Victorian Robin Hood: A Review of Spellbreaker, by Charlie N. Holmberg

Western fiction, English and American, possess an endless fascination with the Victorian era of England’s recent history.  With a reign lasting from 1837 to 1901, Queen Victoria was the longest reigning English monarch until the current Queen Elizabeth II.  During that time, the British Empire rose to what could be considered its height, with the East India Company conquering India and the empire subjugating people around the globe.  Yet, this was also a transformative time for England and much of the world.  Electrical power began to be harnessed, with lightbulbs becoming widespread by the end of the century.  It was the beginning of modern medicine, when the United States finally threw of the evil shackles of slavery, and more.  More than any other time period in England’s past, authors have enjoyed setting tales of science-fiction and fantasy in the Victorian era.  Maybe it has something to do with the advent of such stories during this time, or it could just be fun to juxtapose the uptight era with the absurdity of magic.  Whatever the case may be, Charlie N. Holmberg’s excellent Spellbreaker is the newest in Victorian fantasy.

Spellbreaker is set in a Victorian England that is very clearly set in our own past.  Many novels like to draw inspiration from the time period, exploring fantasy worlds that resemble the period.  Others are set in the Victorian era, but feature such extensive rewrites to history that it may as well be another world.  Holmberg, however, had decided to set it very clearly in the known past, with the singular exception that magic is both known and widespread.  In this novel, magic has been ingrained with all facets of everyday life in such a way that it has not replaced the need for technological improvement of societal change.  Magic can do a great many things, but very few can have the capabilities to use it, let alone the funds or resources to learn how to use it.  It is also strictly regulated, with every magic user licensed with the government and governing bodies in place.  Unlicensed users can facer steep legal and criminal penalties if they use their abilities irresponsibly.  Holmberg has created very clear rules for how magic works in this world, while leaving many mysteries to both the reader and the characters.  By having aspects of magic that are unknown to the world itself, she allows the possibility to change the rules as needed by the plot, while leaving some mysteries for her characters to discover. 

The novel follows the close third-person point-of-view of two main characters, Elsie Camden and Bacchus Kelsey.  While chapters do switch and back and forth between these two characters, the protagonist is certainly Elsie, while Bacchus falls into the deuteragonist role.  We first meet Elsie as an eleven-year-old girl after the workhouse that has raised her for five years burns to the ground.  As it turns out, Elsie is an anomaly in the world of magic, one of a very few number of people known as spellbreakers.  While she cannot cast any magic herself, she possesses the extraordinary ability to destroy magic.   While the presence of spells and magic cast upon objects or people is undetectable to others, Elise can sense it.  When the story really begins, Elsie is now a twenty-one-year-old young woman living near London, working as the secretary of an artist and stonemason during the day, and moonlighting as a Robin Hood-esque figure during her free time for a mysterious organization she calls the Cowls.  The Cowls took her away from the workhouse as a young girl after Elsie inadvertently removed a fireproofing spell from the building, causing it to burn down later, and convinced her not to register as a spellbreaker, keeping her abilities hidden from the world.

The other main character, whose point-of-view we occasionally inhabit, is Bacchus Kelsey.  In many ways, Bacchus lives on the opposite end of the spectrum from Elsie, but is far from being a representative of the rich of powerful whom Elsie fights against.  Bacchus is a talented and dedicated magician who has come to London for the final test of become a master of his craft.  Already an outsider due to living full-time in Barbados, Bacchus faces immediate racism upon setting foot in London, his skin tone and hair immediately marking him as an outside in the pale white of Victorian England.  Before meeting Elsie, we see him denied his request for a particular spell after being named a master, for no other reason than he is not a standard white man.  Further scenes show how his presence in certain locations is questioned while others are not troubled, or when he is forced to undergo a search when others are not.  While certainly an outsider, like Elsie, she initially sees him as just another powerful man when their paths first cross.  Sent on a mission from the Cowls to help liberate servants at the estate where Bacchus is staying, he catches her rather easily and, in exchange for not turning her into the authorities, blackmails her into helping him destroy shoddy or unruly spells on his host’s estate, to be replaced with his own.  While Elsie initially searches for some sinister side to him, his sincerity and care lead her to question her work with the Cowls.

Elsie is an endlessly fun character to follow in Spellbreaker, and I almost wished the book were longer if only to spend more time in her head.  Rather than create a character is a clear outside or outlier to society, which is can often be the case when a male writer writes a female character, Holmberg created Elsie is such a way that she feels perfectly at home in the setting.  She has not been trained in combat, she is not more powerful that other spellbreakers, she is not a special chosen one, and she does not behave in a way that would draw attention to herself.  Rather, aside from her abilities and position as a part-time criminal, Elsie is a rather typical young woman in the Victorian era.  She works to support herself, but is very conscious of what is expected from women by the society.  At one point in the novel, she laments over being nearly at spinster age at twenty-one.  She keeps up with the fashions at the time, is very conscious of etiquette and propriety, and, in a lovely touch, is obsessed with a series of romance novel readers.  Characters in books are very rarely allowed to enjoy hobbies that are not plot relevant.  While Elsie does feel as though she fits the setting comfortably, the Victorian era was ruled by racism and misogyny, the effects of which are certainly felt in the bones of Spellbreaker.  For better or worse, that can sometimes be the cost of choosing to set a novel in our world.

Spellbreaker is more than just a fantasy novel, however, it could also be considered a romance.  There is an attraction between Elsie and Bacchus, although it is slow to develop due to their mutual distrust of one another, combined with their two very different social strata.  The two of course recognize that any attraction between them does not make sense.  Bacchus is a master magician who will likely end up with a noble title, while Elsie is a criminal and orphan fighting against the very institutions Bacchus belongs to.  Both characters are also very aware of their behavioral expectations, forcing any courtship to go through the standards of the time.  The closest they become is when Elsie kisses him on the cheek twice in one night.  Compound this with the initial nature of their relationship.  Romance novels, unfortunately, are no stranger to dubious consent or power imbalances, oftentimes portraying the ideal male as strong and controlling, with the ideal woman being relatively submissive before him.  To be very clear, Bacchus and Elsie’s relationship is founded on blackmail.  He coerces her into working with him in exchange for not turning her into the police.  Spellbreaker could have very easily made Bacchus the villain, but Holmberg expertly pivots away from that track, instead giving us a more sympathetic Bacchus.

Overall, Spellbreaker is a fun, quick read with an interesting pair of main characters in Elsie and Bacchus that will leave you wishing the book was longer just to spend more time with these two.  Currently, Holmberg only has plans to make this new series a duology, with the sequel, Spellmaker, set to release in March of this year.  However, this is the type of setting with the type of main characters which easily turn into an ongoing series.  Hopefully, Holmberg will see that there is an audience who enjoys Elsie enough to continue her story past the second book, but that may be just the selfish request of a reader.  Spellbreaker was an excellent way to start the new year, and I cannot wait to continue Elsie’s story.

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

Total Read Time: 3 days

Next on the List: Creeping Jenny, by Jeff Noon

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