I have to begin by admitting that historical novels featuring an alternate fantasy world usually are not my cup of tea. But this novel, an historical/fantasy/mystery with a soupçon of romance set in Victorian England, grabbed me from the start. The main character, Elsie Camden, is a wonderful, complex creation: someone who has lost her family, managed to leave the workhouse where orphans go, and hidden her ability to be a spell breaker in a world where women don’t get to be wizards unless they are aristocrats. Above all, Elsie is a really, really likable character, and her Robin Hood-like tendencies make her even more admirable.
The world in which Elsie lives is in some ways very much like England was; but with the addition of magic spells, somehow it seems even more “British,” in the sense that the aristocrats are still the upper class wealthy, but added to the mix are wizards who, after they complete their testing, may also be eligible for a title, thus transforming them into members of the upper class.
We also meet Bacchus Kelsey, who has traveled from his home in Barbados to London to finish his wizard testing. He is hoping to obtain a special spell that he desperately needs. We don’t know exactly what accounts for his desperation at the beginning, but Holmberg does share slight hints as to what his problem is. Meanwhile, Kelsey will stay with the Duke of Kent, a longtime family friend.
When he and Elsie meet, they are immediately at odds. Bacchus is a caster of spells, and Elsie is a spellbreaker. She is also an illegal breaker of spells, which could mean death if she were caught. But as they begin to help each other, they begin to like each other. While Bacchus is a wealthy landowner in Barbados, he is illegitimate, and his dark skin makes him an object of condescension wherever he goes in England.
Holmberg makes Elsie vulnerable as she shares her feelings of abandonment as a child of six when her parents and siblings disappeared one night. But now that we know about Elsie’s abilities, we wonder if there is something more sinister about their disappearance. Who are the members of the mysterious group that sends Elsie on her supposed missions of mercy to make the lives of the subjugated less oppressive. The twists, when they appear, are breathtaking.
Holmberg is an experienced writer, and the clues she drops like bread crumbs throughout the story are masterfully scattered and hidden. In fact, it feels uncomfortably as if we were led by the nose in one direction, only to learn that the author, in a masterful piece of misdirection, has pulled a rabbit out of the story hat a continent away. The clues were there but hidden so carefully in the action that you will be tempted to do as I did and reread the story to catch all the foreshadowing and tidbits that, if read carefully, lead to the conclusion. The conclusion to this first book of two, that is. For while Holmberg gives us a partial ending in “Spellbreaker,” there is also something of a cliffhanger that will keep readers checking for the release date of the second and final book.
Review first posted on Bookreporter.com
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, 47North, for review purposes.