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Sebastien de Castell
Hot Key Books, 4 May 2017
I was sent this book for review by Amazon Vine.
Imagine you're back at Hogwarts, But you've no magic. You're a muggle - or at best a Squib - and about to be found out...
That's the dilemma that faces Kellen in this fast-paced YA fantasy. Kellen is from an ancient, high family of spellcasters, but what little magic he has is drying up - and he's due his trials in a few days.
But in Kellen's world, those with no magic, those who fail the trials, are disowned, cast out, treated as servants of even slaves.
De Castell takes this idea and spins a high-stakes tale of ingenuity, of growing up and of realisation. It's set in what - were it cloaked in modern dress and language - would be a classic dystopia: a cruel world, based on lies, prejudice and power, where those who fail are trampled down and a narrow ruling caste holds power for itself. The book spares no punches as it dissects Kellen's society: a society of rather conceited wizards who take for granted their moral superiority and their fitness to lord it over all around. And Kellen's part of it - so long as he sees himself among the privileged. But the events he sets in train as his trials approach will reveal some secrets about both his clan, and himself...
I loved this book. While serious in its subject, it's far from being dark fantasy of any sort - not least in Castell's brilliant counterpoint to Kellen and the pompous wizards: a woman called Ferius, a stranger who rides into town, looking and sounding for all the world like a gunslinger from a Western (except, no guns). As such strangers tend to do, she challenges the self-satisfied, brings new ways and stands up for the weak. Kellen is both enthralled and repelled by her, the struggle mirroring, perhaps, his internal struggle as he comes to realise there's more wrong with his people than simply his failing magic.
Add in a gallery of bullies and entitled schoolmates who could easily have come from Dickens or Tom Brown's Schooldays, a talking squirrel cat who drives a hard bargain, and layer upon layer of conspiracies, and you have potent blend. Indeed the only feature that isn't immediately obvious is where the title comes from: its derivation may seem obvious but until quite late in the book it isn't really clear what, in this world, a 'spellslinger' might be. That is eventually cleared up, though, and De Castell thereby prepares us for, I hope, many sequels following Kellen's and Ferius's future adventures.
Excellent, page-turnery reading.