What is it?
Spellslinger and its subsequent novels are a fantasy series by Sebastian de Castell that takes place in the same universe as his Greatcoats series, but on a different continent, and requires no knowledge of the other series to enjoy.
The books in the series are:
As well as the prequel stories, Way of the Argosi and Fall of the Argosi.
What's it about?
Born to a noble house in a society of mages that value magic and power above all else, fifteen-year-old Kellen, House of Ke, has no magic. No matter how hard he tries, the mystical bands tattooed onto his arms refuse to ignite, showing the world that he hasn't been able to successfully work a single spell, and that at the upcoming Mage Trials all sixteen year old Jan'Tep go through, he will inevitably fail and be stripped of his title and freedom, indentured as a non-magical Sha'Tep servant.
Then the Argosi traveler, Ferius Parfax arrives in town. The Argosi are mysterious people, seeming to show up only when historic disasters are about to occur and seeming to divine fate through their mysterious decks of cards. With her help and the help of a violent, kleptomaniacal "Business Partner" (NOT a ''familiar'') squirrel-cat named Reichis, Kellen uncovers the hidden truth behind his people's history and begins a journey that takes him all across the continent to discover the secrets behind his own family's machinations and the dreaded Shadowblack curse.
What do you think?
I liked it! A lot! 9/10, do recommend.
. . .
Okay, so, when something is good, it's hard to talk about. Anything said sounds shallow; how many times can you say, "I like it!" in way that's interesting?
I do like this series, enough that I bought hardcover copies after reading it on my kindle because I wanted to have physical copies. But it is not a perfect series by any means. Some things, in my opinion, could have been done better.
The following is going to come off as very nitpicky, and very negative. Remember that this is a good series, and I do recommend reading it. These issues I have with it are nitpicks, but they're ones that have been grating on me specifically because this is such a good series. It could have been great.
The biggest issues I have are that sometimes things feel unresolved. It feels a little like de Castell was intending to do something with these elements, but then didn't. Or he did, but not in a way that seems satisfactory to me.
In a tight story, introduced characters are usually relevant later. I know this isn't actually realistic, but it's a conservation of detail, suspension of disbelief thing, and usually when a character is introduced as being impactful, and then manages to escape on bad terms, we expect them to crop back up again, either reprising their role as antagonist, or as a source of information, or maybe they're killed by a larger villain-- something that acknowledges that "yes, this guy got away last time, but it wasn't for nothing."
In the second book, Kellen is betrayed and manipulated by a character who is working for the larger antagonists. At the end of the novel, Kellen overcomes this betrayer character, and despite the personal animosity that's built up between them, he lets them live. The last we see of them, Kellen is leaving them bound on the floor of their hideout, and they are threatening revenge.
After which, they are never seen again. Interestingly, the narrative doesn't forget them entirely; characters reminisce throughout the later books about the betrayer, usually in the form of Kellen unfavorably comparing people he meets who remind him of the betrayer character, or explaining the events of the second book to someone. So we are meant to remember this character, the author is reminding us all of this character and the bad terms on which they left. But that character never returns, nor do they take any sort of far-reaching action that has consequences for the protagonists. The series is complete, things have ended, but despite technically being resolved (the betrayer's plan in book two was thwarted, after all), it feels unresolved.
It's little things like that.
The thing that nags me the most is the nature of the Shadowblack.
WARNING: spoilers below for the first and fourth and sixth book. Spoiler spoiler spoiler!
In the novels, there is a thing called the Shadowblack curse. It is a pivotal plot element and is what causes Kellen to embark on his journey with Ferius in the first book. The second book deals with Kellen finding what appears to be someone cursing others with it. The fourth book is dedicated to Kellen finding a secret society of people who have the curse. It is a Big Honkin' Deal.
In the first books, it is presented as a thing that can only affect Jan'Tep mages, but later we find out that it happens to other people too. The fourth book in particular focuses on it, with Kellen learning things about the curse that his own people never did, mostly because they have a zero-tolerance, kill-on-sight rule for Shadowblacks. Initially, all we know is that Shadowblack cursed will one day transform into enormous, demonic monsters. To be a Shadowblack is basically to be a ticking time bomb, and the more powerful the mage, the more formidable the monster they become.
In the fourth book, we learn that all Shadowblack curses are not equal, and that the dark, swirly markings that appear on people's skin is the manifestation of a connection between one of the myriad demonic realms/universes. To be a Shadowblack, then, is to be a link between a demon and the physical world. When people turn into demons, it isn't just some kind of mutation or shapeshifting, it's a demon from the next universe over latching on and using the Shadowblack as a door. Depending on what demon/demonic universe your marking is a door to, then the different ability you might get. The most common one seen was people with the ability to use shadowy tendrils to throw stuff around and make shields and whatnot. There's another kid who can take a shortcut through a small shadow-mini-verse and use it as a way of fast travel. And there's a kind called an "enigmatist," a rare form with the ability to look into the hearts of others and see their secrets and intuit their future actions-- basically a seer.
We also learn that the source of the Shadowblack is a sort of demonic, spiritual corruption that happened to the Jan'Tep when some of their ancestors made a pact with demons and used their power. This is the explanation that Kellen brings up in the final book, when confronting a character who had been hiding the immoral history of the Jan'Tep from their people.
Well then how the fuck did people from the opposite side of the world get it? The novels went from "only mages get it," to "no everyone can get it, you arrogant mages." to "lol it's in the mage's blood." We know the Jan'Tep aren't going out and procreating with people outside their society-- at least certainly not enough to spread the curse that far. Jan'Tep are incredibly xenophobic and bigoted against outsiders and nonmages, and the nonmages born among them aren't permitted to breed.
But let's ignore all that, even though it grates on my brain.
The Shadowblack curse is, as mentioned, the impetus for Kellen to leave home, because he has it. Unlike others who are born with it, Kellen's grandmother intentionally infected him with it, tattooing magic sigils around his eye the same way the mages tattoo their elemental bands onto their arms, only instead of of connecting him to the normal sources of magic, she made it tap into one of the ethereal demon realms.
It is a Big Honkin' Deal, and after several books of Kellen fearing the curse and having nightmares caused by it, in book four we finally see Kellen face a demon caused by the Shadowblack. It's a big fight, and it emphasizes how much of a threat the Shadowblack really is.
And then it's never dealt with.
Kellen ends the series still a Shadowblack, but nobody seems concerned by the fact that he can turn into a demon at any time.
Reichis, also, gets the Shadowblack curse, and he relishes the thought of how someday he's going to be a big bad demon. It's mentioned several times that he seems to be acting even more aggressive than normal, and you think, "Oh. is something going to happen to Reichis? Will his control be worse than Kellen's, and he'll turn into a demon? He's an animal, so maybe it will affect him differently. There are lots of ways this could go!"
But it doesn't go anywhere. Reichis ends the series same as ever, except now he also has the Shadowblack. Like Kellen, he's going to transform into a demon someday.
Things can be unresolved in books. I'm not upset that every little thing isn't answered. But when the Shadowblack curse had been the impetus for the entire series, and the story gets off the ground because Kellen has to deal with it, you'd expect for it to be dealt with in some way.
Now again, those are nitpicks. The other driving conflict of the story is Kellen's relationship with his family. That conflict is there since the beginning, and unlike the Shadowblack issue, it is actually resolved in a satisfactory way (in my opinion). Each individual book also has a book-specific plot, and those are likewise well done. The characters are likeable, the use of card and card motifs is really interesting, and I love Reichis.
I do heartily recommend this series.