Book cover: Spellslinger - Sebastian de Castell (styled like a playing card, with a magical young man at either end)Kellen is 15, the astonishingly untalented son of the Jan’Tep’s greatest mage. Struggling to cast even the simplest spells, he’s the butt of jokes and school yard bullying. Worse, if he can’t pass his mage trials before he turns 16, he’ll be relegated to the Sha’Tep servant class – reliant on his obnoxious little sister’s charity if he’s lucky, sent down the mines if he’s not.

Kellen is bright and resourceful, never one to back away from a fight he can’t win if he believes he can think his way through it. When a nice bit of trickery – or cheating, depending on your point of view – sees him through his first trial, the stage is set for Trouble. It’s not a good time for an unpopular outsider to befriend a confrontational foreigner with some unusual tricks of her own. But common sense is almost as alien as magic to headstrong young Kellen…

I was a bit sceptical about how much I would enjoy a book with a teen boy protagonist. I needn’t have worried – Spellslinger is a riot from start to finish. The narrative has considerably more confidence and control than its protagonist; de Castell never misses a beat as his hero flails his way from bad situation to worse. Consequently it reads like a pitch for the next big TV show – a brash, self-aware origin story with plenty of special effects and a lot of heart (I’d certainly watch it). All it needs is a record scratch and a voiceover: “You’re probably wondering how I ended up here”. It’s okay – your brain will fill it in.

Given Kellen’s predicament and instinct for making things worse, Spellslinger is a catalogue of disasters, but there’s some sharp social commentary in between the escapades. De Castell takes his time building context and main characters up, delicately revealing details hidden beneath the broad strokes. Once I realised what was going on I was able to relax – a few things that initially rang alarm bells proved to be carefully considered world-building, intentionally awful in their subtext rather than carelessly conceived. After all, as a typical teenager, Kellen hasn’t given too much thought to his world until his privilege begins to be stripped away.

In the end, Spellslinger is both a ball-busting criticism of those in power (and an illustration of how craftily they wield it) and a reminder that the choices of individuals can make a difference.

“There’s no amount of magic in the world that’s worth the price of a man’s conscience.”

It’s a timely message, packaged here with a tiny dash of romance (not enough to make this curmudgeon antsy), a fistful of spite and a colourful cast. While some are stereotypical and thinly-drawn (the playground bully; the pudgy best friend), I adored the Dowager Magus and the brilliant re-casting of the cranky mentor archetype in the shape of Ferius Parfax – no old men here, just an irrepressible female wanderer with more tricks than magic who always calls bullshit when she smells it. Mix in a belligerent talking flying cat, and sit back to watch the sparks fly.

It’s buckets of fun, and I can’t wait to read their next adventure.

****1/2