Soulbinder: learning to play the cards you’ve got

Book cover: Soulbinder - Sebastien de Castell green playing card with two shadowblacks and an angry squirrel catKellen son of Ke is searching for the legendary Ebony Abbey, rumoured to possess a cure for the shadowblack. Separated even from Reichis, he finds himself caught between mistrustful monks and a Jan’Tep war party intent on wiping out the shadowblack once and for all. Can he unlock his curse and thwart his father’s ambitions?

The thing about the Spellslinger books is that they’re fast paced, breezy, magic swashbuckling with a sense of humor. While they invest time in the characters and their growth – especially Kellen’s – and frequently confront them with highly emotive or downright terrifying situations, I never really doubt the cast will navigate their way through and come out safely.

It makes these books an easy, comforting read, even if undercuts the tension a little. So did I believe the hextracker when they claimed Ferius was dead? No, not for a minute; murdering Kellen’s mentor to prove a point and push him further on his path simply isn’t how these books have worked so far. That conviction carried me through the first half of the book: Ferius was alive. Reichis was okay. Of course they were.


Kellen, unfortunately, doesn’t know he’s a hero, so he has no such certainties to depend on. As far as he’s concerned, the hits just keep on coming – and they’re always aimed at him. Having turned his back on his mentor at the end of Charmcaster to go it alone and stop putting her in harm’s way (yeah, kid, that’s really not how it works), we rejoin him dying in a desert, having been ambushed on the way to the possibly mythical Ebony Abbey.

Luckily for Kellen, the monks of Ebony Abbey are all too real – and are quick to respond to a fellow shadowblack in need. Unluckily for Reichis, the Abbot doesn’t take in pets.

Cue a harrowing if sometimes hilarious first act in which Kellen tries to evade his rescuers to go back for his friend; and is confronted by the horrific truth of what happens when your shadowblack gets out of control. Watching Kellen improvise is one of the great joys of this series, and in Soulbinder he’s in fine form. Yes, he does throw someone off a cliff – and he’s right, it’s very distracting – but only because he’s certain their friend will stop to rescue them.

After all, he’s a good guy, right?


Where Shadowblack improved his confidence and Charmcaster developed his courage, Soulbinder is all about independence. Kellen has no back-up at Ebony Abbey, and his welcome is far from warm (his cliff distraction isn’t the best ice-breaker). While he has acquired a veritable smorgasbord of tricks for a Jan’Tep who only ever sparked one band, they’re far from reliable: he’s running out of magic powders for his one pyrotechnic spell, the wind spirit in his eye picks and chooses when to get herself involved, he has no idea what his castradazi coins can really do, and now he doesn’t even have Reichis to back him up.

Worse, he’s about to meet a heap of people who are artists in the shadowblack. Sure, they’ll eventually turn into rampaging demons and try to kill everyone, but in the meantime they’re bad-ass – and they know it. I love that de Castell keeps introducing new forms of magic with each new setting; it keeps the series feeling fresh and lets us learn the world alongside Kellen – as well as neatly making the point that the Jan’Tep really don’t have the monopoly they like to think. They just have fewer moral constraints and an attitude problem.

It was fascinating seeing Kellen through fresh eyes too. Our boy has grown up to be genuinely impressive, even if he’s always on the back foot and largely acting on impulse. That’s not to say I wasn’t frequently tearing my hair out at his naivete (KELLEN NO) and concerned for his safety. This is Kellen, after all.

But by mid-book I was starting to doubt whether we’d ever see Ferius, Reichis and Nephenia again. Not that Kellen’s new playmates aren’t interesting (Butelios had me at hello; and is significant in that I think he’s our first explicitly gay character in the series to date), but I’ve got a lot invested in his old friends. And whether or not I truly believed de Castell would callously kill them off-page, Kellen was certainly growing up fast in their absence. But Ferius’s absence in particular was keenly felt, not least since her wise-cracking advice haunted Kellen at every step.

I’m not going to put you out of my misery here (spoilers, sweetie) – it’s an A-grade emotional rollercoaster that I couldn’t tear myself away from. In fact, I’d say this fourth book was the most satisfying on every level since Spellslinger itself, which is saying something in a series that performs this strongly on every outing.

I can’t wait to see what Queenslayer has in store for us.

And whether any rabbits put in an appearance.


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