The Scratchling Trinity

The Scratchling Trinity was written by Boyd Brent and first published in 2017. It is a middle grade fantasy novel which focuses on a young boy’s discovery of a time-travelling secret society. Although the novel reads as though it is the first part of a series, at the time of writing no further instalments have been announced.

Max Hastings thinks that his luck has finally come in when he wins a prize – a lifetime membership to the Ancient Order of Wall Scratchings – in a school draw. He heads off to Manor House in London to receive his prize, only to discover that no such organisation exists. Max is quick to realise that the Order actually operates in secret beneath the building from a magical pocket dimension called the Cusp of Time. It is here that he learns that he is really a Scratchling, and is destined to help others like himself.

You see, it has long been known that when a child is in danger, they only need to scratch a message onto a wall and help will find them. This is the job of the Ancient Order of Wall Scratchings – to dispatch a young agent to the required point in time to save a life and change the past. However, they must act fast. A rival organisation called the League of Dark Scratchlings is forever working against them and their motives are far less altruistic.

It’s not long before Max is sent on his first mission – to rescue an orphan named Eric Kettle from a boarding school in 1840. With the help of a veteran Scratchling named Ellie Swanson, he must avoid the headmaster’s cruel henchmen and reach Eric before it is too late. If he fails, Eric will starve to death or, worse still, be brainwashed and corrupted by the Dark Scratchlings…

This is a difficult novel for me to review as I was really expecting to enjoy this based on the blurb. It sounds like a creative story on paper and certainly had a few interesting ideas, but completely fell down for me in the way that Brent chose to execute them. While the novel was at least readable, it just felt as though it was a rough draft – completely unpolished and need of someone casting a very critical eye over it to get it anywhere near close to professional standard. This was immediately clear to me from the very first page:

Max Hastings was leaning low over the handlebars of his bike, and pedalling like he’d flipped out. The distance from his school to his home was two and a half kilometres, and Max had to smash his personal best time. The reason was written on a scroll of parchment, held closed by a black ribbon and jutting from his blazer pocket like a piston powering him towards a new school-to-home record.

While you can totally tell what Brent is trying to get across, the execution feels clunky, the metaphors are mixed and English people don’t tend to use the metric system in this way (miles, not kilometres). Added to this was the fact the novel’s humour often fell flat and that most of the descriptions were given by way as expository dialogue, rather than in the actual adjoining text. Perhaps with a good edit, this novel could have been polished to a gem but it certainly felt as though it had been published long before it was ready.

Yet my issues with this novel aren’t purely based on its style. While I do firmly believe that the concept of The Scratchling Trinity shows great promise and originality, the world building still had some critical issues. To be blunt, it did feel at times as though Brent was making it up as he went along. The early chapters set out how the Order functions, but a lot of these facts turn out to be false later. For example, Max is immediately told that it’s impossible for more than one Scratchling (good or bad) to go back to any set time period at the same time. However, as soon as he goes back to 1840 he is followed by two Dark Scratchlings and Ellie, which immediately retcons this point.

The author also has a habit of dropping in deus ex machinas to resolve difficult situations. For example, when Ellie realises that there is no way to travel quickly from York to London in 1840, she immediately finds an artefact that will allow them to jump a hundred years into the future. In the back of a post cart. With no prior indication that this was even possible. Can you see why this feels problematic?

However, my biggest gripe with this novel – the one thing that annoyed me more than anything else – was the casual racism. This is not a problem that I’ve had to mention on this blog in a long time, and I don’t think that Brent actually intended to offend, but there were a few passages in this book that left a bad taste in my mouth. The most notable of these was when Ellie “disguises” herself as a Native American. This slightly cringeworthy scene is followed by the following exchange, which only serves to further draw attention to it:

‘How?’

‘Use your Scratchling initiative.’

‘How?’

‘Now listen here: Ellie is supposed to be the one impersonating a Native American, not you.’

Oh. Oh dear. This really isn’t acceptable in this day and age and, honestly, I’m quite surprised that a modern author would be under the impression that it was. If I hadn’t been reading this novel for the purpose of review, I think I would have stopped reading at this point.

The structure of the novel is also shaky at best. While the opening chapters seem to move quite fast, there is a section over the middle where it slows to a crawl, as Eric has been rescued and the pages are just filled with his culture shock in 2016 England, as well as a brief tour of the Tower of London. The climax comes a bit out of nowhere, as the only major female character is kidnapped (sigh), and the two boys are forced to rescue her from the Dark Scratchlings.

The ultimate ending is a bit saccharine, but does serve to close this chapter of the series. However, you should probably be warned that it is by no means a tight conclusion. There are a lost of loose ends left hanging, with the most major being just what exactly the Scratchling Trinity signifies. While it’s meaning is hinted at in this novel, the protagonists are merely promised that a full explanation will follow “later”.

Finally, lets take a look at the characters. As you might expect, these were variable at best. I would say that Max was the best of a bad bunch, as his is likeable enough. However, his “Scratchling intuition” was a bit frustrating. I didn’t feel that he really did a lot on his own merit. He just relied on luck to coast him through every situation through the power of plot convenience.

The other protagonists felt far less rounded, ultimately being cookie-cutter characters that just seemed to be embodiments of certain emotions. Ash – the only noted person of colour – was portrayed as being a miserable pessimist and basically disappeared from the story after a few chapters. Eric was his polar opposite, remaining unrelentingly optimistic even when he was being murdered by a Dickensian headmaster. Ellie was the most frustrating of all, initially seeming like a brave and competent veteran Scratchling but ultimately becoming a damsel who needed saving by the two male newbies.

And then there were the villains. Much like in Countryside: Book of the Wise, this is where the world building seemed to be particularly thin. The League of Dark Scratchlings are just, well, dark. They exist to spread darkness and take the form of vampires – nameless, pale skinned and existing purely to hurt people. There is no sense of subtly here at all and, ultimately, they were incredibly forgettable.

All in all, I was very disappointed by this book. While The Scratchling Trinity contained some really interesting concepts, it felt like a rough draft. It was clumsy in its execution and contained some shallow characters, poorly explained world building and casual racism. While I am vaguely curious to see if Brent will continue this series, I’m certainly not in a hurry to find out and would not recommend this novel to young fantasy fans.

The Scratchling Trinity can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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