2 October 2018

Review - Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell

Soulbinder (Spellslinger 4)
Sebastien de Castell (illustrated by Sam Hadley)
Hot Key Books, 4 October 2018
HB, 432pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Soulbinder via Netgalley.

This is the fourth in de Castell's fantasy series featuring exiled Jan'Tep mage Kellen Argos and his formidable "business partner", squirrel cat Reichis. It follows Spellslinger, Shadowblack and Charmcaster (mild spoilers for which may follow).

As was clear from the end of Charmcaster, Kellen is now alone (apart from Reichis) and when we meet him again at the start of Soulbinder, he is at his wits' end in the desert ("the desert is a liar"). It's the moment when in previous books Ferius would have pulled off some stroke or other and saved the day - but Ferius isn't there. Kellen has left her. He is forced back on his own resources, and they're running very low. Soon even more challenges arrive, combining family loyalties, Jan'Tep plots to wipe out those infected with the shadowblack, and counterplots by a whole community of the shadow touched.

Soulbinder is in many ways a bleaker book than those which came before, as Kellen makes a journey into darkness on several levels. The shadowblack continues to spread. Kellen doesn't know who to trust, or how to save what he loves. Not only must he cope with all this alone, bearing a crushing loss and suffering the pain of betrayal ("I hated my sister. I loved my sister") even more sharply than before. Not only being treated as a spy, and being unable to manipulate the shadows, just as he can't use Jan'Tep magic.

More than all this, I think, Kellen sees again what he is missing - the home he was exiled from and the friendships he can't be part of because he is hunted and outlawed. For much of this book he's trying to work out how, if at all, he can fit in with a whole pack of new shadowcasters but Kellen's not used to this (as we have seen before) - Jan'Tep society is much more hierarchical and since he left it he's been in strange company and generally fighting for his life. Not the best way to learn social graces.

Yet a great deal hangs on Kellen's success. Not only Kellen's own life, but that of someone else very close to him, and potentially those of the new "friends" and their community in Ebony Abbey, to which exiles cursed by the shadow black make their way for sanctuary. There's also the question of what's wanted from him - this book sees the powerful trying to tempt him to their side with plausible arguments and it's as much Kellen's moral compass that is tested as his courage and ingenuity. (We can see what de Castell feels about these blandishments fro m the chapter headings, where various nuggets of folk wisdom are expounded and then dismissed scathingly:

"A king rules not for himself, but for his people. Thus he can not be bound by conscience, but must instead be guided by every deed necessary for the survival of his realm.

- Platitude frequently used by arseholes to justify their actions"

I think Kellen steps up to all these challenges very well, much better than in the previous books - effectively he has much more responsibility now, even if he still despairs at what he has to do as he walks The Way of Thunder ("I hate this. I hate this. I hate this") and he has clearly learned a great deal from Ferius as well as from Reichis and even his own family. There is a sense he's growing, even if he hasn't had a decent night's sleep or a square meal for months. It probably needed Kellen to lose his companions for this to happen, but I do hope he meets up with some of them again soon because while it's still very entertaining, there isn't so much fun without, say, Ferius to annoy Kellen.

Finally. Being very careful, again, about spoilers, there's something that happens in this book that had me practically cursing de Castell. Which is a kind of backhanded tribute, I suppose, to how real he makes his characters and the events in the books, and how much the reader cares about what happens.  It's an ability not all authors, even good authors, possess so I can only be grateful that he's writing these books and that there are more to come. But - SEBASTIEN, SEBASTIEN!

So. Buy this book. Read this book, and look forward to Queenslayer.

Oh, and Kellen now has an Argosi name, which I think we didn't know before (maybe I missed it). We learn it at the very end of the book and I won't tell you  what it is but I think it's very appropriate.

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