James Clyde and the Diamonds of Orchestra (2012) is the first novel by Colm McElwain. With an 11-year-old protagonist, this fantasy will appeal to readers aged 8-12. The titular hero is a foster child who's recently come to live with a vaguely neglectful woman named Anne Brown. Brown, as James calls her, has also adopted slightly-younger Ben and Mary.
When the reader first encounters James, he's in the midst of a petty crime, stealing warm hats and gloves for himself and his brother and sister from a store in the mall. Hiding from the mall security guard, he runs into a psychic who warns him of grave dangers. Her prophecy is fulfilled when Brown packs the trio off to James's (presumably) biological grandfather's mansion for the winter holidays.
McElwain lists C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling among his influences, and it's easy to spot the influence in his work. Like Lewis's Professor Digory Kirke in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), James's grandfather, Wilmore Clyde, knows a lot more about a mysterious hidden world -and its connection to his own labyrinthine mansion - then he first lets on. That hidden world is the Orchestra of the title. Orchestra is divided into two kingdoms: fair Zara and foul Darken. The wicked Queen Abigail of Darken, who would get along well with Narnia's white witch Jadis, intends to rule both once she obtains Orchestra's fabled diamonds.
The trio of James, Ben, and Mary may remind some of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger. Ben, more down-to-earth than idealistic James, serves as the hero's foil. Mary, the youngest at only eight, is often the damsel in distress, although she's capable of delivering wisdom when needed.
It rests solidly on the firm foundation of British fantasy novels for young readers, but James Clyde and the Diamonds of Orchestra is original enough to delight. Its short chapters, fast pace, and brisk action make it an ideal read for the middle grade age group. Readers who enjoy this novel will have to wait and hope for another installment. Although McElwain has mentioned an idea for a second novel in interviews, he had no definite plans to continue James's story.
Published by Matador, an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd., James Clyde and the Diamonds of Orchestra is available as an e-book and a paperback through Amazon.com in the U.S. The e-book retails for $2.49 and the paperback for $8.00.