Book Review: Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Spellslinger
Publisher: Orbit (July 17, 2018)
Length: 432 pages
Sebastien de Castell is the real deal, and if I still had any lingering doubts about that…well, then Spellslinger just laid them all to rest. While I’m a huge fan of his Greatcoats series, as we all know, it’s no small thing whenever an author decides to leap genres or go from writing books for adults to writing YA. De Castell, however, brilliantly navigates the traditions and expectations of the genre without a hitch, making it all look easy. Even better, he’s brought everything I love about his writing to this project, from his clever sense of humor to his knack for creating characters you care about.
In Spellslinger, we’re introduced to Kellen, a young mage-in-training. Problem is though, he’s not exactly mage material. With his sixteenth birthday looming on the horizon, the time for him to take is trials is quickly approaching, but he still doesn’t have much control over his magic. In fact, his ability seems to be diminishing by the day, and that’s a big problem. If he can’t pass his trials, he’ll be relegated to the serving class, looked down upon by the rest of the mage society and bringing shame to his family. For Kellen, it’s an unthinkable fate, and he’s willing to do anything to avoid it, even if it means putting his own life on the line.
But then enter Ferius Parfax, a visitor from out-of-town whom everyone thinks is a spy trying to steal secrets to take back to her masters. However, there’s more to the outsider than meets the eye, especially when she helps Kellen see things from a new perspective, forcing him to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about his world and his place in it.
Admittedly, there’s nothing extraordinary about the way Spellslinger starts—we have a teenage protagonist who is desperate to prove his worth. He’s also part of a heavily tiered society where people either have magic (and are powerful) or they do not (and are powerless). For his entire life, Kellen’s identity has been wrapped up in these rules, and so little wonder that he’s so devastated about his fading magic. But even in the face of his disparaging classmates and the pressure from his family, Kellen persists. Unlike his peers, who have never had to struggle the way he has, Kellen knows how to make the best out of a crappy situation. He compensates for his weakness in magic with his resourcefulness, using his quick wits to overcome any obstacle on the fly, making him an interesting character to follow because he’s always full of surprises.
But at the same time, Kellen is a 15-year-old boy, and with that youth also comes a certain naivete that gets him in trouble. He is too trusting of his society and the system. He sometimes lets his bullies get to him. And he’s also seriously crushing on this girl in his class. These everyday problems have a way of making our protagonist feel genuine and relatable, even if one gets the sense that Kellen lives in a small, insular bubble which severely restricts his worldview. That’s where Ferius comes in. With her experience and worldliness, she offers Kellen possibilities he’s never dreamed of. She’s also fantastically written, with a strength of personality that makes her immediately likable and memorable. In that regard, she’s a de Castell character through and through. In fact, if I had to level one criticism at the characterization, it would be that Ferius overshadows Kellen in many instances, even though she is part of the supporting cast and appears much less often.
Still, when it comes to stealing the show, hands down that honor goes to Reichis. But I think I’ll let prospective readers discover for themselves why!
In terms of plot, Spellslinger was also great fun. Perhaps the first half was hampered slightly the slower pacing, but with all the incredible world-building happening in these early pages, I was hardly bothered by it. This being a YA novel, I also wasn’t surprised to find story elements here that were skewed towards younger readers, though not distractingly so. De Castell doesn’t talk down to his audience or try to soften any blows as Kellen is confronted with some difficult lessons and some harsh realities, and while the plot is easy to follow, I wouldn’t call it simplistic. With almost nothing extraneous attached, the story is well streamlined so things flow rather smoothly, making for a fast and entertaining read.
I confess, few YA series openers these days are actually compelling enough to make me want to keep reading. Spellslinger, however, made me want to grab up the next book as soon as I was finished, which speaks volumes about the author’s talent and versatility. Looks like Sebastien de Castell has another winner on his hands! I continue to be amazed by his ability to keep me captivated with his spellbinding stories, and I can’t wait to pick up Shadowblack.