Just a little preface in case my actual message/review is buried in my haphazard asides: I LOVED Sebastien de Castell’s Spellslinger. It was riveting, emotional, and immersive. This book went far beyond my expectations and I went into this book expecting to like it. Spellslinger is a wonderfully magical book that stands out from other recent fantasy novels and is, in my opinion, offensively underrated.
That being said, watch me contrast it to possibly the most overrated fantasy series of all time.
I know that it’s trite and unfair to compare every book about a kid who can use magic to the Harry Potter series but hear me out for a second. Spellslinger might just be the anti-Harry Potter series that we didn’t know we needed. That’s right. I said it.
Whether de Castell intended it or not, most of the elements in the story are almost in complete opposition of everything the Harry Potter books stand for. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the two for a second. (Note: I’m looking at the HP series as a whole while only talking about the first book of the Spellslinger series. Uneven footing, yeah, but I feel like my point still stands.)
In Harry Potter, Harry was brought up in a strikingly non-magical household after the death of his parents. He starts learning how to wield magic and is quite a natural at wizardry. Harry quickly gains fame as a powerful wizard, though people expected nothing less from The Boy Who Lived. Harry immediately falls in love with the magical world and ultimately ends up putting his life on the line for his people.
Spellslinger goes in the exact opposite direction. Kellen grew up in a powerful magical family, both of his (living) parents accomplished mages in their own right. He was taught how to do spells since he was a kid but has always been rather mediocre at practicing actual magic (though he knows all the theories behind the spells to heart). Kellen quickly gains infamy within his clan as the weakest initiate. And, one of the biggest contrasts to Harry, Kellen, over the course of the story, slowly realizes that the magical society that he has loved all his life is actually really, really shitty.
The Boy Who Lived vs The Con Artist
First, let’s discuss the two main characters in further detail because it’s mainly the characterization of Kellen that fueled my interest to write this review. Harry Potter, for lack of a better term for it, was naturally talented at magic. Despite being raised as a muggle, he quickly learns how to cast spells and is even discovered to be an adept Quidditch Seeker when he was only eleven. Besides the Patronus charm, we never really see Harry struggle to learn a certain spell. We never see him study hard to keep up with his pureblood classmates either. Harry Potter is a natural magic wielder.
Kellen in contrast can barely conjure the simplest spell on the weakest type of magic even in an oasis, magical hotspot where supposedly anyone can do magic. He spent years poring over textbooks, devouring everything about magic and spells to make up for his lack of practical skills. No matter what he does though he never gets any stronger or understands why he, of all people, is so weak, practically doomed to be a Sha’Tep (non-magic user bound to serve magic users). Kellen gets by with his analytical skills and cunning, abilities he developed to survive his magic-obsessed environment, but it becomes abundantly clear that his magic grows weaker the closer he gets to his sixteenth birthday – the deadline for initiates to prove their worth as a Jan’Tep (magic user).
It was really refreshing to read a main character that started out as a weak magician and ended up with more or less the same abilities yet still showed a lot of growth deep down. Kellen never gets his Big Moment where he suddenly “awakens” his powers which, if this were any other fantasy story, would have been Much More Powerful Than Anyone Else’s Ever (by virtue of him being the main character). Kellen’s magic just doesn’t grow stronger. Instead, Kellen comes to terms with his fate and learns how to play to his strengths.
Besides being completely surprising, I found Kellen’s journey to be really inspiring. I mean, not everyone can have so many things handed down to us from our vastly more powerful friends and family like Harry (no tea, no shade, but ya boi HP was really lucky). But I’m sure plenty of people know what it’s like to work yourself to the bone to achieve something, to be someone, only to have to accept defeat for some reason or other. There are just some factors out of your control… and that’s fine. Not everyone gets a big Magical Moment where you realize that you did have the power all along… all you had to do was to believe. No. Sometimes you just have to face facts and accept who you are, weaknesses and all, so you can move on with your life.
Hard Magic (magic with clearly defined limits and rules)
While I love Harry Potter and will continue to love the series until my dying breath –
even if the author keeps ruining the canon with retroactive edits and spewing ignorant and largely privileged opinions while refusing to acknowledge her mistakes – Rowling’s magic system and worldbuilding is a bit… eh, lacking? Yes, everyone loves the wizarding world but, let’s be real, Rowling never seems to address the real world implications of having wizards and witches in our world. I’m sure you’ve read countless posts online about how Voldemort could have been defeated if only the Ministry of Magic had just asked muggles for help. Voldy may have been a powerful dark wizard but he’s not bulletproof. He does’t even know what bullets are. And since he was basically a terrorist, the muggle armed forces would have been well within their rights to shoot the guy dead.
But I digress.
I’m aware that Rowling’s magic system is a hybrid of soft magic (unclear limitations and rules) and hard magic, leaning more to the former than the latter. I’m also aware that she deliberately made it so because she wanted to inspire awe and wonder to her young readers. However… I still think Voldemort should have been shot.
