Spell Robbers is a fast paced action novel aimed at kids around 8-12 (or grades 3-7). In the novel the young Ben Warner gets invited to join an after school “science club” where he learns how to manipulate reality on a quantum level. While grounded in science, the title gives a nob to the tried (and some might say tired) adage from Arthur C. Clarke that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Overall, Kirby has penned an entertaining novel that sure to fire the imagination of children. However, Spell Robbers never really rises above the level of cool and exciting, despite the many chances it has to do so. Children’s literature, when it’s at its best, has a sort of universal appeal. As an adult I am delighted by the worlds of characters like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. There is a level of detail there that helps the fiction really stand out. It is a level detail that Spell Robbers never quite seems to rise to; though I think it could.As an action/adventure novel Spell Robbers is absolutely top-notch, but I think it definitely could have been more.
Over the course of the novel the scientist, Dr. Hughes, who teaches Ben and the other students is kidnapped by men who seemingly wield abilities similar to Ben’s. After this attack Ben, along with his friend Peter, wakes up to find himself conscripted into the titular Quantum League. Unfortunately, in order for this to occur Ben has been excised from the life of his single mother; she no longer remembers who he is or even that she had a son. This organization then goes on to manipulate Ben’s feelings for his mother, using them into maneuvering Ben to help recover Dr. Hughes. To Kirby’s credit he definitely goes out of his way to demonstrate that the Quantum League is not to be trusted. However, no one except for Ben seemingly has any issue with them forcibly kidnapping children and conscripting them into what is essentially a paramilitary organization. If the books focus had been more squarely focused on Ben’s struggle against the Quantum League I think things would have worked a whole lot better. Kirby, has set up a very fascinating premise that touches on some key emotional points (namely the bond between child and parent) that are ripe for exploration. Unfortunately, the novel’s focus on action over substance gets in the way. The motivations and methods of the Quantum League are secondary to the action, despite the fact they are the most interesting aspect of the novel.
Kirby, misses several other aspects that could have been more adequately developed. It is strongly hinted at that Ben’s mother suffers from a mental illness of some kind. She and Ben have moved from place to place quite a bit, there is a moment when Ben reminds her to take her medication, and the fact that Ben seemingly has to take on some parental tasks (making dinner, etc.) but isn’t talked about directly Kirby hints at the deep relationship between Ben and his mother but doesn’t quite linger enough to let the reader into that relationship. The introduction of Peter as a foil to Ben is also interesting, but seems only to serve to emphasize Ben’s connection with his mother. At one point Peter reveals to Ben that his father only seems to care about his intellectual capability and as a result Peter’s relationship with his family is almost the exact opposite of Ben and his mother. Where Ben finds his ability to manipulate things on a quantum level come to him almost naturally, Peter has to scrape and struggle to do what Ben does with ease. Peter and Ben are too perfectly opposite. As a result Peter never really feels like a complete character.
While I was hoping for a science fiction tale for kids with the breadth and detail seen in the best of children’s literature what I read felt like a book of missed opportunities. While certainly exciting Spell Robbers never rises beyond its premise and ends up feeling underdeveloped. Kirby has in place a number of elements that could make for a truly great story but seems a bit gun-shy in delving into them headlong. The finale of the novel leaves some hope for future volumes however, and I’ll definitely be willing to see where the next book goes.