Spellslinger by Sebastian De Castell

I would read anything written by Sebastian de Castell. The Greatcoats series, coming to a "shocking conclusion" with the Tyrant's Throne soon to be out, is one of my favorite running series. (Oh next on my reading list!) It's pulpy fun, old fashioned fantasy about heroic protagonists, revenge duels, political conspiracies and truckloads of bromance and a whole lotta love.  So when I came across Spellslinger, his alleged YA-Fantasy debut, I was equal parts excited - and a bit dismayed. YA? Sticking to the defined cordons of this genre, would Sebastian really be able to bring out the delights of the comic camaraderie of the knights' brotherhood, that dark brooding atmosphere of conspiracies and dangers, the intensity? Or will it be a watered-down version with possibly a candyfloss romance thrown in between teens swooning for each other?



I need not have worried much. Spellslinger is a completely fresh tale, a YA-fantasy with a western frontier feel to the world, featuring a first-person narrative by this wily and courageous, even if magically untalented sixteen year old named Kellen, on the verge of his sixteenth birthday - which also happens to be the day he is to be initiated as a full mage and thereby determine his role in this rigid hierarchical society of magic practitioners - those blessed with the ability for magical spells by binding with six different elementals ( Silk & Sand, Breathe & Blood, Iron & Ember) are known as the Jan'Tepp and have roles based on their abilities. The different clans that make up this society compete for power and are kept in check by an elected authority, the last one being a prince who had been ruling all of them for past three hundred years. So cut back to Kellen, who unfortunately has not been able to "spark the bands" (that signify his ability to bond with the elements and get a spell going) is about to get into his first trial for becoming a mage - a duel with a bully in the academy. Kellen uses his cunning to get the better of his opponent but his own sister, who cannot stand a "wrong in terms of the magical rites of passage" calls him out on his trick.

A stranger named Ferius rides into the town - a lady who's sort of like a traveling performer with her card tricks and saves Kellen from getting beat up by the bully and his brothers, who also happen to be the sons of the mage heading a rival clan. Things heat up rapidly from here, with a larger conspiracy looming large on the society - of an evil, eradicated eons ago, threatening to rise again and threaten the survival of the whole society. And Kellen, the magically untalented kid, gets unwittingly drawn into this and discovers a lot of truths about not just the world he grew up in but also himself.

On the premise, it does look like it's a story that's been done before. But Sebastian's treatment makes it special and his characters really get the story going - immersing us into this magical world of spells, potions, magic tricks and talking snarky squirrel-cats. There's never a dull moment, with the duels and the attacks by the unknown evil from outside - and also the growing insidious power struggle within the society. As with the swashbuckling swordfights from the Greatcoats' series, this one here is full of in-your-face magical fights, entertaining and fraught with dangers galore. The narrative flies along at breakneck pace as conspiracies are revealed, history is ravaged and secrets come tumbling out. And the dialogues are spot-on, funny and hilarious. Kellen's first person narrative does limit the world building to his own interactions with this world but there are hints of older myths and a far larger world beyond that of the Jan'Tepp that makes sense.

Sebastian has always been a winner when it comes to the characters. Here as well, Kellen the main protagonist is sparkling, a boy who is going through a rite of passage, but remarkably bending the rules of the game to his own tunes and kicking everybody's ass. Now what Kellen lacks for in terms of magic, he more than makes up for it, with his cunning. This quality kind of sets him apart from the rest of the mages and initiates and this forms a crucial part of the overall plot. He is chosen by a powerful mage, precisely for his ability to see the big picture and not bend to the rules, like sheep. He is witty but immature at times. There are moments when he behaves like a foolish, a lovelorn teenager, yes and his confusions are hilarious but he overall, more than redeems himself with his relentless courage in the face of danger and his staunch love for those he calls family or friend.

Kellen gets an unlikely mentor - actually two but let me get through the humans first, huh (wink!) So Ferius is the mysterious stranger riding into town ( Like the Man with No Name from Sergio Leone's movies made immortal by Clint Eastwood, just that it's a woman with balls of blue bronze.) who is openly scornful of magic, flouts traditions and is not afraid to speak her mind. Naturally, Kellen is fascinated by her, in truth just a few years older than him probably but living life on her own terms - and yes, kicking the magical bumbling arses of these mages who are 'holier and mightier than thou'. I loved her character and yes, there is a lot hidden behind her, to be revealed hopefully in the next book.

The rest of the characters are all fascinating and fun - There's Ke'heops, Kellen's father - the man revered for his magic and who will do anything to abide by the rules of the society. His sister, Shalla an ambitious driven and talented little girl ready to go to any lengths to earn her tithes. The bad guys, really aren't that intimidating and daunting though. And there are quite a few of them. Which brings us to the talking squirrel-cat, full of vitriol and snarky spark and wit. Reichus - he's the surprise package that is going to bowl you over and I won't break the suspense for you.

It's a fairly brisk read and you can rattle through it in under a few days. Yes, its squarely in the YA territory and hence, not dark at all. And the depth of the world-building or the emotional heft in terms of immersing ourselves in the rapidly evolving conflict might not be too significant. But it's definitely got the Sebastian stamp on it. Its highly entertaining as a story and things only look to be building up to be better in this series as we go ahead. Shadowblack comes out in October, so not too long a wait to be reunited with Kellen and his friends. Highly recommended! 

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