Crownbreaker – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

I continue to be obsessed with the Hot Key covers, designed by the very talented Sam Hadley.

Spellslinger #6

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; October 17, 2019

519 pages (Hardcover)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware Possible Spoilers for the Queenslayer, and the other previous Spellslinger books!

Crownbreaker is the sixth and (for now, at least) final book in the Spellslinger series, wrapping up this tremendously entertaining series in a tidy manner. I put off reading it for a number of months for a number of reasons. First off, Queenslayer was a heck of a book, and I needed to take some time to digest its ending. Secondly, I wasn’t ready to reach the end of the road. I’m a firm believer that all stories must end, but that doesn’t mean I hadn’t grown to love the characters in this series—particularly Kellen and Reichis. I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. The third reason, was the anticipation that was building for the final book. I’d heard a few things about Crownbreaker (including from a few of my friends who loved it), mostly good, but I was still somewhat dreading the conclusion. Would the author kill everyone off? Would he end the series in a cliffhanger? Would there be a Game of Thrones or Queen of Fire ending that worked to end the series, but sucked in every other way imaginable? I doubted de Castell would do any of these, honestly. My respect for him has grown greatly throughout the series. But while he’d provided some people with the ending they wanted, would he also give the characters the ending they deserved?

Something heavy thumped onto my chest, and a fuzzy face with beady eyes stared down at me. “You done lyin’ there yet? I’m hungry.”

After spending most of his adult life on the run, Kellen is slowly settling into his role as adviser to the Queen of Darome. Reichis, for his part, was born for courtly life. Bathing while being fed butter biscuits, being pampered by servants and royalty, and being constantly surrounded by an overwhelming variety of stealables is pretty much a dream come true. Plus, every now and then he gets to kill someone. Kellen is having a slightly harder time adapting. Getting arrested on a daily basis isn’t helping. The head of the Marshals—a striking, attractive young woman, Torian—wants him somewhere close where she can keep on eye on him. Somewhere like her quarters, or the oubliette.

My personal favorite butter biscuits, I ate them and thought of Reichis. Sadly, not in the bath.

But Kellen’s family is aware of his status at court. And they have plans for him. So when his father drops in, Kellen is less than surprised. The one man that he has spent his entire life running from stands before him, and demands a favor of him, Kellen is unimpressed. But Ke’heops is willing to welcome his son home—with a clean slate, a place within the clan, a proper mage name, and the pardoning of a certain Charmcaster as well—Kellen is entirely tempted. Until he hears what his father wants of him.

For a war is brewing on the continent. A child has been born in Berabesq, a child unlike any other. For this child is a living god. One that is sure to unite the nation beneath one flag. And when the country is one, they will roll over the continent, endangering Darome, Gitabaria and the Jan’Tep all equally. And so Kellen’s path is clear. To prevent this war—he must kill a god.

Just another reason I love the Hot Key books. This (and more) lovely picture adorns the page beginning each new section, courtesy of the equally talented Sally Taylor. Anyone know, are these also in the other versions?

This was actually my favorite installment in the series. Quite fitting that it comes at the end (But then—is it the end? I guess you’ll have to read it to find out!). Everything comes together in this final adventure. Now, it’s not perfect, but pretty much as close as anything that I’ve read this year. I don’t have anything to complain about, really. Heck, I read the last three hundred pages in one sitting. The beginning was just a bit slow, but that’s about all.

By this point in the series, there exist so many threads and potential guest stars that the author pretty much could’ve pulled one out of his hat every few chapters and still had enough left for the end. But, those that he did use, combined with the new characters he introduced in this book added up to create quite the ending, one that I’m not sure if he could’ve outdone even if he’d tried (I mean, I assume he tried. A little. But writing is pretty straightforward, right? Yup, pretty sure). In addition to all these guest stars and blindsides, there were still enough twists and turns that I kept genuinely being surprised throughout the second half (in a good way, btw) and where we ended up. Props to Sebastien de Castell for this!

