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Spellbreaker, by Charlie N. Holmberg

Spellbreaker (Spellbreaker, 1), by Charlie N. Holmberg
47North, 1542020093, 303 pages, November 2020

I will admit, I love 19th-century period pieces about magic. Therefore, it was no surprise I picked up Spellbreaker by Charlie N. Holmberg to read this weekend, as it is set in England in 1885. However, England is quite a different society with magic making the world run smoothly, but also contributing to societal class divide. Therefore, Elsie Camden doesn’t feel bad about using her spellbreaking powers to knock the English nobility down a few notches to help out the common folk.

The world Holmberg writes about is filled with mystery, intrigue, and most of all spells to make the world go around. All magic users and spellbreakers must be licensed by governing bodies, and the spells are kept closely guarded, only passed down to those who prove they can be trusted with the power. The whole process of how magicians level up their magic and incorporate spells is absolutely fascinating! It involves these drops of magic which glisten and then are absorbed by the aspector’s skin, permanently making the spell a piece of them. When an aspector dies, a magnum opus of their spells is left behind.

The interesting thing about these magnum opuses is that anyone can use the spells in them once by tearing the page out. Therefore, these books are often handed down to other aspectors or guarded by the magical governing bodies. Recently though, there’s been a string of murders of master aspectors involving stolen magnum opuses. The tension is high as no one can figure out who is behind the ghastly crime of murdering magicians for their spells.

Elsie Camden finds herself smack dab in the middle of the action. Day to day, she works as an assistant to a stone mason, but she also does secret work as a rogue spellbreaker. After being orphaned as a child, Elsie was left to fend for herself in the world. As a fire burns down her workhouse, leaving her to wonder what’s next for her, she is approached by a woman who realizes what she truly is: a spellbreaker.

From this point on, Elsie spell breaks for who she calls the Cowls, though she’s truly never known exactly who these people truly are. She enjoys feeling needed by them and also views herself as a modern Robinhood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Since she’s not registered as a spellbreaker, she’s in both an advantageous and dangerous position for doing this discrete work.

On an assignment gone wrong, Elsie winds up getting caught by Bacchus Kelsey, a man dedicated to earning his aspector mastership. Bacchus is an aristocrat, but he’s different from the others since he’s from Barbados and not of usual English breed. Rather than turn Elsie in, Bacchus decides to capitalize on Elsie’s spellbreaking abilities, as there’s some things about the Duke of Kent’s estate, where he’s staying while in England, that he’d like to refurbished. It’s easier for Bacchus to apply new spellwork once the the spells currently there are removed, thus begins Elsie’s indentured work to pay off the asking price for his silence.

That’s all I will give away for the plot summary, but this is only the beginning of a very neat story. I more want to focus on how this is one of the best magical stories I’ve read in a while. What I liked most about it was Holmberg’s skill at world building. I felt very immersed in this version of 19th century England, which blended the historical cultural values of the time perfectly interwoven with this dimension of magic added into it.

From the different types of magic described to how the process of spellcasting worked, Holmberg really adds the details to make it extremely easy to get lost in without feeling too fanciful. I was surprised to see the book is actually classified as science-fiction rather than fantasy, but this being said, it’s a wonderful mixture of both genres in my opinion. I would perhaps label it science-fantasy, though it’s much more focused on magic than any science or technology.

I also found the character immensely relatable. Elsie is funny, honest, and has a good head on her shoulders. While she loves her readers, she avoids gossip and focuses on her work. She has a sense of identity, which I think is one of the most important things for me in a character. And the other main character, Bacchus, likewise has depth, intelligence, and general relatability. Though they come from different worlds, they are both outsiders in some sense who have their own views of how things are in the world. It’s quite exciting to see what happens when a spellmaker and spellbreaker team up together!

And I just have to say how unique the concept of a spellbreaker was to me! In fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about the application of spellbreaking in magical works and did a deep dive in reflecting about the role spellbreaking has in my own magical practice. In fact, it was quite a revelation to realize all the ways I identified with the main character Elsie. After just discussing how fictional works can inform one’s magical practice, I experienced it first hand in reading this book. I now plan on labeling myself as a spellbreaker and seeing how this evolves my perception of the type of magical practitioner that I am.

