Soulbinder

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

Spellslinger | Shadowblack | Charmcaster

Soulbinder was written by Sebastien de Castell and first published in 2018. It tells the continuing story of Kellen, a young outlaw who travels across the desert and avoids assassins sent by his father, all the while hunting for a cure for his deadly affliction. The novel forms the fourth part of the Spellslinger series and follows on directly after Spellslinger (2017), Shadowblack (2017) and Charmcaster (2018). Because of this, I would really recommend reading the novels in sequence to fully appreciate them.

Kellen and Reichis have not had the best of times since they parted company with Ferius. Their hunt for the legendary Ebony Abbey – a place that supposedly holds the secret to curing the shadowblack – has left them stranded in the middle of nowhere with no food, water or hope of rescue. To make matters worse, they have learned that a warband of seventy-seven Jan’Tep mages have been charged with hunting them down; a band that already claims to have killed Ferius.

However, Kellen’s hunt has not been in vain. As he waits for death, the monks of the Ebony Abbey find him. Leaving Reichis to die in the desert, they kidnap Kellen and whisk him away to their remote sanctuary on the distant continent of Obscaria. It is here that he soon learns the truth about the monks. They do not have a cure for the shadowblack but instead have embraced it, learning to use the unique powers that it gives them.

Although the inhabitants of the Ebony Abbey wish to live a secret life at peace, Kellen knows that this cannot last. Even if the monks manage not to succumb to the demonic influence of the shadowblack, he knows that their days are numbered. Ke’heops will inevitably find them and wipe them out in order to curry favour with his people. The only question is if Kellen can escape – and if he can convince the monks to flee with him – before the Jan’Tep army arrives at their gates…

If you read my previous reviews of this series, you’ll be aware that I have had a bit of a rocky relationship with it. Yet, following the slightly surprising turn of events at the end of Charmcaster, I was left curious to see what de Castell had planned for this instalment. Ferius does not appear in person in the story. Reichis is quickly separated from his business partner and Nephenia is abandoned, not resurfacing again until the novel enters its final act. In a narrative sense Soulbinder takes a step backwards, following Kellen alone for the first time since Spellslinger. This could have been an interesting direction for the story to take but it was unfortunately riddled with frustrating little problems.

However, Soulbinder is not entirely bad. Let’s start by taking a look at its positive aspects. The novel does at least take the time to explore what it means to have the shadowblack. This isn’t something that we’ve really seen so far in the series, as we’ve not actually met a whole lot of people with the affliction. While Kellen has always viewed it as a death sentence, it is interesting to see some of its positive aspects for the first time. While it does generally result in madness and death, it also grants some fairly incredible powers. These vary from person to person but range from mind control to the ability to create physical constructs from shadow.

This development was long overdue. While Kellen has always been fearful of the shadowblack, the reason why has never been explored. Finally, the disease is more than just a stylised black tattoo. It’s something that is both useful and dangerous in equal measure. While the afflicted can live with their condition, it’s also abundantly clear why the Jan’Tep wish to eradicate it. It also left me curious to find out why Kellen’s grandmother decided to band him in shadow. This was a plot point that had faded to the background yet, as we discover what Kellen’s shadowblack powers entail, feels as though it will certainly have a hidden significance going forward.

Yet, despite this strong plot thread, the story still had a tendency to meander. It takes an incredibly long time for Soulbinder to find its focus, which is further padded by the sheer amount of repetition within Kellen’s narrative. It takes over half of the novel for it to really find its feet and, until then, it moves in fits and starts. Kellen makes new friends, repeatedly loses and regains their trust, and spends a lot of time pining for Reichis. While there are some fantastically tense and exciting scenes – such as Kellen matching wits with a Jan’Tep who has lost his mind to the shadowblack – these are mired between lengthy passages were little happens to progress the plot.

Conversely, the climax of the novel felt far too rushed. A lot of the action – including a full battle – takes place off-page and the fates of several major characters are left unknown. As with previous instalments of the series, Soulbinder also completely ties up all of its loose ends in the final chapter and ends with Kellen walking off into the sunset once more. While I am generally all for closure, at this late stage of the series it posed a bit of a problem. We are now four books into a six-book series and the stories still virtually stand alone. At this point, I feel that there really should be some sense of an ongoing plot.

In terms of character, the series is also still unfortunately quite weak. While Kellen is likeable enough, the novel grants him yet another new power to add to his arsenal, causing him to slip further still into Gary-Stu territory. For a person who likes to claim to be weak, Kellen now commands a combination of magic, shadowblack, coin tricks and Argosi philosophy, which actually makes him rather formidable on his own terms.

While the old cast are absent for a majority of Soulbinder, the new characters unfortunately fail to make that much of an impression. While a couple of them – Butelios in particular – seem to be interesting, most only appear as part of a group and therefore are not given the chance to make an individual impression. As Kellen leaves the monastery at the end of the novel, I was left feeling that this entire story was a bit of a cul-de-sac. It served to introduce a large new cast, only to immediately leave them behind. Even the new villain failed to make much of an impression as his scheme was rather unsubtle.

I also still feel that de Castell has a problem with writing female characters. I can’t believe that I’ve managed to get so far on this blog without mentioning “women in refrigerators” before, but this seems a good time to bring up this peeve of mine. In the climax of Soulbinder, a female character is abruptly killed off to provide character development for Kellen. That’s about it. She is purely introduced to die for his benefit. Yeah…this is something that I have a particular hatred of. I don’t really like it when characters are killed off for shock value at the best of times, but fridging a character is a stage worse again.

There is still no nuance to de Castell’s female characters. They all felt very flat and are characterised simply as being good or bad. This book introduced three new ladies – Diadera, Ghilla and Suta’rei – and none really made an impression. Diadera was by far the worst of the three as – like Nephenia in Charmcaster – she could have been interesting if she hadn’t fallen in love with Kellen at first sight. I’m not sure how Kellen manages to attract so many girls if he is truly the weakling that he claims to be!

Anyhow, I think that I’ve rambled on for long enough. While I did not hate Soulbinder, it still felt like a step backwards from Charmcaster. Hopefully, the next instalment can bring this series back on track.

Soulbinder can be purchased as a Hardback, eBook and Audiobook on Amazon.co.uk

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Queenslayer | Arkham Reviews

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