Even more props for the emotional ride. I teared up more than once, and went back to reread my favorite sections before I’d even finished the book. I’m sad to see Kellen and Reichis go, along with so many more: Nephenia, Ferius, Shallan, Pan, the Queen, even Torian—but I’m happy that they all got the ending they deserved. An ending that the author even continued on in the post-script (which just isn’t done enough nowadays, and served as a pleasant surprise (which apparently I’ve just ruined for you, but), so I won’t give you any more details on it), and one that—while it didn’t tie everything together—did more than enough to reach a satisfying conclusion.

As always, nothing is stronger than the world and its characters. Leads that develop are a rare thing. Supporting characters that show depth are even rarer. But the author here has shown depth and development on a larger scale; all the characters within Spellslinger are capable of complex, even drastic change. Some progress in their development. Others regress. More do both. Kellen continues to shoot for the “man that Nephenia loves” version of himself. And Reichis just wants to eat eyeballs—though I don’t know why, they’re really a bit gristly and full of viscous liquid, even when cooked—and butter biscuits, a passion to which we all may aspire. Moreover, de Castell continues to paint such an amazing picture—one he leaves open to interpretation just enough for the reader to fill in their own gaps—and populate it with the most interesting, conniving characters imaginable. Though none of them more cynical than Kellen, of course. Cynical but trusting and cuddly as a bunny, that’s our Kellen.

TL;DR

This review probably could’ve just been a ramble about how much I enjoyed Kellen’s adventure and how much I’ll miss him in the days to come. I mean, it kinda was… but not like, entirely. I talked about how good the world-building and characters were. The development of Kellen and Reichis, and others was impressive. I mentioned how delicious butter biscuits are. I even included a photo of my favorite brand. Assuming that one has gotten this far in the review, only one reasonable question remains: have you read the series yet? And if not, WHY NOT? It’s amazing! The books even LOOK cool! I can’t recommend this fun, exciting, emotional rollercoaster enough.

Queenslayer – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

Spellslinger #5

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; May 2, 2019

451 pages (PB)

4 / 5 ✪

Author WebsiteGoodreads

Contains spoilers for the previous Spellslinger books!

The penultimate book in the Spellslinger series finds Kellen in Daroman doing what he does best—pissing people off. As a matter of course, he and Reichis realistically needed to find their way into the Empire at some point. Having been in jail, hunted, or hunted while in jail virtually everywhere else on the continent ultimately would’ve led them to feel disappointed by not having experienced the Daroman justice system first hand.

Kellen being Kellen, he manages to get arrested by Daroman authorities after legally killing someone. Following a duel over a hand of cards, Kellen dispatches his opponent with flair, afterwards wiping some of his blood onto a cloth in the overseeing marshals’ saddlebags. A cloth that just happened to be the Daroman flag. See, Daroman justice is a fiddly bit, and wiping blood (or likely other bodily fluids) on their flag is tantamount to treason. And so Kellen is trussed up, thrown on a horse and paraded to the capital where the Queen is to oversee his trial and subsequent execution. Reichis—meanwhile—rides in style, being hand-fed butter biscuits and pampered by the marshals.

But upon visiting the court, a curious thing happens.

The Queen—the ruling monarch for 2000 years reincarnated in the body of an 11-year old—chooses to spare Kellen, instead appointing him her Tutor of Cards, essentially making him untouchable by the legal system. His reward for this? To help the Queen survive into her teenage years, while also teaching her cards.

And yet, not all is as it seems. While many of the courtiers hate Kellen—being a foreign mage, especially one cursed with Shadowblack, is not good for public opinion—just as many fear him in equal measure. Reichis is generally just viewed with adoration or distaste, both of which seem to infuriate the squirrel-cat. As such, both Kellen and his business partner are quickly confronted with assassination plots, which they manage to thwart. But surviving these is just the first step.

Over the course of Queenslayer, Kellen is thrown into the pit of courtly politics. Involved is a beautiful countess, and the major attempting to force said countess into marriage. There’s a reclusive count willing to help Kellen out, seemingly for free. There’re several marshals seeking his death (actually, there’s quite a lot of people trying to kill him, but). There’s a millennia-old reincarnate, a powerful queen, and a scared little girl—all in one. The Jan’Tep have their fingers in the mix, with Sha’maat appearing to make another brazen request. There’s the queen’s social secretary; a mysterious man everyone loves and hates in equal measure.And there’s Kellen and Reichis in the middle, with no Ferius or Nephenia in sight.

