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

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The Tethered Mage – Restrained Fun

34219880I received a copy of The Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso, from Orbit in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This book was sold to me as wizards in Venice, which I honestly don’t think is quite right. Another reviewer I spoke to described it as “YA Lies of Locke Lamora”, which I think is closer to the truth. The Tethered Mage both over and under performed in certain areas, but overall was an enjoyable read. However, let’s first start with the plot.

The world of Eruvia has had a lasting peace under the guidance of a large empire based in the city of Raverra. The primary driver of this peace is that the empire controls the Falcons, powerful magic users that range in ability from warlocks that can control the elements to artificers who can build amazing magical machines. Due to the volatility and danger of the Falcon magical power- children who show marks of power (eyes that gain an extra colored ring) are press ganged into magical service for the empire. It is not as bad as it sounds, the Falcons live lives of opulence and comfort, but they are not free people and must come to terms with that fact. To control the Falcons, each magic user has a corresponding Falconer that can turn their magic on and off – which is where our story begins.

Our protagonist is Amalia, a fairly sheltered aristocrat girl with a penchant for adventure and a taste for artifice. The book begins with Amalia taking a trip to the ghettos of Raverra in search of a rare book. While on said trip, she comes across an extremely rare fire warlock, Zaira, losing control about to burn down the the city. Through a stroke of luck, Amalia is able to put a metaphorical collar on Zaira, and shut down her magic – but this raises problems of a different sort. Raverra is a highly political city, where several aristocratic families vie for power. As such, none of them are allowed to be tied to a Falcon, especially if they are as powerful as a fire warlock. This rockets Amalia to the center of a number of city intrigues, will she be able to navigate them and come out alive?

If the plot seems a little over the top, that’s because it is. The set up for the premise felt like it stretched my suspension of disbelief, but I am willing to give The Tethered Mage a pass due to how fun it is. It is largely a book of political intrigue, and the politics and twists are a blast. The world and culture of Eruvia revolve around powerful city states, and are very fleshed out. The cities all have their own unique feel, and it was fascinating to see how they all interplay. While the cities had a lot of depth, the characters (in particular the leads) left something to be desired. Amalia and Zaria are fairly one dimensional, though the supporting cast was surprisingly not. They did improve in depth as the story progressed (in particular as certain romances progressed), but the start of the book was rather rough. The magic was entertaining though, in particular the take on magical artifice. The various magical tools that the Falcons created added a lot of originality to the books and did a lot to distinguish The Tethered Mage in the current landscape. In addition, I enjoyed the twist on the enslaved magic user trope with collared mages living in opulence.

The Tethered Mage was not perfect, but it did enough right to earn a recommendation. The cast warmed on me while I wandered the captivating city states and I found myself very interested in what happens next. Amalia first halting steps are political intrigue are fun to watch, and I am excited to see how she comes into her own in Raverra’s complicated political landscape.

Rating: The Tethered Mage – 7.5/10

Six of Crows – Finding Out What Everyone Is Cawing About

six_of_crowsSix of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo, has been sitting on my to-do list for a very long time. The book is a wildly successful YA heist novel that is a spin off of another wildly successful YA series, the Grisha Verse. I have had a ton of people I know tell me they loved the series and recommend it to me because I love the Lies of Locke Lamora, but there have always been a few personal red flags that led me to suspect I might not enjoy it as much as friends thought I would. However, the book has been on my list long enough that I decided to say screw it and just read it and see what I thought.

I went into Six of Crows not having read its parent series, and I was happy to find out that I definitely didn’t need to have read the Grisha Verse to understand what was going on and get invested. The story is fairly standard for a heist novel: a crew of six charismatic people with their own issues sets out to make a big score. The initial plan fails miserably, and then the team must use each individual’s unique skills to compensate and succeed. The heist in question is essentially about rescuing a prisoner from a military installation that is heavily fortified.

Our main protagonist, and heist gang leader, is Kaz Brekker – a mastermind who is on a secret quest of vengeance that is furthered by the heist. It’s not the most original backstory, but I grew to enjoy Kaz and his blunt mannerisms. The crew consists of (and I’m paraphrasing here a little) the mastermind, an inside man, a thief, a marksman, a courtesan, and a demolitions expert). When I initially started the book I found three of the characters (Kaz, the inside man, and the courtesan) a bit grating on the nerves, but instantly loved the other three. In addition, I came around on every one of them by the end of the book. Each character has their own reasons for being on the heist and their own objectives, and I feel that Leigh does a wonderful job intertwining the personal stories of the characters with the heist story of the group. The character dialogue is fun and easy, and the personalities of the group are varied enough that there is something for every reader.

