Spellslinger

Spellslinger was written by Sebastien de Castell and first published in 2017. It is a fantasy novel that focuses on a young member of a magical family who must come to terms with the fact that his powers are fading. The story forms the first part of the Spellslinger series and is followed by Shadowblack (2017).

Kellen is days away from his sixteenth birthday and has just bested one of his classmates in a mage duel – the first of four trials that he must face to earn his mage name and a place in Jan’Tep society. There is only one problem. He cheated. Kellen has been aware for a long time that his magic is fading and that is not good. Only the magical can join the upper echelons of society. The powerless are destined to become Sha’Tep and spend their lives in servitude.

As Kellen begins to consider taking drastic measures to trigger his powers, he also meets an Argosi wander named Ferius Parfax and his destiny begins to shift. Ferius represents a world he has never known – one outside of the city walls where the societies that don’t rely on magic dwell – and, through the way that the Jan’Tep treat Ferius, Kellen begins to see that there is something desperately wrong with his society.

But as Kellen learns more about the history of the Jan’Tep, he begins to uncover a darkness that his people have been trying to bury for centuries. Just what lengths did his ancestors have to go to in order to destroy the demons that once stalked their lands? And what will the council do when a teenage boy discovers the truth?

I’ve reviewed a couple of weak novels lately but Spellslinger was a breath of fresh air. Although I have never read any of de Castell’s previous work, I found this book to be an incredibly strong opening to the series and I was quickly drawn into the world. The story is beautifully written and filled with some wonderful twists and turns. It’s a tale where every character believes themself to be the hero, some even willing to go to terrible lengths to protect their families and society from perceived threats.

Sorry, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the world-building first. The setting of Spellslinger – an ancient city divided into the magic wielding elite (Jan’Tep) and the powerless servant caste (Sha’Tep) – isn’t greatly original. There are countless fantasy and dystopian series that can be boiled down to the same basic core elements. However, it’s what de Castell does with this that I found greatly refreshing.

It became increasingly clear in this novel that magic was only really something that seemed desirable to the Jan’Tep. Since the defeat of their ancient enemies – the Mahdek – the Jan’Tep have been the only magic users in the world. And, basically, that’s all they are good at. Their entire society is so built around magic that they can’t perceive a world where they do not have it. This leads to numerous problems in the story, from their inability to administer basic first aid to Kellen in the opening chapter to their sheer panic when an illness temporarily depowers some of the students later. Through his association with Ferius, Kellen slowly begins to realise that his people’s greatest asset is also their biggest weakness.

While this novel is entirely set in Kellen’s home town, the reader still gets a good feel for the state of the wider world. The Jan’Tep society felt solid and, as its secrets were revealed, wholly believable. My only real problem with the world-building was that I didn’t really think that the “wild west” inspiration came across. The blurb of this book likened it to Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly and The Dark Tower and so I was expecting a real cultural mash-up. Yet this isn’t what I got. While Ferius did fit the character trope of the “stranger who comes to town”, the story had far more of an Arabic aesthetic. It brought to mind Rebel of the Sands far more than The Dark Tower. Personally, if I had to describe this book to anyone, I would say that it was a blend of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Borderlands.

I also felt that the pacing of the story was a little slow in parts, with Kellen’s first-person narrative sometimes being a little heavy in repetition. Certain aspects of the world, such as the method by which a Jan’Tep’s power can be removed, was repeated over and over. This was just a little heavy-handed. By the number of times that Kellen explained the mechanics of it, I knew that it was going to be significant later on.

The story also didn’t really build to anything. If exciting climaxes are your thing, I think that you’re likely to be a little disappointed. Yet I still found it immensely satisfying. This book mainly serves as Kellen’s origin story. It begins with his disastrous attempt at bluffing his way through a magical duel, and builds to his “naming day” – the point of his life when his entire future is determined. As a character study, it is very compelling. I was quick to grow attached to Kellen and really felt the tension of his predicament. His development felt very natural as he learned the truth of the Jan’Tep, and I felt that the conclusion was just perfect.

However, the other characters did not feel quite so solid. While a lot of the characters in this story had secrets, most of the supporting cast were very shallow. This is especially true of Kellen’s classmates. While the likes of Tennat and Panahsi seemed like they were going to be important at first, they ultimately didn’t feature very strongly in the novel and simply existed to be bullies. Even Nephenia – the girl of Kellen’s dreams – was rather dull on the whole. It would have been interesting to see more of her struggle as it seemed that she was harshly discriminated against, but unfortunately Kellen was fairly self-centred and so the focus was always on him.

However, some of the other characters fared a bit better. Kellen’s family were, frankly, scary. There was never really a sense of love between them – only power. Kellen’s father, Ke’heops, was not a physically violent man but his disregard for his family was truly terrifying. Here is a man who is determined to gain political power, and would gladly sacrifice his children’s futures if it meant that he succeeded. I also thought that Ferius was well written. The lack of focus on her actually worked well because it added to her mystery. For most of the novel, it’s not clear if Ferius was friend or foe and I look forward to learning more about the Argosi people in future volumes.

Yet the novel was really stolen by the squirrel cats. I’m not generally a fan of mascot characters, yet the squirrel cats were oddly endearing. I liked their constant threats and society built on theft and bartering with humans. The main squirrel cat in this novel – Reichis – was an oddly likeable character that did bring to mind Rocket Raccoon. He swore a lot and threatened to rip people’s ears off, but ultimately had his heart in the right place. He made an interesting business partner for Kellen and I hope their relationship is going to be long and fruitful.

Anyhow, I think I’ve said enough. I really did enjoy Spellslinger and I would recommend it. Despite my grumbles, it has some great world-building, an enthralling plot and some memorable characters. I am very curious to see where the story will go from here and I hope that weaknesses in the supporting cast are resolved in the next volume.

Spellslinger can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

5 Comments (+add yours?)

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