“And what is your occupation?”

“Mostly people try to kill me. When they fail, I take their money.”

As Kellen has proved in past books, he doesn’t need anyone’s help screwing himself over. But as he proved in Soulbinder, neither does he need anyone’s help getting out of it. Just give him a sec to think it over, a half-assed plan involving Reichis that’s sure to fail, and clap him in irons and let him get to work. The results are usually surprising—but always entertaining.

It’s quite something to see Kellen’s progress over these five books. He’s built from a pessimistic smart-ass into something more, while still maintaining his core values. Some of them, at least. The character progression over this book—over the entire series—is an impressive bit of writing. The world-building as well continues to impress. While not as exhaustive as some other contemporaries, Spellslinger has spanned a continent and described, in rare detail, all the major players involved. While some further detail is left wanting, de Castell does a lovely job of giving enough, while not making it seem like too much. Though I’ve a feeling book six lies in the realm of the Jan’Tep—it could very well be anywhere seen over the course of the series.

The plot of Queenslayer involves an intricate—and at times confusing—journey through courtly intrigue, sex, death and politics. What emerges at the end is a a pale comparison to what started out, which I found both pleasing and disappointing at once, somehow. While I was mad at myself for losing a handle on everything that was going on, I loved the end result, an intricate plot with twists and turns and surprises aplenty. And yet, I was disappointed in the times Kellen simply refuses to act. More than once, he refuses to get involved, while the story attempts to pass him by and we the reader have to catch up with it when at last Kellen rejoins the fray.

As the final book looms large: so many questions remain. EDIT: most of which I can’t relay here because of possible spoilers. I guess you’ll just have to read to find out!

TL;DR

If you’ve made it to Book #4 or #5 in the series, congratulations! Similarly, you probably don’t need much urging from me to finish it off. In all likelihood you’ve stopped reading by now and moved on to the next book. If you haven’t (either gotten this far or stopped reading), then know that even through five books Spellslinger continues to impress. I think most fans of the series will be excited for Crownbreaker, but more than a little disappointed as well. I’ll miss Kellen and Reichis, their adventures and mishaps. But I want to know what happens in the end and how they fit into it. And how Nephenia fits into it. And Sha’maat. And the Jan’Tep. And the continent. And the Shadowblack. What more can I do but recommend this? It’s recommended. There. Done. Join me later for the series denouement—Crownbreaker—published just last fall!

Soulbinder – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

Spellslinger #4

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; October 4, 2018

417 pages (PB)

4.5 / 5 ✪

Author WebsiteGoodreads

Contains possible spoilers for the previous 3 Spellslinger books.

The fourth book in the Spellslinger series, Soulbinder details the continuing adventures of spellslinger and outlaw Jan’Tep Kellen Argos as he traipses across the land performing his noble deeds. Or… mostly while he rips people off, still searching for a cure for his Shadowblack. But where no one had previously understood his ailment or how to cure it (short of attempting to kill him, that is) (which they’ve all done quite a lot of, really), Soulbinder may finally present Kellen’s lucky break. But—rather than a community of patients now cured of the horrible disease—he’s found a realm of people still infected with it. And they have graciously accepted him into their society, what by knocking him out and kidnapping him and all.

Reichis is nowhere to be found, however, prompting Kellen to assume the worst. As he left his cuddly little business partner dying in the middle of the desert, this isn’t really a big leap. But Kellen, being remarkably short on friends, is still willing to risk his life to save Reichis’s. Assuming that he can even find the squirrel-cat, that is. And, assuming that he can escape the Ebony Abbey first.

The Abbey is quite the abode. A shadowy dimension inaccessible from the outside. Filled with dozens of pupils, all infected with the Shadowblack. Any of whom might turn at the drop of a hat, giving in to the vile darkness that lurks in their minds, urging them to kill.

But Kellen is delayed in his quest to discover Reichis’s fate. First, by the monks knocking him out and tying him up when he tried to escape, but later by the fact that he can’t find anywhere to escape TO. And furthermore, Kellen has very little idea where Reichis even is. He’s in a desert… somewhere… in the world.

