Queenslayer – Captivating But Showing Wear

51kfgvjszblI am running out of inventive and original ways to say I really like almost anything that Sebastien de Castell puts out. This is something like the eighth book of his that I have reviewed and the worst thing I have had to say about any of his works is that you should go read it as soon as possible. However, let it be said that I do my due diligence and review everything of his that I come across. Queenslayer is one such book, the fifth and penultimate installment in de Castell’s YA Spellslinger series. Although I wouldn’t categorize these books as heavy intellectual reading, they have been a welcome romp every time I have read one and I was really looking forward to the fifth installment. Is this the book that finally breaks de Castell’s streak of excellence? No, but I do think that the Spellslinger series is starting to show some signs of strain.

For those of you not familiar with the series, you can find my review of book one here, and the other installments here and here. A gross oversimplification of the plot would be that Spellslinger follows the story of Kellen, a mage with a demonic curse that will eventually kill him and has restricted his ability to use magic. Thanks to his curse, he is exiled from his tribe and hunted like a criminal. Thus Kellen must make use of his wiles, tricks, and friends to survive in a harsh world where magic is worth everything. The books in the series all take a similar structure, and Queenslayer is no exception: Kellen travels to a new location and is confronted with a strange new magical threat and must use the skills and tools he has acquired thus far to figure out what is going on. In Queenslayer, Kellen finds himself in the court of one of the larger kingdoms in de Castell’s world. Through an unfortunate series of events, Kellen is forced into the role of tutor to a young, yet deceptively smart, monarch. Kellen must survive the machinations of the court, discover who is plotting the downfall of his new charge, and survive the usual amounts of death one encounters while being wanted in exile.

I really like Queenslayer’s premise. Court intrigue has always been a favorite book subject of mine and it’s a space that de Castell naturally excels in with his powerful character writing and fun dialogue. The new characters are fun and memorable, and the developments at court captivated my curiosity and kept me invested to the point where I finished the book in a single sitting. In addition, de Castell’s worldbuilding continues the series trend of fleshing out his magical world and gives you a strong and consistent sense of the political landscape both within this new country, and other locations we have visited in the series before. The pace is unsurprisingly excellent, and while it is definitely aimed at a YA audience it is a book that almost any age can enjoy.

Unfortunately, while the positives of Queenslayer are massive, I had a negative thought that I couldn’t banish for a large section of my reading: I have seen a lot of this before. Although de Castell has done an admirable job of giving each book its own unique identity, there is a pattern of sameness that has started to become a little more apparent at book five. Some of the events in Queenslayer seem a little more unlikely than usual. When this is paired with some recurring villains and machinations showing up yet again for the fifth book in a row, Queenslayer started feeling like a weak installment that was showing signs of wear. The book was still a delight to read, but it didn’t stick with me the same way the first four installments did. I am surprised to say this, but it feels like this series is about ready to wrap up and I am excited for what will surely be an exciting conclusion in the sixth and final book.

If you are already reading the Spellslinger series, Queenslayer should be an obvious pickup. Sebastian de Castell’s work has a warmth and a joy that is contagious and ever present in everything he makes. Queenslayer has all the great things its four older siblings have, although it is starting to show a few signs of age. Queenslayer feels like an excellent set up for the final installment of the Spellslinger series and I look forward to closing out this saga with very positive memories.

Rating: Queenslayer – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Charmcaster And Soulbinder – Fun Is King

While updating my Goodreads reading status for Charmcaster and Soulbinder, books three and four of the YA Spellslinger series by Sebastien de Castell, I noticed an upsetting fact: Spellslinger has a depressingly small number of reviews for its high level of quality. I have already spoken at length about both book one and book two and mentioned how much I enjoyed them. Recently, Orbit publishing was kind enough to send me ARCs of the next two entries in the series (thank you to everyone at Orbit). I am happy to say that the books continue to be amazing and that I read Charmcaster in two days and Soulbinder in a single night. Now that I have spent four books in de Castell’s incredible world, I feel better prepared to talk about what makes this magical series.

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In short, they remind me of Harry Potter. When I make that claim, I do not mean to imply that the books have similar plots, settings, characters, or even magic – although both books do follow a prodigal wizard as he sets about trying to save the world from magic evildoers. When I say the books remind me of Harry Potter, what I actually mean is that Spellslinger has the same emotional urgency and investment that I felt Harry Potter had as a child. Both series have ok writing, a fairly simple plot, and lovable but slightly shallow characters. However, both series are written with some of the best pacings out of any books I have ever read, cannot be put down once they are started, and most importantly – are just a lot of damn fun.

