Book Review: Spellbreaker

Title: Spellbreaker
Author: Charlie N. Holmber
Genre: Fiction, Historical fiction, Magic

What’s it About: London, 1895. Elsie Camden is an unregistered spellbreaker working for an artist, Cuthbert Odgen. A decade earlier she had been taken from a workhouse by a woman whose face was hidden. Since then, she’d been lead to believe that the woman was working for a group that Elsie endearingly termed the “Cowls,” which sent her out on missions around London to break spells that would save lives. She breaks a spell at the home of a Viscount/ Baron, and meets with the Squire, for whom she had worked for a while before jumping to work for Ogden.

At the same time Bacchus Kelsey is arriving in London from Barbados, trying to bring his appointment with the London Physical Atheneum to as close as possible in order to become a Master Aspector–with only one goal: to get an ambulation spell that would allow him to move things with his mind. The Duke of Kent, who has been a life-long friend of Bacchus’ father meets with Bacchus at the docks and they head to his estate.

The following day Elsie gets a letter–in thick parchment and with a Talon and Crescent moon wax seal–that tells her that there is a fire spell that is keeping the servants from leaving. The letter tells her to pick up a basket for Ms. Shaw at a nearby winery, and break the spell at Seven Oaks. Elsie completes the mission and returns home. There is some talk the following day about a viscount who died in his sleep and his Opus–the item that contains all of the spells owned by that person–has disappeared. She visits the Squire’s home to drop of some tools for Ogden and meets Mr. Parker, the butler, who tells her that the Viscount was murdered at his home, with the Squire nearby. She gets excited, hoping that Mr. Parker is the man behind the secret organization.

On her way home, she finds another piece of paper in her bag–this time asking her to go back to the estate with the servants. Confused, because she believed that she did her mission, Elsie comes up with an excuse to go. She manages to make it all the way to the door and starts undoing the spell, when suddenly someone grabs her–Bacchus. She pleads for her life and he agrees to not turn her in for being unregistered, so long as she helps him with breaking spells around the Duke of Kent’s estate. She agrees–though she has no idea how she would work three jobs. Bacchus tells her that the spells on the door are meant for protection against thieves, though she struggles to believe that.

Over the next couple of weeks, Elsie manages to do her job with Ogden, carry out some smaller tasks for the Cowls, and also help Bacchus out with the estate–breaking spells on walls, updating the colors of the ballroom, and removing a curse from the croplands. During that time, she gets invited and goes to a dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Kent. While there, she realizes that Bacchus has not only a temporal spell, but also another spell meant to be hidden from sight.

On the other hand, Bacchus does go to the Atheneum and the panel agrees to promote him to Master Aspector, but they refuse to give him the Ambulation spell that he seeks. He decides he would get it another way, and one of his servants–who came with him from Barbados–found out that there is a copy of an opus from a Master Aspector that passed away. The opus is being auctioned off and may contain the spell Bacchus seeks, so Bacchus actually attends the auction; however, he does not win it. After the auction, he seeks out Felton Shaw, the person who won the auction and asks him to give him one of the spells from the opus, for which he was willing to pay a lot of money. Shaw refuses, and they go their separate ways. Several days later, the Constable shows up at the Duke of Kent’s home because Shaw had been attacked and the opus was stolen. Since Bacchus was the one who had a disagreement with Shaw, there was belief that he was the one who did it, but they were able to verify his alibi.

After Elsie helps Bacchus remove the curse from the land, she also helps him break a spell on the Duchess who cast that curse as payback. Around this time, she receives a letter from the Hall family–the family who had taken her in as a child before giving her away to the workhouse–stating that no one is looking for her, and to give up her search. This breaks her heart, as she had been hoping to find the family that left her behind, one that she barely remembers for a girl who was 9 when she was left at the halls. She meets with Bacchus that day, and he tells her that she’d paid off her debts. She confides in him regarding her family, and as they are saying their goodbyes, she asks him about the spells. Bacchus reveals that he has polio and there is a temporal spell that is holding it at bay, though not forever, and that is why he wants the ambulation spell. But he is completely shocked about the second spell–he did not know it existed.

A few days later, he shows up at her doorstep and asks her to accompany him to Master Aspector in Temporal spells, so that they could take the second spell off. She tells him that he needs to come up with a good story, and so a letter comes to Odgen about an accounting class for very cheap. She agrees to go, and Bacchus picks her up. They travel for two days to meet up with the Master, and as Elsie takes the first spell off, she realizes that the second spell was meant to be hidden–finding the knots was harder than normal, but she was able to find it and take the spell apart. Once she takes it apart, Bacchus feels stronger, healthier and the Master Aspector tells him that he does not think Bacchus has polio. Bacchus is now determined to figure out what the spell is–Elsie had made a copy of it for him–and who put it on him.

Rifling through her valise while waiting for Bacchus’ servants to show up, Elsie finds another note from the Cowls, this time asking her to break a spell in a town nearby. She tells Bacchus that she has to go, and asks him not to follow her; that would be her payment. She disappears, going through a couple of towns before showing up at her destination, where she breaks the spell, and then returns home to Ogden. During that time, Bacchus returned to London and researched in the Atheneum library, finding out that the hidden spell was a siphoning spell.

