Charmcaster: friends are the family you choose

Book cover: Charmcaster - Sebastien de Castell (an orange playing card, with a young man in a hat on top and a squirrel cat on the bottom)Kellen Argosi is both hunted and hunter – the Jan’Tep want him dead as a shadowblack-cursed traitor, while he is intent on thwarting their nefarious plot to possess the children of their foreign rivals. But Kellen is a 17-year-old with only one trick up his sleeve. You’d be right to think he’s at a disadvantage. Just as well he’s got friends to help him fight his family…

Book 3 in the Spellslinger series is – like its predecessors – a riot from start to finish. Sebastien de Castell continues building out his world, adding more politics and more plot twists than ever. As with Shadowblack, it’s nominally possibly to jump in here and pick up the salient points as you go, but you’re far better off starting from the beginning. Besides, why miss out?

For those who have travelled with Kellen from the start, Charmcaster is a joy. As usual, we join Kellen tripping up over himself to get out of trouble: this time, laying a trap for a Jan’Tep bounty hunter only to find himself face-to-face with a pack of religious fanatics who equate magic with demon-worship. Can his one offensive spell, Reichis’s ferocity and Ferius’s quick talking get them out of trouble? It would be a short book if they couldn’t (and it’s fair to say Kellen has levelled up in combining his budding Argosi skills for distraction with his weapon of choice)…

However, the ‘bounty hunter’ turns out to be a much-changed Nephenia. Short-haired, short a few fingers, and accompanied by a familiar of her own (a hyena with a gift for mimicry), she has become fierce and resourceful now she too has been cast out (for mysterious reasons, duh duh DUH). She’s clearly still fond of Kellen, but she’s definitely not chasing him down for love (hooray!) – which doesn’t mean they can’t do a bit of flirting here and there (aww, etc).

Still, I have mixed feelings. I really enjoyed this new incarnation of Nephenia, but she does feel like she’s had a between-scenes Sandra Dee make-over – catapulting from Miss Meek and determined to fit in (and willing to occasionally throw her friends under the bus to do so) to Miss Bold – a confident, quipping, eyebrow-arching gal about town. There’s also a muddled hint of backstory abuse, which is very ambiguous and which I think merited consideration than it was given.

But Kellen is on a quest has him on course for a head-on collision with his people, so there’s little time to dig into nuances. Some unknown – but oh so powerful – Jan’Tep have infected the scions of influential families with obsidian worms, allowing them to possess their victims and spy – or even murder – their rivals. Kellen can see the magical threads that connect mages to the puppets, and is determined to free them; the Jan’Tep would like him dead on principle, but all the faster for his efforts to undermine their schemes.

Luckily, that means both his path and Nephenia’s lead to Gitabria, city of artificers and innovators, sort of the Silicon Valley of Kellen’s world – lots of invention, limited consideration of consequences if it turns a profit. Ferius is convinced that a discordance will emerge – and the annual spectacle in which the Gitabrians present their latest wares to the world seems like a good bet for where it will happen. She’s not wrong – although she’s the only one of our merry gang to understand why a beautiful mechanical bird is a threat to world peace.

Cue chaos, obviously.

Charmcaster introduces some interesting new characters – including several new Argosi, demonstrating just how diverse the Paths can be – as well as ultimately bringing Kellen face-to-face (sort of) with his family. With the shadowblack creeping up on him all the time, our boy has never been so desperate.

One of the things I really like about this series is that it allows its hero to be a teenage boy – and does a great job of showing him growing up. He still has his moments of self-pity and the odd tantrum, but the books give him space to both be at the mercy of his hormones and to learn from his mistakes. Confronted with chances to improve his own fate, Kellen generally chooses to work for the greater good (if not in ways his father appreciates). And he’ll always throw the boat out for his friends.

But the real joy for me in Charmcaster is how it delves deeper into Ferius. We find out more about who she was, what she’s been through – and, crucially, who she has become. We get to see her vulnerable for once, which is heart-breaking, as well as revelling in her usual line in winging it and being indomitable. Along the way, it’s ALL THE FEELINGS, because her attachment to Kellen is as strong as it may be ill-advised and this book puts it to the test: because Kellen becomes aware just how much it’s costing her.

It makes for quite the rollercoaster – although I’ll admit to thinking that there’s almost too much plot going on in the final act. Nonetheless – it’s a fun YA romp that has plenty to offer to older readers – and I remain keen to see what our wayward would-be Argosi gets up to next…


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.