as they are told and have no time for bullies. Their lack of edge, unfortunately, made them incredibly unmemorable on the whole. There was also a disappointing lack of female and minority representation in the story. Samantha was the only girl in Luke’s small circle of friends and she barely appeared at all. While she was occasionally mentioned, she didn’t seem to attend a lot of his classes and had no stake in the climax.

The secondary cast of the story was enormous, which presented problems of its own. Within the prologue of the story, in which a dozen characters were named in quick succession, I immediately lost track of who was who. New characters are introduced in almost every chapter and are often referred to purely by their title (Mr Acharon, Mr Jefferson, Mr Roberts etc). As they were barely described, I found myself constantly flipping back and forward to try and remind myself how important they were.

The villains, as you may already have started to grasp, were also completely generic. I mean, could you think of a more on-the-nose name for dark magic users than “Darkmen”? Not a single one is given any sense of individually in the story, they are just a vague collective. Even the being they serve, the Dark One, is given no name. While it is implied later on in the story that it is some kind of demon, we don’t learn the extent of its power or even what it truly looks like as it only appears in person a couple of times within the story. In all honestly, I felt that there was no excuse for this. It just showed a real lack of imagination on Cope’s behalf.

All in all, Countryside: The Book of the Wise is not a novel that I’d recommend at all. It was poorly paced and utterly generic. If you’ve read Harry Potter and are hungry for more, give Percy Jackson or Charlie Bone a try. This one is certainly not worth your time.

Countryside: The Book of the Wise can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Trackback: The Scratchling Trinity | Arkham Reviews

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