When Elsie returns, she tells Ogden that nothing came of the accounting lessons. Shortly thereafter, Ogden gets attacked, though nothing is stolen in his home. They have the Spiritual Aspectors come and check their memories to seek the truth. In the meantime, Bacchus takes his Master Aspector ceremony and decides to do a Changing spell that allows him to change the form of things, before finally becoming the Master. He finds out that Elsie’s home had gotten attacked, and goes to check on her as well as Ogden. That night she receives a message from the Cowls asking to break some spells at the London Physical Atheneum, which she does, believing that the Cowls are using the spells to equalize things between the poor and the rich–if only things were accessible to everyone.

Shortly thereafter, Elsie receives a telegram from the Halls saying that they were wrong–someone is indeed searching for her. She heads out to Juniper Down, where she meets with Agatha Hall, who in turn hands her an envelope. Elsie goes to the crossroads mentioned in the letter where she meets an American man who holds her at gunpoint. He uses a truth-seeking spell on her, that confirms everything she told him–she is a spellbreaker. He then reveals to her that there are articles written in her name, and that she’s being used as an unknowing pawn. When she returns to Agatha’s house in Juniper Down, she asks why everyone is wearing black, which is when Agatha reveals that there was a kid from Juniper Down that was murdered in a fire and his opus has been missing. She then reveals that the kid’s instructor was killed in the Physical Atheneum in London. Between the comment of the American and the locations that Agatha speaks about, Elsie makes the connection that she was behind at least some of them.

As a result, she heads back to Reading, and talks to the constable there, who tells her the locations as well as the disappearances, and Elsie realizes that many of them coincided with her being there previously, sent on a mission by the Cowls. She is upset, believing that Ogden is the man behind the Cowls because she had found the seal that created the talon and crescent moon wax seal before leaving for Juniper Down. When she returns to London, she sees Nash–Ogden’s messenger–weaving through the crowds, and decides to follow him to his home.

She enters his home, and discovers that he is actually an assassin. She then finds a letter–in the same parchment as the Cowls–that ask her to get rid of the Master at the Seven Oaks, which makes he realize that he is talking about none other than Bacchus Kelsey, as the Seven Oaks is the estate of the Duke of Kent. Elsie makes her way there, where Bacchus is enjoying his dinner with the family as well as Master Lily Merton, a spiritual aspector who will be teaching the Duke’s and Duchess’ daughter, Ida.

He hears the ruckus outside, and just as Elsie opens the door, he hears someone cursing. Suddenly chaos breaks loose, and Nash is trying to kill him. Bacchus fights back, tells the duke, duchess and master to run. He turns things into weapons and changes the state of items, but at some point is struck by lightening in the leg. Elsie comes to his aid, and starts disassembling the spells from the lightening and its rod just as it strikes her. Together, they manage to kill Nash, and then she faints. When she comes-to, the police had come to the home and Bacchus once again protects her, telling them lies rather than the truth of what happened. She then reveals to Bacchus why she had left so quickly after visiting the Master Aspector with him–telling him about the Cowls and how she was in each of the locations before the murders happened. He tells her that she didn’t know, and she has a strong sense of social justice, so it won’t be held against her.

It is then that she realizes that Ogden is behind all of this, so together, they head after him, to the docks. It seems that Ogden had set up traps for them, and Bacchus gets trapped in one of them. He tells her to go on, because they don’t have time and the longer she takes to try to get him out, the higher the chances is that Ogden will disappear. She goes after Ogden and watches as he changes his opinion of what he wants her to do–suddenly, all the patterns that she has been seeing Ogden create in his paintings, his tiles, on his knees at church, come together and she realizes that he has been under a spell all this time. She takes it apart, and he finally collapses–turns out that he’s a Master Rational Aspector, though one that is not registered either.

After they return from the hospital and tell the story to Emmeline–the maid at Ogden’s house–together, they paint the American man. Ogden does not recognize him as being the one who put the spell on her. She then mentions a woman with a receded chin, so he paints her, and says that she’s the one who put a spell on him. Although the picture is incomplete, and the person is much older now, Elsie recognizes her. It’s none other than Master Merton

Verdict: When I saw that Charlie N. Holmberg wrote a new duology, similar to The Paper Magician in genre, I knew that I had to read it. I had loved those books when I read them, and honestly, the Spellbreaker did not disappoint! I love the female leads in these stories, and how they do things that may be unconventional for the society at the time.

Elsie and Bacchus are wonderful characters who complement each other–though at first, I was inclined to dislike Bacchus a lot, because of what I considered to be sinister motives–he wanted to get a spell that was highly forbidden and would do anything to get it before he found out that he had a siphoning spell on his person, and changed his mind. Elsie also does the things she does for what she believes to be the right reasons. Turns out that they were not really the right reasons, but that she was being used for her powers, and at least she has someone to turn to in her friendship with Bacchus, that really has become more than friendship as they have mutual feelings. Elsie doesn’t really need someone to solve her problems–she is more than capable of doing them herself, but she needs someone who is able to help keep her secrets and back her up, which Bacchus does more than enough in this story. At the same time, she is able to help him out tremendously, and saves his life at least twice.

That said, I do feel that the story gets a bit “dry” in some points–where there’s much of exposition that I feel can be a bit of a drag, but I do understand why it’s there. Fo example, I wasn’t a fan of the part where Elsie goes to Juniper down, and how the author drew the picture of what it looked like, and how she walked around to find the location before meeting the American who held her at gunpoint. But I do understand why the author included it–it was a tool within the story to bring Elsie to the point where she realizes that she actually has been used.

I suspect some things about this story, based on some clues within it, but let’s see if they’re actually true. I cannot wait to start reading the second book, and finding out more about Elsie’s and Bacchus’ journey.

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