And the longer that Kellen is trapped in the Abbey, the more he comes to feel like part of a team. All his life, Kellen has felt alone. First, due to his lack of any magical talent. Next, being marked with the Shadowblack. Here in the Abbey are several dozen young outcasts who feel exactly as he has, all struggling with the same condition that will one day kill them… or worse turn them into monsters. While he needs to find Reichis, needs to continue his quest—Kellen finds himself unwilling to leave. For maybe, finally, he’s found his true home.

Soulbinder may be my favorite book in the series to date. Took me all of four days to read. As with every other book in the series, it’s easy to roll through fairly quickly. The language, the humor, the pacing, the predicaments all make the story move along. The short chapters give one multiple opportunities to stop and get on with one’s life, but also entice the reader into just one or two more, since they won’t take very much time. As usual, de Castell has woven a marvelous tale—with but a few exceptions.

My biggest problem with Soulbinder is that it feels episodic. I mean, Spellslinger is a six-part series, where Book 1 served as a coming-of-age tale, and #2 worked on establishing his outcast identity. Charmcaster sees Kellen really come into his own, complete with his split from Ferius Parfex—his mentor. Soulbinder, while truly interesting and exciting, does little to further the overarching plot. Yes, yes, there is a little bit here and there, but it really just feels like a separate adventure set in the same world. It’s not a tremendous issue, as there are two books to come, but in the same way: there’re only two books left! Assuming that Queenslayer sets the table and Crownbreaker ends the series—what good does Soulbinder serve? That being said, it was a thrilling adventure—one that I’ve just said was my favorite thus far. So, while it DID feel episodic, it’s not like that really bothered me.

Another issue is the lack of returning characters. Kellen is on his own this time. No Reichis. No Ferius. There are a few cameos later on, but initially at least, Kellen has to make do with keeping his own company. That, or make nice with his captor/rescuers. While it’s certainly nice to see how Kellen gets on on his own, and while his interactions with his fellow Shadowblackies are just as entertaining—I missed the dynamic Kellen has with his friends.

In every other way, Soulbinder is a must-read. I loved the new adventure set in a previously unknown locale, and the fellow Shadowblackians provide a glimpse into the deeper, darker corridors or Kellen’s affliction. More so, they offer Kellen with insight into his disease, and how the Shadowblack may even be used to his advantage. And of course, they underline its terrible price. And the Abbot’s knowledge—while far from being complete or scientific—provides us with some much needed lore about the Shadowblack and its sufferers.

TL;DR

Soulbinder is another amazing entry in the Spellslinger series, as Sebastien de Castell does his best to bankrupt us and steal away all of our sleep. A page-turning thriller from beginning to end, while it does comparatively little to advance the overarching plot, Soulbinder does provide a much needed glimpse into the world of the Shadowblack, easily doubling what we know about it thus far. Kellen is on his own this time—no Reichis, no Ferius, though a few familiar faces do crop up later on. And a few new associates do steal the spotlight from him now and then. It’s a quick and easy read; between the language, the story, and the pace, I finished it in 4 days. And I’m not the fastest reader. Highly recommended. Easily a must-read if you’ve made it this far into the Spellslinger series. And if you haven’t—why not?

Spellslinger continues with Queenslayer, the penultimate entry, and Crownbreaker, the series finale—both out in 2019. And can we just admire the cover art and illustrations by Sam Hadley? They’re incredible.

Charmcaster – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

Spellslinger #3

YA, Fantasy

Hot Key Books; May 17, 2018

417 pages (PB)

4 / 5 ✪

Very little in Kellen’s life seems to be going his way. Counterbanded by his own blood, exiled by his kin, hunted by his people—Kellen has had his fair share of ill fortune. And so when he finds himself hunted by hextrackers in the middle of a sandstorm in a barren expanse of desert, he obviously assumes the worst. And yet, not all is as it seems. For when he and Ferius work to save the life of their pursuer, Kellen gets a surprise. One in the form of kiss.

