Charmcaster

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments of this series. You can read my reviews of these novels by clicking the links below:

Spellslinger | Shadowblack

Charmcaster was written by Sebastien de Castell and first published in 2018. It is the third instalment of the Spellslinger series and follows on directly where the previous two – Spellslinger (2017) and Shadowblack (2017) – left off, so you really do need to read the novels in sequence to fully appreciate them. The story follows the continuing adventures of Kellen, an exiled spellslinger, as he avoids bounty hunters and seeks to protect the innocent people who have been unknowingly targeted by the Jan’Tep.

As Kellen, Ferius and Reichis cross the desert, they come across an unfortunate Jan’Tep bounty hunter who has been targeted by a band of Berabesq devouts. Although Kellen is keen to let them suffer, Ferius’s Argosi ways prevent her from standing idly by and she rushes to the rescue. Kellen is shocked to discover that the victim is not a hunter at all, but is his former crush, Nephenia, who has also been left disfigured and exiled by the Jan’Tep. However, their reunion is cut short. Ferius is badly injured and in desperate need of medical attention.

As Ferius recovers, she is approached by a pair of Argosi who have a discordance for her, bearing the image of a mechanical bird. This card leads her to Gitabria – a technologically advanced city of research and innovation, where they witness the unveiling of the bird. However, even at a glance, the party know that something is seriously wrong. The bird is not simply a machine – it seems to have a consciousness of its own.

As all nations begin bidding on the bird, Kellen realises the true danger of the creation. While the bird is innocent in itself, if others knew how to build it they could apply the principles to larger and more powerful machines. It’s not long before the Jan’Tep find Kellen and offer him a proposition. Either he destroys the bird and its engineer, or they will allow his innocent friends to suffer.

While I did not enjoy Charmcaster quite as much as I did Spellslinger, I am pleased to say that it was still a stronger novel than Shadowblack. The plot this time around flowed a lot better, carrying the action well as it gradually built up the mystery surrounding the nature and origins of the mechanical bird. Because of this clear focus, the plot felt a lot more organic than that of Shadowblack, containing a few interesting twists and turns that I genuinely did not see coming.

I also felt that the setting of the story was a lot more interesting this time around. While I complained in my last review that the University setting was a bland, Gitabria is completely not something that I was expecting from the series. It moves away from the Eastern and Wild West aesthetics of the previous instalments, instead giving the story a bit of a steampunk feel. However, while this change was both interesting and unique, I was still left disappointed by the lack of descriptive text. Steampunk is generally a very visual style which wasn’t used to its full effect in Charmcaster as there weren’t many descriptions of the city itself, let alone details of the contraptions and how they functioned.

The plot this time felt a little more like Spellslinger, in that it returned to its political roots once again. While this wasn’t really felt in Shadowblack, I was pleased this time that the series once again feels as though it has a bigger picture. We see Jan’Tep once again as being more than just bounty hunters, but instead a ruthless nation that will do anything to preserve their culture. Through the Gitabrian exhibition, we clearly see the tensions between the major nations and so it becomes clear that the world truly is on the brink of war. The story also did a good job of tying itself back to Spellslinger through the return of Nephenia and a few other familiar faces, which made it feel a lot more connected than Shadowblack.

However, in other ways the series still seems to be largely ignoring some of its overarching themes. While we do learn a little about the ways of the Argosi, it’s still in the vague pseudo-philosophical way that its been presented as in the other books, with no clear answers as to who they are and how they came to be. The shadowblack is also still shrouded in mystery. Although it does now clearly seem to be worsening, it’s unclear still what exactly it is and what is happening to Kellen whenever he is lost in shadow.

My feelings regarding the ending of the novel are also a bit mixed. As with the other instalments, Charmcaster has a bit of an episodic feel. This means that the novel tries to wrap itself up at an alarming pace over the climax to ensure that all loose ends are tied off. After quite a lengthy story, this just meant that the novel felt rushed and therefore it lacked the impact that it otherwise could have had. As the opening fight sequence lasted for almost fifty pages, it seemed really imbalanced for the final confrontation to be over in under thirty.

In terms of characterisation, I also have a few issues. While Kellen is still likeable enough, I am concerned that he is starting to become overpowered. In Spellslinger, he was portrayed as being quite weak as he is a Jan’Tep that could only use one magic spell. However, now he seems to gain at least one new power per book and is finding ways to combine these that enable him to take down very powerful foes by himself. I have a growing concern that he is becoming a bit of a Gary Stu and therefore isn’t being quite as clever as he once was. Who needs to outwit opponents when you can steamroller through them?

The female cast are also all still disappointing. While I admit that I didn’t find Ferius to be quite so frustrating this time around as she is finally starting to be a bit more open with Kellen, de Castell’s female characters still just all feel flat. They’re really just divided into being good or bad, lacking in any kind of depth beyond this. Even when Nephenia reveals her tragic backstory, I found it difficult empathise with her. I wasn’t given much time to get to know her as she was before in Spellslinger, so now her experiences do not seem to really shape who she has become.

However, the one character that still shines in Reichis. He really is the series’s Rocket Raccoon, providing a much needed source of humour through his wonderful mix of unpredictability, bravado and (on occasion) loyalty. Although the series has many faults, I’m really glad I discovered it for the squirrel cat. His adventures and rivalry with Ishak the Hyena are some of the best parts of this story.

All in all, Charmcaster still isn’t as strong as Spellslinger, but it did at least feel like a step in the right direction. The world-building was a lot better and I am curious to see what adventures Kellen and his friends will have next. I am certainly going to stick with this series and hope that the forth book will be stronger still.

Charmcaster can be purchased as a Hardback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

2 Comments (+add yours?)

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