Spellbent; Lucy A. Snyder; Del Rey/Ballentine Books 2009
Book one of the Jessie Shimmer series; http://www.sff.net/people/lucy-snyder/
A review by R.J Sullivan
Score: 9/10 Arjays—because everyone knows Arjays are the coolest thing ever!
First of all, anyone who says fantasy art covers play no role in selling a book has never seen Spellbent. In December 2010 I attended Apex Day in Lexington, Kentucky, with the Indiana Horror Writers, and in choosing from the overwhelming number of titles on display, I happened to look over at Spellbent. SOLD!
Okay, confession time. I’m a sucker for Tanya Huff and Elizabeth Moon. They tend to write sci-fi series novels about tough military and/or mercenary gals with giant guns blasting giant holes in bug-eyed monsters while slapping their boyfriends around and barking orders. It’s a sort of sci-fi junk food that I’ve acquired a taste for, and I’m not saying they’re great literature, but they are a heck of a lot of fun.
So I’m looking at this cover and I’m pretty sure this book is going to be great, and I’m also sure I know exactly how this book is going to play out.
I was half-right. The book WAS great—but it didn’t play out the way I thought. It far exceeded my expectations.
While I was all set for an Aliens inspired Ripley-esque action piece (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) what I got instead was a book that tapped an entirely different vibe, but one that resonates with me just as much—the hero-against-all-odds tale. See, while I’m a Tanya Huff junkie, I’m even more of a Spider-Man/Stan Lee junkie, and I love any story of the underdog struggling against incredible odds. (This should be no surprise to anyone who’s read Haunting Blue, but I digress)
Okay, let’s get to it. And we start off—with the reason for minus one Arjay. We have Our Hero, Sorcerer’s Apprentice and hot twenty-something Jessie, and her former-college professor-now-sorcerer-and-lover Cooper. This is just me being totally honest, as a middle aged guy, I could not get on board for Jessie and Cooper. In fact, I found the whole thing decidedly creepy. Much is made throughout the first chapter of Jessie and Cooper’s sorcery exploits; much more is made of their sexual exploits, and how Cooper can’t keep his hands off of Jessie and how Jessie loves every minute of it. And since this is Jessie’s story, the reader is not given Cooper’s perspective. But I found it just a bit suspicious and frankly, a bit disturbing in an icky way.
In fact, later in the book, when Jessie is desperate to find Cooper, accusations are made. Evidence is presented, and the case is made that Cooper wasn’t interested in training Jessie at all, but just wanted to take advantage of her naivety and use and abuse her body while not really taking her seriously as a student of the magical arts. Jessie, of course, doesn’t believe a word of it, and stays true to her mission to save Cooper. But as I read the evidence, well, the accusations made perfect sense to me.
To be clear, I absolutely bought that Jessie was committed to Cooper. But it’s like watching a good friend giving themselves over to a relationship when you’re not entirely sure if the other person deserves that commitment or knows how lucky they are. So—minor spoiler here—Cooper spends the majority of the book MIA, and frankly, Cooper still has to prove himself to me.
So enough on the quibbling point. Jessie and Cooper are off on a routine assignment, to cast a simple weather spell for a disgruntled farmer, when apparently a portal to another dimension–possibly Hell–opens up and swallows Cooper. As if that’s not bad enough, Cooper has been pulled into Hell and something else has been transferred to our dimension—a really aggressive hellhound demon beasty thing. And it’s on a rampage.
At this point we meet Pal, Jessie’s familiar. Until this moment, Jessie has been unable to form a mental bond with Pal. Not that it matters; Pal is a ferret, which really doesn’t do Jessie a lot of good against an aggressive hellhound demon beasty thing. However, as people aren’t supposed to know that there are wizards in their everyday existence, the beasty has to be tracked down and killed ASAP, and Jessie is the only one who even knows about it.
To summarize, Jessie is terribly unprepared for the fight. While she does ultimately manage to stop the beastie, she takes a serious pummeling, making it clear that whatever Cooper’s intentions, she was terribly unprepared for an eventuality like this.
Much later, the council of sorcerers that run the world behind the scenes close in on Jessie and order her to give up her efforts to rescue Cooper. And they won’t take no for an answer, or play fair while they wait. And so, terribly injured, cut off from most of her magic powers, and even given a sort of magical “mark” so that other magic users will know not to help her, we watch Jessie refuse to follow orders, continue with her plans to save her lover, to a point where I could point to a spot in the book where I said to myself, “this is not worth it, I would give up right here, sign what I needed to, get my powers back, and abandon Cooper to his fate.”
But that’s why Jessie is a hero and why I just write about them. For the next 300 plus enjoyable pages we meet a delightful and intriguing cast of supporting characters while learning how this magic secret society operates in the real world, as the plot takes a number of dark twists, turns and revelations, all of which would be an incredible disservice for me to discuss or reveal.
Spellbent is easily the best novel I’ve read in a long time, but you don’t need me to tell you that. The novel has earned a 2010 Stoker nomination for Best First Novel (winners announced in June!), and the best news is, there’s two more books in the series to check out.
Note: I have every intention of contributing book reviews to the Sci-Fi Guys Book Review site as often as my very slow reading pace allows. This review ended up on my own blog because Rodney already wrote his own rave of Spellbent here.