All jokes aside, I’ve always kind of rued the way Rowling brushed off the more technical aspects of witchcraft and wizardry. I know that not everyone feels the same way but I just think the books would have been more interesting if we actually knew about how magic worked. By keeping magic so vague, Rowling missed an excellent opportunity to better establish the power dynamics between wizards. Seriously, we know that certain wizards/witches are powerful because we see them do cool magic but we’re not given much context. When all you really see is wand waving and incantation reciting, it’s kind of hard to gauge just how difficult certain spells are and, as a result, hard to tell which wizard or witch is more powerful. I mean, technically, everyone could cast Aveda Kedavra no problem (well, moral problems maybe) and that’s a literal killing curse.
One of Spellslinger’s biggest strengths is its solid and remarkable hard magic system. The book made it abundantly clear that casting a spell took skill and focus. There wasn’t anything vague about it. Students had to work hard and memorize incantations and gestures otherwise they’d never be able to complete a spell properly. When we see a mage cast a spell without a sweat, we know for a fact that that mage is powerful and proficient and if Kellen has to face off against that mage, he would be royally screwed. There is no doubt as to who has the upper hand which makes Kellen’s winning (or losing… he does a fair bit of both in the book) all the more satisfying and impressive.
Hard Magic as a Narrative Tool
Additionally, and this is where my inner pedant resurfaces, having a detailed magic system helped the narrative in more ways than one.
Kellen, the huge fucken magic nerd that he is, details to us readers how certain spells are done, the somatic hand gestures needed, the exact words to say (and how to say it), and other mental requirements. His internal explanations don’t feel forced or out of place too. Remember, Kellen has had no choice but to focus all of his efforts on the theories and minute details of magic so him concentrating on his opponents’ movements for a spell doesn’t really break the action. It’s not just awkward exposition, my dudes.
In fact, Spellslinger constantly expounding on the technicalities of the world’s magic system accomplishes three things: laying out a solid foundation of our understanding of magic; establishing the context of magic within Kellen’s people which in turn gives us a better sense of the world as a whole; and stressing Kellen’s obsession and love for magic, one of his defining characteristics.
By choosing a more technical system, de Castell was able to organically build his world and his main character along with the magic. He was able to emphasize the Jan’Tep’s traditions, beliefs, and morals so it truly felt like they were all real people. Magic wasn’t there just as an escapist element. Magic in Spellslinger had significant weight, influencing societies, dividing nations. Because it was woven in so deeply and so masterfully into the story, Spellslinger‘s magic felt real. And that’s pretty neat.
Swish and Flick vs Actually Studying The Craft
I’ve always been a deeply curious person so I guess it’s not mystery why I prefer hard magic than soft. I don’t typically like the whole “magic is magic, duh” argument that insists that magic doesn’t need an explanation. For me, because it’s magic (a concept that has no real world alternative… sadly) it needs a lot of explanation. Maybe not a whole dissertation but at least the broad strokes so I’d get a good grasp of the system.
Going back to Harry Potter – no tea, no shade again – but Hogwarts classes were kind of lame. Rowling mostly glossed over classes so we never really know what the students are taught (except for plot-relevant stuff). I distinctively remember only one instance in the books where they mentioned the limitations of magic (Deathly Hallows when Ron asked why they couldn’t just magic themselves some food). In Spellslinger, it hammered into us the idea that while magic offers a wide array of possibilities, there are indisputable limits to the system. These limits make the magic feel more consistent and more grounded in reality. Realistic magic is a lot more engrossing, in my opinion.
While I understand why some stories would rather not enforce hard limits on their magic to avoid restricting the story, I personally believe that writers are pushed to be more creative when they have definitive boundaries. When you’re working with a defined system, you have to come up with inventive ways to solve a problem with or in the absence of magic. Kellen’s whole schtick was that he was insanely proficient at magical theories (again, fucken nerd) so he could predict his enemies moves and use the spell against them.
More About the Actual Book
Besides all of that stuff about magic, Spellslinger has a really great story as a whole. While not the most original, it still captivated and fascinated me since de Castell’s world was just so immersive. It’s easy to get emotionally attached to the book because you can feel Kellen’s frustrations and horrors. The writing was super effective too – a perfect balance of descriptive, stylish, yet have Kellen’s distinct voice.
Although I would have liked to spend more time with more of the minor characters to get to know them, the scenes with other characters were reflective enough. Motivations and conflicts were easy enough to discern so while I despised the token bully character, I understand why and how he became the way he was. An asshole no less but the insight to his character fleshed him out. In fact, all of the characters in the book were three-dimensional. Kellen in particular was a good kid and a great character. He was determined, conflicted, and active. Kellen felt like an actual person.
Another thing I’d like to highlight about this book is its pretty dark themes and the way the author handled them. Prejudice, historical revisionism, ignorance – these are complex subject matters and I’m glad de Castell didn’t paint one side as “Evil” and the other as “Good”. Morality isn’t black and white. Each side genuinely believes that they’re doing good… even when they’re hurting/killing actual children.
This review isn’t to bash on Harry Potter. It is a great series. No doubt it changed a lot of people’s lives and influenced the genre profoundly… but when it comes to magic systems, it’s fairly basic. Spellslinger is so similar to HP but completely the opposite.
But even without the Harry Potter contrast, Spellslinger is a great book in its own right. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun read, a fascinating magic system, and a high fantasy story starring a teenager and his animal frie- er, business associate.