I also found it refreshing to read a magical fiction book that still had a woman lead that wasn’t focused on witchcraft. I liked Elsie’s ability to break spells, and furthermore how she didn’t rely on magic. In fact, she often broke spells that were cast upon her, preferring to have clarity without magical influence. She clearly understood how magic could be used for both benevolent and malevolent purposes, and she did her part to ensure it was used for the latter. She wasn’t enamored with it, nor seeking fame and glory for herself. She used her abilities for a greater cause with intention, and otherwise primarily kept to herself and focused on her mundane tasks without complaint. I like her very much as a role model.

Overall, Spellbreaker was captivating. It ended on such a cliff-hanger that I just requested the next book in the duology, Spellmaker, from my library. Holmberg has done a wonderful job crafting a unique plot that captures the reader’s attention and opens the imagination. Whether one is interested in a good read or to gain insight into how they might incorporate spell breaking into their own magical practice, I appreciate this different point of view. For now, I am eagerly waiting to see how the rest of the story unfolds!

Beyond the Mirror, by M.K. Williams and Natalie Kavanagh

Beyond the Mirror: Seechers, by M.K. Williams and Natalie Kavanagh
Luxon-Drake Publications, 1999962877, 194 pages, March 2020

Beyond the Mirror: Seechers by M.K. Williams and Natalie Kavanagh is a promising first book of a series I look forward to seeing develop, as in, I’m already waiting for the next book to come out. I read this entire book within 24 hours. Much to my husband’s dismay, who was hoping to get out of the house this weekend, I couldn’t put this book down and had no interest in doing anything else but reading on. Hey, it happens when you find a good book to dive into, right? 🙂

I was hooked right from the start, which featured a vivid dream sequence playing out. Here, a young girl shoots a young man standing at the edge of a building’s roof with a mysterious vial of glowing blue liquid in his hand. This pinnacle moment seems to be the culminating peak of the book… but it became so much more!

Thinking it was being told in a frame story technique, where the end is given at the start and you then get to know how the characters got there, I was eagerly awaiting to see what went down. As I was introduced to the characters, I was questioning their intentions and curious about when betrayal might strike when I realized the shooter is initially the young man’s romantic interest. Clearly, I became invested in seeing what got them to the point at the start of the book as I read about how their relationship unfolds.

Slowly and with pure craft, the authors revealed the layers at play in the initial scene to create a deeply enthralling plot centered upon friendship, self-discovery, and, awesomely, combating the “bad guys” of course with newly-found powers of the mind.

The premise of the book is an ancient society, called Seechers, knows the secret hidden gateway to the subconscious. This group initiates new recruits every seven years, and in the meanwhile, live seemingly ordinary lives, while also protecting the balance of energy in the world. You know, no big deal! From the initiated Seechers we meet, it seems they all have their own technique of influencing energy, such as healing wounds or connecting with animals.

It is determined if one has the potential to be a Seecher, which is ultimately their own personal choice when invited, by measuring how much epsilon they have within their brain, specifically in the pineal gland. Those with enough epsilon, a bright blue liquid present in their brain, can undergo activation and join the group. Indicators one may possess this mysterious substance within their brain are heightened imagine, prophetic dreams, and psychic senses of “knowing” things.

However, something suspicious is happening to the potential recruits this year. Many are suddenly disappearing, while others are having dreams of violent kidnappings. The Seechers don’t know who is doing this, but they know their potential recruits are at risk. This causes them to take immediate measures. They decided to gather and test the potential recruits a year before schedule.

The readers know, though, about the scientific work being done at Curative Analytics. Here, there are scientists that are set on harvesting epsilon, believing it shouldn’t only be used by the Seechers and curious about its powers. However, when they do extract it from the minds of potential Seechers, it is tainted and becomes a less powerful version of the substance. This less powerful, “dead” version of epsilon is called epsilac, and the scientists are ruthless in their pursuit of obtaining it.