Charmcaster sees Nephenia join the fold, signing on as the fourth member of Team Kellen. And yet her appearance is hardly the good news the team has been looking for. No, it seems that she only was able to find Kellen because there are sooo many other mages trying to kill him. And yet, her arrival heralds quite a bit more than the feelings of love and terror with Kellen. For something amazing is occurring within one of the smallest nations on the continent, Gitabria. Here, a community of scientists and inventors have produced something truly remarkable: a mechanical bird.

Spies and diplomats alike flock to the symposium where sight of this mythical creature awaits. Each are willing to part with exorbitant amounts of coin in order to buy such a wonder, or more, learn how it was made. But the bird holds a dark secret buried within, such that many will kill to cover it up. And yet, as so much comes to light, the world itself might be in the balance.

And yet how could something so small set off a war? Kellen and the gang investigate.

Charmcaster is another fun, exciting, interesting read from Greatcoats author Sebastien de Castell. As of now I’m four books in to this series of six, where each book is as exciting as the last. Kellen, as always, exudes a certain combination of sarcasm, hope and ineptitude to attract even the most discerning of readers, and backs it up with enough action and espionage to keep them entertained through to the end.

This third entry further cements Kellen’s standing as an outlaw spellslinger, while also further enhancing his character’s means and ability. Charmcaster is an excellent example of character development, as Kellen is once more forced to adapt and evolve, using tools and tricks to distract from his lack of magic. Nephenia’s appearance adds even more to Kellen’s development, as Shadowblack—while I thoroughly enjoyed it—did little in the way of romance. But with his love interest from Spellslinger back… Kellen is free to… um, whatever he does. Wouldn’t call it romance, exactly, except in the awkward teenage way of teens who are especially awkward when it comes to romance. So… not a terribly romantic romance, but an entertaining one.

The story is… pretty good. While it lacks the intrigue and polish found in the first two books, Charmcaster is by no means bad. It’s just, well, not as good. Interesting if not intriguing intrigue. Too much cloak and dagger but too little mystery. It delivers the same snappy, entertaining dialogue as in previous books, while providing an enticing if not heart-pounding adventure.

TL;DR

The short of it: Charmcaster is an interesting, entertaining entry to the Spellslinger series. One that takes great strides to develop Kellen’s character, while doing much less to further the overarching story. The return of Nephenia does wonders for the romantic aspect of it all, in the sense that 1>0. It’s certainly worth the price of admission, or the $7ish I paid for it. An entertaining adventure that one can probably burn through multiple times with no regrets. I certainly have none in buying it.

Book Review: Shadowblack – by Sebastien de Castell

Spellslinger Book #2

Fantasy, YA Fantasy

Hot Key Books; May 18, 2018 (UK), Orbit Books; August 21, 2018 (US)

340 pages

4.5 / 5 ✪

Kellen wasn’t good at being a mage. He’s no good at being an wanderer, either. With few tricks and even fewer spells, he’s basically a one trick pony. And even in exile, he not only retains more than his fair share of problems—bounty hunters, rogue mages, fear, misconception and inability—but manages to even collect those of others—in the form of a shadowblack plague that not only affects mages, but those with no magic at all. But with Ferius Parfax and Reichis there watching out for him… well, he may live long enough for his own shadowblack to kill him.

So begins the aptly named ‘Shadowblack’—the second book in the Spellslinger series, written by Sebastien de Castell. Where Spellslinger introduced us to the so-called “mainstays” in the cast (although de Castell has warned us not to get too attached to any one character, for obvious reasons—advice that I have ignored, for reasons of me), its sequel provides more than enough entertaining, exciting characters to fall in love with all over again. And when Kellen meets a girl his own age, he might just do the same.

I really liked Spellslinger. It had a great story, entertaining characters, fun, mischief, sarcasm… yet did not manage to escape all the pitfalls that often plague new debuts. Shadowblack it seems, has learnt from these mistakes (for the most part). There is still one moment where Kellen is able to wriggle out of a sticky situation. One, though. That’s not bad. Otherwise, de Castell doesn’t need to invent anything to bring his characters through. And while fixing these missteps, Shadowblack capitalizes on its successes. Why improve on perfection, eh?

