26 May 2018

Review - Charmcaster by Sebastien de Castell

Charmcaster (Spellslinger 3)
Sebastien de Castell (illustrated by Sam Hadley)
Hot Key Books, 17 May 2018
HB, 432pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

This is the third in de Castell's Spellslinger series, following the adventures of runaway mage Kellen. If you haven't read the earlier books yet you definitely should - read on to see why! (I've tried to avoid spoilers here for the earlier books).

Kellen is a credible and engaging protagonist. He's had to flee his home and leave his family (albeit after they treated him appallingly). He is struggling with what he believes to be a full blown curse. He's not all-powerful, he has been wounded and limited in his earlier encounters with his fellow Jan'Tep. Yet still he tries to make his way - essentially, he brags his way through dangerous situations using the skills taught his by the wandering Argosi, Ferius. There's an air of tension in any encounter with more powerful mages or warriors, albeit one frequently offset by the humour of Kellen's bickering with his squirrel cat 'business partner', Reichis - the relationship between the two often becoming quite touching. And Ferius is a great support, although she seems to be repeatedly getting into danger in defence of Kellen...

In this book, the three are joined by another renegade Jan'Tep, who has also been damaged by that community, and the group is beginning to shape up into an interesting crew, quite different from the typical fantasy band of arrogant adventurers. The language and atmosphere of continues, at the start,  to echo that of a Western, focussed on the idea of escape into an unknown frontier - albeit, as this book makes clear, it isn't really, it's already occupied by other people - but that changes somewhat when the group arrive at a city.

Gitabria is renowned far and wide for its cunning inventions. There, the friends  find themselves caught between angry mages, visionary 'contraptioneers' - inventors - and a rather nasty Secret Police. There's a messy, many-sided power struggle going on and Kellen has to dig deep into his reserves of courage and also of trust. When family, clan and friends fall - like Ferius's cards - into such strange patterns, how will you know who to rely on?

There is a danger with drawn out series that the pace will flag, the clarity of the original vision be lost, as the author explores a wider and wider world. Nothing like that is going on here. I felt that Charmcaster is, rather, more sharp and focussed than Spellslinger or Shadowblack with some juicy moral dilemmas and with an awful choice (well, actually, several) confronting Kellen. In a sense, he's growing up and needs to decide where his life is going, conscious that he's bringing danger to those around him.

It's also a book that is more ensemble than the earlier volumes - with one new character in particular (well, not actually new, but, at the same time, new) who is another complex, conflicted and wounded person and easily a match for Kellen.

It is all, really, getting darker and messier. Just how I like things.

With the fourth volume, Soulbinder, due this Autumn, you've got time to catch up - so get reading!

You can see my reviews of Spellslinger and Shadowblack here and here. For more about the book see the publisher's website here.

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