The Lanternist doesn’t quite get there but will hopefully find a niche audience of young fans.
Magic lantern slides were one of the most popular forms of entertainment from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, remaining popular until motion pictures took over. The entertainment played to larger and larger crowds as technology progressed from the candlelit projection of slides to electric bulbs allowing bigger projections in bigger venues. The Lanternist would project the slides one by one as he told stories to bring the images to life.
Like the artform perfected by his central characters, Stephen Orr projects the life of a Lanternist into his young adult novel by opening each chapter with the description of a slide, which is then reflected in the life of his characters’ adventures. The slides, by illustrator Timothy Ide, are a nice touch, although their appearance is not consistent. Many chapters describe a slide without showing one, and there seems no rhyme or reason to whether an illustration is used or not.
Written for 10-16-year-olds, The Lanternist pays very obvious homage in its action to other historical novels including Oliver Twist and Les Miserables, although it’s unlikely the target audience would recognise this. The tale opens in Adelaide, 1901, where young Tom and his Lanternist father scrape out a living in an era when cinema is killing their line of work. Tom’s mum left some time ago and his father soon leaves for Sydney to find her, leaving Tom to fend for himself when the dishonest landlady kicks him out. He’s soon apprenticed to a thief until he can make his own way to Sydney to find both his parents.
Orr appears to have a remarkable knowledge of period Adelaide, sometimes showing off with too much detail of the streets and places and lifestyle at the expense of giving any real emotional depth to the characters. Similarly, his focus on the setting leaves the point of view of some scenes floating between characters. These are issues to bother older readers, however.
As an educational piece of the time, wrapped in a young boy’s adventure, The Lanternist is likely to appeal to younger readers and possibly teachers, who might consider using the book as an introduction to early 20th century Australian history. The nearly-400 page length of the story may work against it though.
With eight novels under his belt, this is Stephen Orr’s first book for young adults. It doesn’t quite get there in the end, but will hopefully find a niche audience of young fans.
Reviewed by Rod Lewis
Distributed by: MidnightSun Publishing
Released: July 2021