Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell

There are three things that earn you a man’s name among the Jan’Tep. The first is to demonstrate the strength to defend your family. The second is to prove you can perform the high magic that defines our people. The third is simply to reach the age of sixteen. I was a few weeks shy of my birthday when I learned that I wouldn’t be doing any of those things.

Magic is a con game.

Kellen is moments away from facing his first mage’s duel and the start of four trials that will make him a spellcaster. There’s just one problem: his magic is gone. As his sixteenth birthday approaches, Kellen falls back on his cunning in a bid to avoid total disgrace. But when a daring stranger arrives in town, she challenges Kellen to take a different path. Ferius Parfax is one of the mysterious Argosi – a traveller who lives by her wits and the three decks of cards she carries. She’s difficult and unpredictable, but she may be Kellen’s only hope…

I’m not going to lie, the concept of a ‘spellslinger’ is one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard of. A Google search revealed that it also happens to be the name of a card in an online card video game, which is oddly fitting.

Anyway, ‘spellslinger’. The word conjures up associations of Westerns, of fights at high noon on a dusty road while saloon doors swing back and forth in the breeze, as well as mages and magic and all that sort of stuff. There’s a slightly disappointing lack of Western elements in Spellslinger, though the hard-drinking, card-playing, incongruous Southern-drawling Ferius pretty much makes up for that.

I loved the central premise of the book- here is a protagonist who is not a brilliant magical prodigy, nor the nobody who has emerged from obscurity to become the hero of his people. Instead, Kellen comes from one of the most powerful families in his society and is the weakest magic-user in his class. His first appearance is a perfect character introduction and gives a hint of what he can become: he is going up against a more powerful enemy but manages to defeat him through cunning, endurance and some serious bluffing skills, albeit being brutally injured in the process- which turns out to be a regular occurrence.

Kellen also cries a lot, which is understandable given the said brutal injuries, and it’s nice to have a protagonist whose emotional turmoil is acknowledged, but I couldn’t help but laugh at a certain squirrel-cat’s pointing it out every time. Reichis the foul-mouthed squirrel-cat is both my favourite and least favourite character; I can’t help but love his penchant for calling everyone ‘bitch’ and his determination to horribly maul everyone who wrongs him, but, well. He certainly provides much-needed relief from some pretty heavy stuff that Kellen has to process and somehow break through.

I liked how Ferius is sarcastic and undoubtedly irresponsible, but also genuinely cares about Kellen, in some ways more than his family.

It sometimes gets a bit too much and feels overwhelmingly chaotic. There’s the revelation of the truth behind Kellen’s people, a secret plot to bring down society, internal power struggles between the leading families, romantic interest, finding the origins of a dark magical curse, and establishing the rules of how magic works.

But it’s all well-written and engaging enough that it largely works, and I liked it even more than Traitor’s Blade, which is saying something because I really liked that book.

There’s not much to say about the plot without spoiling it, and I wouldn’t want to do that. But trust me, if you like YA fantasy novels with strong likeable characters, unpredictable plots and lots of ridiculous bluffing, you won’t want to miss out on this one.

Gorgeous cover art too.


Image: William Creswell/Flickr
Summary: Goodreads

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