Book Review: Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (June 14, 2016)
Length: 320 pages
When all is said and done, if you’re in the mood for a fresh twist on magic and the paranormal, or simply looking for a story featuring an interesting confluence of relationships and thought-provoking characters, then you’ll definitely want to curl up with Claire Humphrey’s enchanting novel debut, Spells of Blood and Kin. And as an added bonus, the events of this book also take place before a charming and vibrant backdrop, in the heart of a city full of its own cultural magic and diversity. Things might not turn out the way you’d expect them to, but they’re guaranteed to keep you engaged.
The novel is mainly told from the perspectives of three people. First and foremost is Lissa Nevsky, a 22-year-old woman abruptly elevated to the position of koldun’ia—sorceress, or magical practitioner—in her small Russian folk community after the sudden death of her grandmother who previously held the title. Providing healing spells like sleep aids or fertility charms quickly becomes a part of her main routine, until she is completely caught off guard one day when Maksim Volkov shows up on her doorstep, calling himself “kin”. Failing to recognize the true meaning behind the term, Lissa initially mistakes this mysterious stranger for family, but understanding that he and her grandmother may have had a long-standing arrangement for healing services, she sets her mind to providing him the same help.
However, Maksim knows he has already come too late. On the last full moon, he remembers losing control, unwittingly infecting a young man with his savage and untamable nature. The sleep spells from the witch’s granddaughter have helped a bit, but they can never truly quench the desire for violence. Now Maksim feels the burden of responsibility to track down his victim, before the effects of his blood can manifest. The young man turns out to be a college student named Nick Kaisaris, who was out celebrating the end of finals with his friend the night he encountered Maksim in an alley. Ever since then, Nick has been feeling strange; his senses have been enhanced, and his strength has increased, but it hasn’t all been pleasant. Nick doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but something is wrong and he’s slowly losing his grip on his sanity.
This was a strange book, not at all like your typical urban fantasy, even if it does contain some of the usual elements. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this story was about shapeshifters, but it is actually a bit more complicated than that. The kin are not exactly like werewolves or any kind of shifter in that they don’t go through any form of physical transformation, but they are indeed immortal and their behavior also appears to be closely tied to the phases of the moon. To suppress the violence in their veins, Maksim and his fellow kin Augusta have to drown themselves in copious amounts of alcohol or let off steam by beating the crap out of each other. Maksim, being centuries older and susceptible to blinding rages, also needs the help of a witch’s spell to leash his inner animal.
That’s where Lissa comes in. She’s also not your typical witch, young and inexperienced in the eyes of her community. I really liked how the paranormal aspects described in this book had the feel of folk magic and tradition. Following in the footsteps of her grandmother who used eggs to bind and distribute her spells, Lissa has been trying to do the best she can while still dealing with her grief. Through her eyes, we learn the ways of her magic, like how her spells are performed on the few nights around a full moon, and how regular store-bought eggs can be imbued with the power of her special ingredients and incantations. When these eggs are subsequently consumed raw, the subject will experience their effects. I thought this was a very well-portrayed and captivating mode of magic.
There were some weaknesses, though. Chief among them was Lissa’s character. Given how central her role is to the book, I was disappointed to feel the least connected to her out of everyone else in the story. Shy, aloof, and not too savvy when it comes to social situations, Lissa always felt far removed from me, like I was never able to get close enough to see her true personality. Perhaps this perceived distance is by design, in which case the author might have done her job too well, because Lissa often came across cold, two-dimensional and emotionally vacant. I really disliked her in the first half of the book, especially when her stepsister Stella (who ended up being my favorite character) showed up with an offer to help out after her grandmother’s death. The brusque, unwelcoming response from Lissa turned me off even more, though fortunately my opinion of her gradually improved as the story progressed.
As well, the story’s pacing is somewhat inconsistent, with a lot of jumping around between perspectives. Like I said, this is not your average crisis-filled, action-oriented urban fantasy, so be prepared for slow-building momentum because this one does take some time to get really going. We also never get a satisfying explanation for the kin, like where they came from or how they came to be the way there are. It’s not information we need to know to understand the story, but those who crave a bit more world-building and context are going to be left wanting for answers.
However, I did love the setting. Being a former Torontonian, I was touched on a personal and emotional level by the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds, and culture of the city. I was also a UofT student, so the places featured or mentioned in this book, like the pubs of the Annex or the eateries on College, Victorian-style houses tucked in the neighborhoods off Dundas, crappy TTC streetcar experiences, and convocation week, all of it brought me back to memories of my old haunts and good times. It was really cool to read a story set in my hometown, and Claire Humphrey captured the spirit of Toronto perfectly.
So if Spell of Blood and Kin sounds like a book that would interest you, go ahead and give it a try. The story’s tone and style will take some getting used to, but the ideas are fascinating and the magic is superb. If character development suffers a little, Humphrey makes up for that with her wonderfully expressive writing that brings the world around the characters to life. This was an impressive novel debut, and I’ll be watching to see what she has in store for the future.