Spellbreaker, Charlie N. Holmberg (47North 978-1-54202009-1, $14.95, 322pp, tp) November 2020.
The primary protagonist of Charlie N. Holmberg’s latest novel, Spellbreaker, has had a difficult life. Elsie Camden was mysteriously abandoned as a young child and subsequently delivered to a workhouse. She later became a servant for a truly odious master and now, although she is thankful to be a valued assistant for a stonemason and artist, she is still ever-conscious of her precarious existence. A young woman of the lower class in the late Victorian era can take few chances and holds few prospects. For Elsie, everything is much more complicated as she is a rogue spellbreaker in an England where magic users are registered, recognized, and powerful. If she is found out, she faces a grim end. As long as she stays beneath notice, however, she will be okay. But then Elsie gets caught, and her careful little life begins to unravel, revealing a history full of plots and subterfuge that she never knew existed.
In this artfully constructed version of England that is just ever-so-slightly different from the real thing, Holmberg explains that spellbreakers are born while magic-users are made. As someone with a poorly constructed past and no connections to speak of, Elsie has survived largely through the distant but compassionate attention of an underground group, the Cowls. Grateful for their timely rescue from near discovery in the workhouse, Elsie has happily assisted for years in whatever spell-breaking tasks the Cowls have sent her way. She fancies herself a bit of a Robin Hood, and while the Cowls have never revealed themselves to her, nor taken her into their confidence, Elsie finds contributing to their apparently righteous cause to be a significant balm to her otherwise dull life. Then one task puts in her in the sights of Bacchus Kelsey, a magic user not to be trifled with, and Elsie finds herself questioning everything she ever believed about not just the Cowls, but all those maybe-not-so benevolent things she has been doing for them all along.
There are so many mysteries to unravel here! Holmberg clearly had some outrageous fun putting Elsie in the midst of all sorts of intrigue, (the Cowls seem designed for conspiracy theory lovers) and, happily, has crafted a main character who is no fool. As soon as she realizes the game is afoot, Elsie becomes much more careful, even paranoid, while trying to get to the bottom of what is going on around her. Her connection with Bacchus, who finds himself making some equally bewildering personal revelations, is marked by plenty of flippant and sardonic dialogue and sees the two slowly turning into a bit of a magic power couple (though neither one of them realizes that yet). There are many opportunities for each of them to challenge the class consciousness of the era (Bacchus is mixed race and grew up in Barbados), and Holmberg’s poking around the edges of societal morays is quite fun to read. By the end of the book, which sets events up brilliantly for the next installment, there have been bombshells aplenty about Elsie’s life, Bacchus has almost no idea what is going on with his own, and just when you think the villain is revealed, it’s someone else. As to the who and why and what is going on… that is very much still up in the air, but as a suspenseful comedy/romance/magical mystery, Spellbreaker hits all the right notes and should provide plenty of smart literary diversion for readers with a love for the era.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.