Soulbinder is the fourth in Sebastien De Castell’s ‘Spellbringer’ series. These books follow a fast-talking, fast-thinking scion of a magic-using family. Except that he has no magic of his own, and is, by the time of Soulbinder, on the run from his own people. The Spellslinger books have always fused an engaging protagonist with an interesting world, one with saloons, jailbreaks and bounty hunters; there’s tropes from silver-screen Westerns blended into the fantasy here, and together they make a pretty spicy stew. The previous books in the series established the world, and let us watch the protagonist, Kellen, as he grew from a thoughtful but spoiled youth into a young man in whom idealism blended with pragmatism, a determination to do the right thing backed by a willingness to sacrifice for the friends he’s made along the way. Now Kellen has struck out in an effort to make his own path – though that path may lead into darker places.
Soulbinder wants to explore Kellen’s ‘Shadowblack’ a bit more. It’s seen as a disease by his people, one which inevitably ends in madness and death. For a people with a penchant for spectacular and catastrophic magic, containing a mage driven mad by the Shadowblack could be difficult or impossible, and the damage they wrought could be appalling. Fortunately for those worried about Shadowblack, the disease manifests physically as well as mentally – as patterns of darkness, like ink, on the body. Unfortunately for Kellen, his Shadowblack was under his eye, immediately marking him as a liability and a potential threat. That disease is his curse, and he knows that it’s eating at him inside, even while he thinks about using any powers it grants.
I’ve got a lot of time for Kellen. He’s a lost and confused teenager, trying to work out what he’s doing and who he is. Previous books wrapped that confusion up in more anger, more petulance, alongside his intellectual curiosity; by Soulbinder, we’re looking at a young man who, if not sure of himself, is at least taking strides in that direction. Asking questions and not backing down in the face of the answers, poking holes in authority and certainty through his existence, that’s definitely Kellen.
Still insecure? That’s part of Kellen too, his questions not always external. Kellen wants to know why he is how he is, and that level of introspection is in careful balance with his growing self-confidence. Certainties are something he’s looking for but also mistrusts. Investigating, seeking truth, is becoming part of his mindset. A lot of Soulbinder is that search for truth, both in the external factors – what is Shadowblack, what will it do? – and the internal. Who is Kellen, and what will they do?
Alongside Kellen’s journey are a posse of a supporting cast. There’s fewer of the characters we’e come to know and love, and I felt their lack keenly; but the overall ensemble is still strong. There’s a lot of new personalities to get a grip on, but they each carry enough weight, enough complexity, that they feel like real people. Still, as Kellen finds himself out there on a limb, flailing for familiarity, I was right there with him, looking for the characters that had carried me through the series so far. That said, new friends aren’t the worst thing, and the people Kellen meets carry in them the best and worst of humanity – arrogance, acceptance, pride and humility all wrapped up in one bundle.
The plot? Well, I won’t spoil it. But Kellen starts off badly, that’s a fact, and whether things get better or worse from there is definitely a matter of opinion. De Castell continues his streak of building worlds which are one part epic grace, one part used environment, darkened towers soaring over well-worn streets. And into that world steps our protagonist, who is determined to find himself, or build himself, to serve his own ideals, to do what’s right and be prepred to play a little hardball to get a result. There’s some moments where magic finally breaks loose, its effects a startling explosion of beautiful prose, its effects no less effective, but far more bloody. There’s politics at all levels, from the individual simmer of romance to the vicious boil of inter-nation deals. There’s families here too; Kellen struggling to make his association with his people make sense, and struggling with the loyalty he feels to different found-families. Also, stuff blows up real good.
This is a book which approaches its audience with questions – who are you, what do you want, how do you shape your outcomes, what costs are you willing to bear. It doesn’t answer those as much as live them, giving us Kellen as someone who is willing to make choices, to soldier on regardless. To do what’s right. It’s not always a book with answers, and I think that narrative ambiguity is a strength – leaving the reader to fill the negative space with their own truths.
This is a complicated book, and while it has something to say, it also has a lot to draw out of the reader. That it does so under a fast-paced fantasy adventure, with some epic banter, pretty/explosive spells, and a heart of loyalty and friendship – well, that’s really impressive.
If you’re coming in to De Castell fresh, maybe try the first in this series.
If this isn’t your first rodeo, then this is the book you’ve been waiting to read.