Labelled as a “witty western that will will enchant both YA and adult readers” Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell was released in North America on May 4th, 2017. While Spellslinger may be hard to stumble across in your local bookstore (here in Canada at least), seeking out this magical book will be worth every bit of time and effort you put into it (coincidentally, if, after reading this review, you want to buy your own copy of Spellslinger, you can pick it up at The Book Depository, which conveniently has free world-wide shipping)!
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 surviving your sixteenth year. I was a few weeks shy of my birthday when I learned that I wouldn’t be doing any of those things.
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. The first in a rich and compelling fantasy series bursting with tricks, traps and a devious talking squirrel cat.
Spellslinger was the monthly read for my book club, and while I didn’t pick this book out myself, I was still really excited to read it for a few reasons. Primarily, it has an awesome cover – I mean, really, this cover artwork is so fantastic and unique the book is practically begging you to pick it up! Secondly, this book was advertised as a western fantasy novel – I am a huge sucker for fantasy books, especially high fantasy, so this book is right up my alley. And that mingling of western with fantasy sounded pretty intriguing to be honest! And finally – squirrel cats. Because that not-quite-a-cat animal on the cover just promises to be a fun sidekick, and I had to know what, exactly, a squirrel cat was (and by the way, for those of you wondering, they are super cool).
As mentioned, the setting is really quite unique. Kellen’s people, the Jan’Tep, wield magic, and their society is organized in a clear, defined hierarchy, placing those with the most power on top, and those with the least on the bottom. We’ll get into that hierarchy a bit more later, but for now, let us focus on the world de Castell built. While de Castell could have, and maybe should have, put some more effort into world-building, especially when it came to explaining the role of neighbouring empires in the plot, the world-building de Castell did engage with was well executed and robust. The Jan’Tep society itself, and eventually, its revealed history, are quite thorough and robust, drawing the reader in without much difficulty. de Castell paints a rich picture of magic, society and wilderness throughout the novel, while leaving just enough to the imagination to entice the reader.
Furthermore, I just wanted to touch on the hierarchy de Castell created within the Jan’Tep society. Spellcasters, that is, magically gifted members of the society, are considered to be Jan’Tep, and at the age of sixteen, having proven themselves, receive a mage name that marks them as a member of the elite class. However, for those who cannot wield magic, there is a label of Sha’Tep, which is considered to be a life of disgrace, in which one is forced to serve the Jan’Tep. This is the future facing Kellen, and in his acceptance of disgrace, Kellen begins to see his society for what it really is – not just what he’s been raised to see. He begins to see that there is truly no difference between the Sha’Tep and the Jan’Tep beyond the strength of their magic – how can there be when his father is an influential mage, and his uncle a Sha’Tep servant? No, what draws the lines in the society Kellen has been raised in is simply the same thing that divides societies in our own world today – a belief that one must be better than another in order to lead a complete, fulfilling life. And while this kind of thinking is, at it’s core, a perverse division of a people, de Castell shows us just how much power the belief of a society can have – for better or for worse.
Finally, at its core, Spellslinger is a coming-of-age story. Albeit, Kellen’s coming of age journey is riddled with near death experiences, kidnapping and betrayal, among other things (like an adorably awkward teenage crush and sibling rivalry). It’s such an utterly relatable story, despite the fantastical setting in which it happens, that the reader can’t help but be drawn in. For teens, this is their story – it reflects struggles, such as the struggle of identity, they to may be facing, especially in our turbulent society today. And for your adults, Kellen’s journey is a reflection of their own, an homage to what they have, and may still be experiencing. And for DeCastell to have so wonderfully fleshed out this pivotal moment of a child on the cusp of adulthood is exemplary.
Overall, Spellslinger was an exemplary beginning to what promises to be an intriguing and action-packed series (soon to be followed by a second book, Shadowblack, in September 2017). While Spellslinger may have benefitted from more exposition and world-building, de Castell still crafted a magical world in which the reader can see both modern society and themselves reflected, through Kellen’s personal struggles, and the barriers he faces on a societal level (4/5).