Monday 8 May 2017

Spellslinger, Sebastien de Castell

"Tricks are all I have." I said. "Clever. The boy always seeks to be clever."

Kellen is moments away from facing his first mage's duel and the start of four trials that will make him a spellcaster. There's just one problem: his magic is gone.

As his sixteenth birthday approaches, Kellen falls back on his cunning in a bid to avoid total disgrace. But when a daring stranger arrives in town, she challenges Kellen to take a different path. 

Ferius Parfax is one of the mysterious Argosi - a traveller who lives by her wits and the three decks of cards she carries. She's difficult and unpredictable, but she may be Kellen's only hope...

* * * * .5
4.5 / 5

Kellen is supposed to be earning his mage name; on the cusp of turning sixteen, if he doesn't pass the four trials he'll be relegated to the life of a servant. The problem? He doesn't have any magic any more. It doesn't help that his father is the most powerful mage of their people and his sister, barely thirteen, is already passing all of her trials. This is an absolutely wonderful book that grabbed me from the very first page.

Evidently he was capable of simultaneously believing that I was a weakling and yet had also acquired a power animal. Moron.

We open with an attention-grabbing scene. Kellen is facing off his classmate in a duel, knowing full well that he cannot win. He manages to fight using only his skills and cunning, which is all ruined by Kellen's incredibly self-righteous younger sister. From there, Kellen struggles to prove himself as a mage, dodge his bullies, and getting mixed into a plot of betrayal as the Clan Leader dies and the city is thrust into a political game. As Kellen doggedly tries everything to make his magic return, he delves deeper into the history and the secrets of his people. Secrets that get people killed. 

It was as if some mischievious god had designed her entirely for the purpose of smirking, making lewd remarks, or sauntering into other people's homes uninvited

Spellslinger has a great mix of stereotypical fantasy elements and innovative aspects and plot twists. Reichis is the typical young male hero's animal companion, or *ahem* "business partner" as he prefers, who is a feisty squirrel cat who has been the terror of Kellen's people for aeons. Despite being just, y'know, small flying squirrels. Then there's Ferius Parfax, a wandering magic-less traveller, who tries to teach the boy that there is more to power than magic, and that magic can be found in places other than spells. She arrives in a city that is suspicious of her kind and places herself in danger whilst trying to get drunk. Ferius is a great twist on the elder male wizard mentor figure in that she shows up when Kellen is in trouble, but she's got her weaknesses and isn't all-knowing by any means. She does provide some nice input sometimes, breaking up Kellen's inner monologue and helping the reader view the scene more "objectively", so to speak. 

There's this scene where the girl Kellen is crushing on appears to shun him after he is humiliated in the arena, where before she had been friendly. Kellen is (rightfully) a bit miffed, but then launches into an annoying teenage speech about how fickle women are and blah, when Ferius comments "would you have noticed her at all if she were not so pretty? If she turned up one day ugly, would you not do the same", turning Kellen's speech into some self-reflective learning moment. But Ferius is also a hilarious character and I think the way she fights, using metal cards like shruiken, is pretty cool.

"These are the questions of a child, Kellen. You already found the one that matters, the one that binds all our fates together. Ask it again."

On that note, I think it's important to mention that this is not an adult novel, per se. As an adult I read and enjoyed this, but it is not like de Castell's other famous series, Greatcoats, which liberally splashes around bloodshed, strong language, and sex. Spellslinger is complex and thoughtful, but I would happily give this book to a thirteen year old. It is also lacking on a couple of things I would expect from a strong fantasy novel, like good worldbuilding. Apparently this takes place in the world of Greatcoats, of which I am still reading the first book, so maybe I'll be more satisfied after I've read that. 

But Spellslinger is a bit sparse of the specifics. As well as the geography of the world of Spellslinger being a mystery to me, I'm still not quite sure what an argosi, which Ferius is, is. The biggest annoyance, however, is the magic system. It works according to seven pillars of magic - silk, blood, iron, breath, ember, sand, and the forbidden type, shadow - and each mage initiate gets six tattooed bands around their arm. When the band is sparked, they get access to more power than before. I thought this was all pretty cool, but I have no idea how it actually works. How do you spark a band? How do you actually cast a spell? It seems to be some mixture of mind state, hand gesture, and words. But how do you create a new spell? I have lots of questions about de Castell's magic system, and I hope there are more details in the next book. 

And I finally saw what Ferius wanted me to see. I saw myself. I saw who I was and I saw the man I wanted to be.

This is a beautifully written book. Kellen is one of those protagonists that is genuinely shit at something. I kept turning pages expecting for there to be a moment where Kellen suddenly breaks through his no magic barrier, or gains a powerful magical artefact, or for some reason or another becomes a great mage. Instead, we get a journey where both the reader and Kellen must come to terms with the fact that he has no magic, that he can never become the man he thought he would be as a boy. Instead of a magical triumph arc, we watch him struggle and grow with his burden.

This arc culminated in, what I thought, was a great and fitting ending. I have seen other reviews disagree, but I thought it provided a good amount of closure whilst leaving plenty of space for Kellen and Ferius to have a new story (and according to Goodreads, this will be a series of six books). At the end, Kellen is finally faced with a choice which will determine whether he continues pursuing his childhood dream, trying to become the man he always thought he would become, or if he finds another path, another way to be a man. 

My thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author, for an ARC of this book. 


  1. This book sounds incredible! Can't wait to check it out.