Spellbreaker (Spellbreaker Duology, #1)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

Elsie Camden is illegal. She’s an unregistered magic-user, with the ability to break spells that others cast, without being able to cast her own. She works for a stonemason by day, but for an organisation that she calls the Cowls by night, helping dispel magical wards so that others can do the Robin Hood thing and stand up for the poor against the powerful rich. When powerful magician Bacchus Kelsey catches her on one of her excursions, he agrees not to turn her in if she helps him. What starts out as blackmail quickly turns into something more respectful, on both sides.

I shouldn’t have read this historical fantasy immediately after finishing Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle. I fear that’s broken me, as I kept wondering where the full chapter describing the economic basis of the magic system was, or the multi-page potted history of the Caribbean. This book is much leaner – coming in at under 300 pages. Once I dragged my head out of Stephenson mode, I appreciated the cracking pace that Holmberg kept up throughout. She drops enough worldbuilding and personal history to keep you interested, but not enough to get in the way of the plot.

Elsie is a fun character, although I did find myself rolling my eyes a bit at the slow-burning romance that builds up, but that may be me getting cynical in my old age. I also really enjoyed the found-family with her employer, Mr Ogden, and the other servant, Emmeline – something which has taken the place of her biological family, which disappeared mysteriously when Elsie was a child.

Bacchus is also interesting as a character – he’s an outsider, with an English father but a continental mother, and grew up in Barbados, where he has holdings. He’s in England to apply to the magical college for his mastership, and to ask for access to a spell that he hopes will help him in his own life, but he finds his way barred. Nobody comes out and says it, but his heritage is a big part of that. His interactions with Elsie smoulder and the pair make a good team once they overcome their differences.

The one thing that didn’t quite feel true to me was the setting and the social interactions that went on. Again, this may be a hangover from just having finished the immensely detailed Baroque Cycle, but the Victorian London didn’t quite spring to life for me, and the society and the way people interacted and spoke to each other also felt a little off. But that’s a small matter, and the characters and plot more than made up for it. I’ve already got the next book and look forward to finishing the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781542020091
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2020

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