Where the first book thrust Kellen into a mystery within the lands of the Jan’Tep, his own people, the second sends him on an epic adventure into the unknown—lands that while he has heard about, Kellen has never experienced. I loved this first glimpse into the greater world. And for a wanderer, an exile like Kellen, it’s an adventure that may just be beginning. I really enjoyed the different lands and people, the new sights and experiences, all seen through the eyes of someone experiencing all of them for the first time. Even though Spellslinger introduced a whole new world to the reader, it was one Kellen had known his whole life. If the subsequent books promise to keep varying the surroundings, testing Kellen and his friends with new and exciting adventures—count me in!

As the series continues, it’ll be interesting to see if—and how—Kellen will evolve. In some TV shows, which Spellslinger kinda reminds me of (new episode, new location, new whatever), the while the locale and experiences change, the characters end up remaining the same. Good ol’ Jack, or MacGyver, or whomever. As Kellen is still young, the series aims to make itself into his coming-out party. Not that kind. Well… maybe that kind. Doesn’t matter. Hopefully the following books leads him through a character arc, one that changes who he is even between books, while maintaining—though tweaking—his core through it all. Will he become disillusioned by the outside world? Will he let his Shadowblack control his destiny, or rise to meet it? Will he and Reichis join up with some teens and a psychedelic van and cruise around solving mysteries? Will he experience real change, or will he continue wandering through life with no path before him but the next step and whatever way the wind blows?

I guess we’ll have to see.

Book Review: Spellslinger – by Sebastien de Castell

Spellslinger Book #1

Fantasy, YA Fantasy

Hot Key Books; May 4, 2017 (UK), Orbit Books; July 17, 2018 (US)

432 pages

4.5 / 5 ✪

A fresh YA fantasy follows a boy struggling through his mage exams. Kellen’s an outcast, unlucky, scion of a powerful family… oh, and he has no magic. The world-building for the first Spellslinger book is impressive for a YA. de Castell doesn’t skimp—fresh off the Greatcoats Quartet, he weaves a tale of intrigue and mystery, with a boy that may lack magic, but has learned to make up for it by using his natural skills and wile. Nothing new about the support-system, Kellen has collected a team of outcasts and friends to help him defeat someone much more powerful than he. But a lovely story with entertaining characters in a new and interesting world should be more than enough of a reason to read.

Kellen has only a few weeks til his 16th birthday, the age when he becomes a man in Jan’Tep society and expected to pass his mage trials. Slight issue: he hasn’t sparked any of his bands that allow him to control the six elements of magic. And without them, not only will he be unable to pass his mage exams, Kellen will always be relegated from the Jan’Tep ranks, instead becoming Mar’Tep—those without magic that act as servants to the ruling class. And seeing as how Kellen is the scion to one of his clan’s most powerful families, his own sister a prodigy of no equal… So, no pressure. And somehow, things are about to get worse.

Spellslinger is a strong fantasy novel, and more so, a good beginning to an excellent series. I actually enjoyed the second (Shadowblack) more than the first; in which I felt that de Castell capitalized on his successes from the first while fixing the ways he erred. But that’s for later.

The characters, while not deep, were very human. Instead of the depressing, dark stuff that I normally read, Spellslinger was uplifting, funny and hopeful, despite the fact that Kellen’s story is really anything but. It helps to have secondary characters like Ferius Parfax or Reichis to keep both the comedy and action rolling.

I had a problem with, well, one of those clichés that allowed Kellen and his friends to escape situations they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Y’know, it’s like when the villain takes time to explain his/her plan giving the hero the chance to escape and stop her/him. I feel like de Castell—for all the other good he did—really could’ve come up with something better.

While this book doesn’t do anything “new”, exactly—a mage without magic, a ragtag group of heroes going up against overwhelming odds, etc—I found that the combination of it all went together rather smoothly, to the point that nothing was over the top or too cliché. The added elements of kinship versus betrayal, hope versus defeat, and a burgeoning yet complicated love story, really helped bring this coming of age tale to life. As I’ve noted already, the second was amazing, so there’s no reason not to pick up Spellslinger today.

Audiobook Note: Joe Jameson was amazing! I only read the first book on audio, but’ve made it through the 2nd and 3rd with his voice narrating whenever Kellen speaks. It’s always important to have a good reader, and Jameson was certainly one!