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I was talking with a co-contributor yesterday as I tried to get my thoughts in order about Soulbinder. Essentially, my issue was I didn’t know what kind of rating to give the book. On the one hand, Soulbinder (and Charmcaster) aren’t even in the top five deepest books I have read this month. They don’t demonstrate prose that stands out in the fantasy landscape. They don’t feel like brilliant works of literature. But, they are possibly the books I enjoyed most in the entire last year. These books are simply a good time. The plot may be simple, but I was more invested in it than the various other webs of intrigue I have read this year. The characters might not be extremely deep, but dear god does Kellen resonate with me. I slip effortlessly into his shoes, understand his woes, and revel in his victories. The prose might not be on par with Tolkien in excellence, but the books make me laugh. They are extremely fun, from start to finish. And as my co-contributor so helpfully pointed out, isn’t that the most important thing about reading?

People read for a lot of reasons: fun, prestige, self-improvement, aesthetics, and more. There isn’t a better or worse motivation for picking up a book. However, I personally will take a book that is fun over any other quality any day of the week. Charmcaster and Soulbinder both deliver fun by the truckload, as do the first two books, and I would recommend them to any reader of any age. They aren’t going to astound you with literary brilliance, but you probably have so much fun reading them you won’t realize what time it is until it is 4:00 AM – and here at The Quill to Live, there is no higher standard of excellence than a book that results in irresponsible reading until the early morning hours on a workday.

Rating:
Charmcaster – 9.0/10
Soulbinder – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Shadowblack – Same Great Writing, New Darker Color

34913716When I was a kid, I didn’t have very much money for comics. As such I decided that I should stick with the one comic franchise I was really enjoying, the X-Men, and get as deep into their story as I could. While reading the X-Men, I fell in love with one of their classic friends/foes: Gambit. Gambit is a smooth talking mutant from New Orleans who was the coolest because he threw playing cards as a weapon and could make things explode. So when Sebastien de Castell’s newest protagonist, Kellen, developed a penchant for throwing playing cards and making things explode, describing me as ‘thrilled’ would be an understatement. Shadowblack is the second title in de Castell’s new YA Spellslinger series and is the third of his books to come out this year – a very impressive feat. I reviewed the first novel in this series, also titled Spellslinger, earlier this year and really enjoyed it – but does the sequel continue de Castell’s stellar publishing record?

Unsurprisingly, yes it does. Avoiding spoilers as best as I can for book one, when we last left Kellen he was setting out on the road with his Argosi guardian, Ferius, to learn the ways of the world. The Argosi are wandering annalists who find and record great events in the world by remaining neutral. However, their tendency to stalk world events mean that they often find themselves embroiled in conflicts due simply to their proximity to arguing parties. In Shadowblack our protagonists soon meet a plague victim suffering from the famous ‘shadowblack’ – a magical malady that kills quickly. Sensing that the plague might not have occurred naturally, Kellen and Ferius head to The Land of Seven Sands to investigate the mystery of the plague’s occurrence.

The mystery of the plague created an exciting page turner that resulted in me burning through Shadowblack in a weekend. The plot of the series continues to get more complicated and exciting and though I have read two books in this series this year – I already can’t wait to find out what happens next. Kellen’s constant ineptitude with magic and learning Argosi skills has continued to endear him to me immensely – which is surprising given that inept characters tend to drive me insane. As I mentioned in my review for Spellslinger, de Castell has gone in a very different direction with the personalities of his characters compared to his first series The Greatcoats. However, the earnestness and vulnerability that sucked me into his first cast can still be found in his writing, and the more you get to know Kellen and Ferius the more you will adore them.

On a different note, worldbuilding always has been, and likely always will be, one of de Castell’s greatest talents. The world of Spellslinger continues to get bigger and better as we get to meet a number of cultures that were only alluded to in the first novel. The Land of Seven Sands sits in a borderless dead zone that lies in the center of the four major countries in the Spellslinger world. As such, it is used as a dumping ground by all four countries and gives de Castell a great way to show us the various cultures he has created and how they interplay. The political machinations of the book are particularly impressive for a YA book and should keep any adult reader interested and invested in the story. Given how short these books are and the fact that I want to spend more time in this world, I hope de Castell makes a boat load more installments in this series.