The plot actually felt a little lackluster for a heist novel, but the book made up for it in its worldbuilding. I assume that the Grisha Verse has a lot of this as well, but the world that the characters inhabit is extremely well fleshed out and deep. My favorite part of the book was the analysis of the culture of the country that the prison was in as part of the heist planning. It all felt like I was learning about real places, which is rare for any book – let alone a YA novel.

My one major criticism of Six of Crows is that it feels like the novel was “dumbed down” to fit the YA label. It feels like it has the structure for a much larger and extensive heist novel in place, but then it was redone to make it more appealing to a younger audience. This is most apparent in the character backstories, with each character having a story and skill set that had me placing them in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. So when I realized that the cast were all supposed to be teenagers, I had a serious break from immersion. I have a really hard time believing that some of the cast had enough years of experience to have some of the skills they proclaimed to have (which is a weird nitpick I know, but it really pulled me out of the book).

At the end of the day, I don’t think Six of Crows is quite as good as many other reviewers feel – but I also think it would be hard for anyone to not enjoy it a least a little. Leigh Bardugo clearly has a serious talent for worldbuilding and characters, and I hope she does some more adult fantasy in her future. If you are looking for a fun heist novel that’s an easy read with a memorable cast and forgettable plot, this might be for you.

Rating: Six of Crows – 7.5/10

-Andrew

(P.S. Whoever designed that cover art deserves some sort of award. It is probably in my top 10 best designed covers ever.)

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

The Reluctant Queen – A Little Too Reluctant

51dudes9r4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Last year there was a new novel called The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst, that took me by surprise. The cover caught my eye at the Brooklyn Book Festival , and I was lucky to hear the author, Sarah Durst, speak about it later that day. I decided to give it a whirl, and ended up rating it in my top 15 books from 2016. It was a YA book with an original protagonist, an emphasis on hard work over natural talent, a fascinating world, and a style that was inclusive to both boys and girls. A year later, Sarah Durst is releasing the anticipated sequel, The Reluctant Queen, but does it hold to its predecessor’s greatness?

The Reluctant Queen picks up right where book one left off, our protagonist Daleina having just been crowned queen after a great tragedy. However, not long after the book begins we find out that Daleina is in bad health after her ordeal and the race is on to find her an heir in case she should pass. For in the world of Renthia, everything is made by magical spirits who lust for the blood of humans. Only the strength of will of the queen and her pact with the spirits is what keeps them from tearing people apart. The tragedy at the end of book one has eaten up all the available heirs, so a group of champions set out in search of anyone they might have overlooked in the hopes of finding someone suitable in case Daleina should die.

The quickly transitions into our new protagonist for book two, Naelin. Naelin is a mother of two with a terrible no good husband. She is enormously powerful when it comes to controlling spirits, but has managed to evade detection her entire life – resulting in her having no training at all when it comes to handling them. She is soon discovered by Ven, Daleina’s champion, who attempts to recruit her to be the next heir. As you can probably guess from the book’s title, Naelin is not feeling the idea of being queen. She is worried that focusing on her duties to the crown will result in her children’s death, and that she does not have enough control to be queen.

My biggest problem with The Reluctant Queen is that Sarah Durst spends way too much time restating that Naelin doesn’t want to be queen, and that she just wants to take care of her kids. A large part of the book feels like it could just be cut out if one person told Naelin that if she doesn’t try to be heir, and Daleina dies, everyone (including her kids) will die. There is no other option. Due to this, it is hard to like Naelin for a large portion of the book because it feels like she is being unbelievably selfish. Her personality is otherwise fun and interesting though, and despite her children being the focus of my ire for gumming up the plot progression – they are at least entertaining side characters. When we ended book one there were a lot of interesting plot threads that had been discovered, and The Reluctant Queen picks up woefully few of them. This book almost feels like a side step in the story as opposed to a sequel.

That being said, the ending was very good and made me forgive several of my earlier frustrations. I am still excited for the finale, and I will definitely read it the second I get my hands on it. However, this does not make up for the fact that The Reluctant Queen was definitely a drop in quality compared to The Queen of Blood. I hope that the third book will rise back up to the heights that book one achieved.

Rating: The Reluctant Queen – 6.5/10