Outlaw to Sheriff: A Review of Spellmaker, by Charlie N. Holmberg

Writing a sequel is always a unique problem for an author as it is usually a self-inflicted one.  It is easy to approach a story with the idea that the complete tale will be told in one book, and most authors do choose to go this route.  But there is something about the fantasy and science-fiction genres especially that draw writers towards creating more.  Usually, this is a net win for the audience, as we want to spend as much time as possible in an author’s imagination if the first book draws us in.  I have put down many books wishing that the story had not ended with the last page.  But, sometimes, the sequel does not quite live up to the expectations set by the first entry.  A sequel needs to both provide a continuation and a satisfying payoff to elements set up by the first book.  A mystery or conflict may be enjoyable while it is ongoing, but if the resolution is not satisfying, then the entire whole can suffer.

Unfortunately, Spellmaker by Charlie N. Holmberg is one sequel which does not live up to its predecessor.  The second book in her planned duology picks up not long after the previous novel, Spellbreaker, which I rather enjoyed when I read it this past January.  Elsie Camden, the titular spellbreaker and our main protagonist, ended the first novel by chasing off Master Lily Merton, the main villain behind a string of assassinations in this fantasy version of Victorian London, rescuing her friend Ogden in the process.  Spellmaker begins by examining the immediate fallout of their climatic confrontation and actually has a strong start.  The main characters never understood exactly what Merton’s plan was, and are still at a loss now that she has disappeared.  Meanwhile, Elsie must keep her own abilities a secret as, in this world, one must register with the government if they have magical talents.  The novel also brings back deuteragonist and romantic interest Bacchus Kelsey as he and Elsie work to foil Merton’s schemes once and for all.

Despite a strong start, Holmberg runs into trouble with Spellmaker fairly quickly.  To begin with, we have the title.  While Spellbreaker made sense in context, as it referred to Elsie and her abilities, it is not clear who Spellmaker refers to.  In the world of the novels, spells are not made, they are discovered, having already been created hundreds of years ago.  Once might think that this would hint at Elsie gaining new abilities, but that plot point never occurs.  This murkiness surrounding the purpose of the title continues into the writing of the book itself; namely, the point-of-view.  Spellbreaker only ever switched between two third-person points-of-view, that of Elsie and Bacchus, and Holmberg imbued each with a very distinct personality.  That care is simply not present here, as there is more than one occasion where the writing seems to get lost and it is unclear as to whose head we are currently occupying.  Normally, the view would switch chapter to chapter, or at least break to break.  But there are times where it seems to change from paragraph to paragraph.  On top of that, Holmberg also includes a third point-of-view character on a few occasions without any real purpose.

There are two main points of conflict in the second novel in this duology, although neither truly feels like it possesses any stakes.  Very early in the novel, Elsie is arrested for being an unlicensed spellbreaker.  It is heavily hinted that Merton reported her anonymously, and yet this anonymous is taken at face value without any evidence.  Elsie is almost certainly scheduled to be hanged without ever facing a trial, or speaking with a lawyer, or even without an actual investigation.  The only purpose of this plot point seems to be the fast-tracking of the romance between Bacchus and Elsie.  Instead of allowing their attraction to grow naturally and develop like a normal relationship, they come up with a convoluted plot to get married as part of a strange cover story that is supposed to prove that Elsie only just discovered her powers.  Just like the anonymous tip, this is taken at face value by the officials, and the potentially antagonistic character never makes another appearance throughout the rest of the book.  We are told, rather than shown, that Elsie’s fate rests on this marriage happening, but there is never any real sense of danger to any of the characters.  We, as readers, know that this marriage is going to happen because Holmberg has obviously telegraphed it to us.  Because of this desire, the novel never presents any real obstacles in the way of their wedding and there is never a reason to worry that it will not happen or that the plan will fail.  A conflict in name only.

The other conflict, and the main conflict, revolves around Master Lily Merton, the main villain of the story.  A master spellcaster with the capability to control the minds of others, she was the mysterious force behind a string of assassinations in Spellbreaker where she arranged for the murder of other master spell-casters in order to steal their magic.  However, her exact motivations for these acts were never revealed in the first novel.  Sadly, we do learn her plan in Spellmaker, in one of the largest let downs when compared to its set up.  Further damaging this plot is the fact that Merton herself only makes two appearances throughout the novel, and her influence is simply not felt in her absence.  Compare this to the first novel where her touch was felt on every page, and we could see her plans unfolding.  Readers are originally led to believe that she has been masquerading as a Robin Hood type figure while manipulating Elsie, while her real objective was to gain power.  However, Spellmaker flips that concept on its head and provides her with a motivation which makes no sense in context.  As it turns out, she is specifically looking for one particular MacGuffin to enact her plans.  However, we quickly learn that she not only knows what the MacGuffin is, she knows exactly who has it.  So, what, exactly, was the point of all those assassinations from the first novel?  In this case, it appears that Holmberg did not have a plan for the villain when she originally wrote the prior novel.

Without going into spoiler territory as to the villain’s exact plan, it is part of a worrying trend in fiction that has been occurring over the last fifteen to twenty years.  In order to make villains more interesting and more sympathetic, they have been given goals that could actually be seen as noble in other contexts.  Recently, as seen in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the villains set out to aid those suffering from poverty, or from lack of healthcare, or those who are not receiving the government assistance they need to survive.  Except, the villains also just decided to start murdering people and performing terrorist acts.  Similarly, in Spellmaker, the main villain’s “evil plan” involves fighting against colonialism and the rich and powerful who hurt everyone else to enrich themselves.  And then she starts assassinating and hurting people for no real reason.  The trend is to give villains motivations which echo real-world liberal values, and they shown them descending into unforgivable violence. 

By the end of the story, the villain has becoming a cackling cartoon character.  In combating them, the main hero must embrace a layer of conservative ideology and work to perverse systems of oppression.  Maybe they admit at the end that the villain was right, but the damage has already been done at that point.  Ideas such as compassion, helping the disenfranchised, and environmentalism have already been irrevocably tied to evil in the story.  For a real-world example, look no farther at how the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were reported.  Instead of focusing on the fight against racism, murder, and oppression, the focus was turned to the cop-instigated riots and property damage later revealed to have been caused by white supremacists taking advantage of the chaos to sow some more.  Words matter and, in the words Holmberg has chosen when writing Spellmaker, she has chosen to take this same route.

Unfortunately, I am unable to recommend Spellmaker, even if you read and enjoyed the previous novel in Holmberg’s duology.  Holmberg laid out some intriguing setups in the first novel with the promise of a personal conflict, but the payoff is sadly not worth the time it takes to make it through the under three-hundred-page book.  With lazy plot developments and a confused point-of-view, Spellmaker is worth skipping.

Spellmaker can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: Press Reset, by Jason Schreier

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