Shadowblack only had one major problem in my opinion, and that is that the first few chapters of the book feel fairly awkward. It seems to me that de Castell had some difficulty transitioning his characters from the previous plot line into his new one for book two, and as a result the hand-off feels jarring. Kellen and Ferius have a plague victim walk straight up to them and lay out the start of their quest for the rest of the book in the first few pages and it felt a little unnatural to me. However, once over this initial hump, the book smooths out completely and nothing felt out of place for the rest of the book.

Sebastien de Castell proves that you can accomplish both quantity and quality with his third book this year. Shadowblack’s story continues to develop Kellen’s character, builds out the world around the cast, and has convinced me I want to be an Argosi. The Spellslinger series is a fun and heartwarming adventure for all ages that teaches you that all you need to be successful is hard work and a little of sleight of hand.

Rating: Shadowblack – 8.5/10

-Andrew

Spellslinger – Real Magic

spellslinger_frontalSeries transitions can be rough. This year Sebastien de Castell stuck the landing as he wrapped up his astounding Greatcoats quartet and sealed it as one of my favorite series. Simultaneously he has launched the first book in his second series, Spellslinger. It is always interesting to see the direction that authors go post-series completion. Some authors love to stick with that they know and make spin offs (which there is nothing wrong with). Others like to try something new and start from a blank slate. Spellslinger falls into the second category and I was curious to see if de Castell could recreate the magic of Traitor’s Blade or if it would fall flat. I am impressed to say that Sebastian did neither of those things; instead creating something with a different voice than his other work but just as wonderful.

The concept behind Spellslinger is one of my favorite in recent memory: a boy who is failing at being a mage instead becomes a magician. Our lead, Kellen, is a young mage who is currently trying to pass his mage trials to become a Jan’Tep. He has until his sixteenth birthday to complete a series of texts to be recognized as one of his tribe’s magic wielding upper class. If he fails to pass these texts before his rapidly approaching bday he will instead be relegated to the almost slavelike underclass of his tribe who are forced into servitude of the Jan’Tep. Kellen’s magic is pretty terrible, but he has a sharp wit and keen mind and supplements his weak spells with the skills of a traditional real world stage magician (sleight of hand, illusions, misdirection etc.). Using all these skills and his keen mind he might just be able to escape being forced into a life of servitude.

Spellslinger is a young adult book, but I think that the only place it is noticeable is the subject matter it focuses on: a young boy trying to pass tests and find his place in the world. Sebastien treats his readers as adults and I think this book will be loved by people of every age. As I mentioned before, when I went into Spellslinger I expected a similar narrative structure to The Greatcoats: funny and charismatic characters that run around solving all the world’s problems with their upstanding morals – but with magic this time. Instead Kellen is a more subdued character than de Castell’s others, but that is likely because he grows and changes as a person as the book progresses in a wonderful way. The book is still funny, fun, and an adventure to read, but Spellslinger places more emphasis on worldbuilding and the protagonist’s personal story than The Greatcoats did.

Speaking of which, the worldbuilding is incredible. Spellslinger is not a very long book but Sebastien establishes a deep and enrapturing world in an impressively short amount of time. In addition, the cast of characters in the book is great. The cast feels fresh and new, both from his other series and the genre as a whole. There is a sub-theme running through the book surrounding turning fantasy tropes on their head, and I love it. One example is that instead of getting a magical animal familiar like his fellow mages, Kellen gets a business partner. It adds absurdity and humor that I love to the story, and makes it one of the most memorable I have read in years. There are so many books out there about the ‘Chosen One’ rising up to save the world, that Kellen (who reads like budget Harry Potter, and I mean that with the highest level of praise, I promise) really stands out and instantly found a place in my heart. On top of all of this, the plot of the book is fantastic and had me on the edge of my seat from page one, and I read it in a single sitting. Much like the late and wonderful Terry Pratchett, de Castell is a masterful author who weaves deep and poetic ideas and points into his humor and this trend continues in this novel. His comments on family and friends hit hard for me and the book managed to make me both laugh out loud and cry within a few pages.

de Castell is one of the best authors of our generation and it is wonderful to see that his enormous talent is not restrained to a single series. Spellslinger is a tremendous success in its own right that I encourage you to pick up as soon as possible, but it also shows that de Castell will be an author I follow for the rest of his career. I ecstatically recommend Spellslinger to everyone and I eagerly await the sequel, Shadowblack, later this year,

Rating: Spellslinger – 9.5/10