Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell
Spellslinger sounded right up my street — a young adult novel full of magic, cons, card tricks and a plucky underdog. If it didn’t live up to my high hopes I blame the misleading words emblazoned on the back cover that read “Magic Is A Con” — an enticing promise that isn’t delivered because, well, magic turns out not to be a con. Nevertheless, while it wasn’t the story I expected, Spellslinger is an enjoyable romp in its own way.
Kellen and his classmates are all set to complete the trials that will secure their future as “Jan’tep” — a magical people who wield five pillars of magic — breath, iron, silk, blood, ember and sand. If they fail the trials they will be forced to live out their lives as “Sha’tep”, an under-class destined to serve through manual labour. The only problem is, Kellen has lost his magic. However hard he tries he cannot summon the spells he needs to complete the trials. To make matters worse Kellen is the son of one of the Jan’tep’s greatest mages, his little sister is one of the most powerful students at the school, and he’s just made an enemy of the Jan’tep’s nastiest family.
Things are looking pretty bleak for Kellen when a red-headed, wise-cracking stranger named Ferrius arrives in the town. Ferrius doesn’t have any Jan’tep magic but she introduces Kellen to her card tricks which mainly involve flicking (or slinging) sharp metal cards at her enemies. The blossoming friendship between the pair only compounds Kellen’s problems as the Jan’tep people become convinced that Ferrius is a dangerous spy.
From here things really kick off and Kellen lands himself in scrape after scrape, each one worse than the last. Plots and schemes abound and Kellen finds himself caught up in them all, even more so when he hooks up with a particularly aggressive and sarcastic squirrel-cat, the traditional enemy of the Jan’tep people. There’s a deeper level to the story too as Kellen battles with who he is and begins to question the morality of his own people. Throughout it all Kellen wills his magic to return and struggles with the taunts of his classmates.
The reason that cover bugged me so much was that throughout the story Jan’tep magic, far from being a con, seems pretty powerful, despite any limitations it might have. What’s more, Kellen does have to rely on it to escape his many plights. I get the impression it might be a better tag for future books in the series, but let’s wait and see on that score.
Putting that quibble aside, Sebastien de Castell has introduced some winning elements in Spellslinger. Kellen is a relatable hero, full of confidence and yet plagued by a feeling of inferiority. Ferrius is a highlight; a wily wanderer with a mysterious past and heart of gold. The squirrel-cat adds humour (he reminds me of Mogget in Garth Nix’s Sabriel), and in general the dialogue is witty and off-beat, giving Spellslinger a cheeky edge.
The pace is fast and never lets up, although it does fall prey to the classic cycle of “hero falls into trap, is saved in the nick of time, falls into another trap.” Spellslinger is very much an adventure book which means setting and world-building are dealt a very light touch and anyone who likes a detailed explanation to their magical systems may be disappointed. On the plus side there’s no room for boredom as the plot canters along and Kellen is delightfully good at causing trouble.
I have to wonder why so many young adult books suffer from convoluted plots. It’s a problem I come across frequently, as if young-adult audiences are less discerning and don’t mind plot-holes — something I most definitely don’t believe. Spellslinger isn’t the first to suffer from a touch of over-cramming syndrome.
Spellslinger is the first in a series that is set to continue for six books so I hope to see more of my favourite characters as it progresses. Maybe I’ll finally learn why magic is a con!
The thing I love best about Sebastien de Castell’s Spellslinger is — Oh, wait, no. The thing I really love best is Reichis, the squirrel cat who is one of the better familiars, or rather “business partners,” in modern fantasy fiction. I loved another squirrel cat, Chitra, who played a brief but important role, almost as much.
The thing I loved second-best about the inaugural novel in de Castell’s YA fantasy series is the way Kellen, the young protagonist, comes face-to-face with the fact that his people are, definitively, Not the Good Guys. Kellen’s disillusionment and subsequent character growth are part of his motivation for the choice he makes at the end of the book, that sets the series in motion. Kellen’s people, the Jan’Tep, worship magic and strength above all else, so much so that a sibling or child who does not display magical ability is, at adulthood, designated Sha’Tep and is no longer even considered a family member. This seems especially cruel since the Jan’Tep magic is basically stolen and not even theirs to begin with.
Kellen discovers this as he struggles to hide the fact that his own magic is dissipating, and soon is embroiled in a plot by someone to weaken the children of the Jan’Tep. He is aided by the mysterious Argosi wanderer Ferius Parvax, who, despite the lack of any apparent magic, seems remarkably unimpressed by the Jan’Tep.
Kellen is a snarky, smart, insecure first-person narrator with an engaging voice, and his two helpers, Ferius and Reichis, provide nice contrast. If Reichis ever chooses to leave Kellen’s side, he would have a successful career as an insult comedian.
We are given a lot of details about the complex magic Kellen’s people use without ever getting a real overview of it, and we learn a lot of the history of his people. de Castell uses short chapters, most about five pages long. Kellen gets into trouble, then gets himself out of trouble in a way that gets him into more serious trouble, a plot structure that keeps the pace moving but, combined with the short chapters, made it a little hard for me to track what was going on, especially with some complicated double-crosses, lies and shocking revelations. I think this is generational and the target audience, late YA, would eat this up with a spoon.
Despite some struggle to keep things clear in my head, I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to the SPELLSLINGER series, and I went straight out to buy the others. Then I had to wrest them away from my husband, which is a good recommendation in itself.
Ferrius sounds like a take on Gambit from the X-Men, and that’s all to the good. I think I’d enjoy these. I like any books with talking squirrel-cats, after all.
Maybe Ferrius is a Rogue/Gambit mash-up? Could be interesting. :)