Aris and Maya, two of the main characters, end up deeply submersed in of all this scheming. Turns out, these two are the young man and woman from the initial scene. On a quest to discover more about the Seechers, Maya draws Aris into the pursuit — only for them to realize Aris is a Seecher himself and more than involved in safeguarding the future of the secret society than they could have ever imagined. In true fashion of curious and bold students, they work to understand the connection between all the strange events happening, landing them smack dab in the middle of all the actions where their crucial decisions have rippling effects for everyone.

I feel the plot has the perfect flow and was very well-developed. There’s so many little hints that point towards more books in this series! I am really curious about the lore behind the Seecheers and their ancient enemies, the Tauredunum Raiders. It was their ancient technology Curative Analytics is using to find the potential Seechers.

All the characters are relatable and well defined, especially Aris. Though the main characters are undergraduates in college, there are other mentors, such as the archetypal professor, so this book appeals to an audience beyond young adults. I found the story very believable and the characters well-defined.

What I liked most was this book combines many spiritual and philosophical ideas, making it a truly intriguing read for anyone with knowledge on these matters. I was suddenly inspired to read Plato’s Republic, reflecting on the allegory of the cave. The concept of the Nihilo, the subconscious world beyond ours, reminded me of the Buddhist void: the place beyond the mind, where all is subconsciously interconnected.

When I finished the book, I was reminded of Kant’s theory of an unbridgeable gap, which acknowledges there is a world that lay beyond the grasp of our senses, in the book’s concept of an unseen middle world where energy can be moved, shaped, and rearranged — though not created, abiding by Newtonian laws of physics. That is, unless one of the new Seechers may have abilities that go beyond this…

Oh, how I love a great fiction read that expands my perception and explores consciousness beyond the usual senses. I think there’s so much talent in being able to bring these concepts to life through storytelling.

While the book does have the typical plot of a secret society, new initiates coming in, a great battle between enemies, and “evil scientists” performing unethical research to further their own motives, I still feel like this book was done in an original and creative way. Williams and Kavanagh are exquisite writers who really know how to weave together an engaging plot.

I highly recommend Beyond The Mirror to those who are seeking a novel that incorporates spirituality and philosophy to create a new tale. I am looking forward to the next book! So much more I want to know about how the story will unfold!

The Diamond Rose, by Daniela Valenti

The Diamond Rose: A Sentinel 10 Novel, by Daniela Valenti
Daniela Valenti, 1777427304, 258 pages, 2020

I love a good paranormal-romance, mostly because as an intuitive person that’s how all my life usually feels, if only in my own mind. I can always relate to the trials of learning how to use one’s powers wisely while encountering spirits, energies, and deities with their own agenda. I appreciate when a fiction book strengthens my confidence in my own intuition from inspiring me with how a strong character handles what comes their way; sometimes it’s just more relatable than reading a nonfiction book on a topic because I can develop a connection to the characters and use them as inspiration. Therefore, I was thrilled to discover The Diamond Rose by Daniela Valenti, which is the first book in an on-going series, that kept me hooked from the start with a relatable, intriguing plot. I could not get enough of this book and am already eagerly awaiting the next one coming out in 2021!

The premise of The Diamond Rose is the protagonist, a medical student named Amanda, suddenly develops psychic abilities during a solar flare. Luckily, her best friend since childhood, Lydia, also has her psychic powers activated so she’s not alone in this venture. Together, the women are encouraged to join the most powerful secret society in order to learn how to control their powers and receive protection from a mafia-like Committee. The fact that the Committee is the most powerful, filled with secrets, and may or may not have its Sentinel’s best interest at heart only adds interest to how this will play out in the long-run within the series. Meanwhile, Amanda struggles with feelings for her stoic, handsome, and ripped partner James, while also fending herself from the attraction of Alain, a rogue assassin stalking her. The mixture of intrigue and romance set the stages for Amanda as she navigates this new way of life in a way many modern women can relate to – drinking her tea, lots of baths, and frequent shopping.

What I liked most about The Diamond Rose was the cast of characters that Valenti brings to life. From the start, she develops layered-interactions between the characters, generating enough conflict to be engaging but also a sense of teamwork. It made me wish I had my own team of psychics to tackle energy-suck plasma and mind-controlling bad guys with! The variety of characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, make for a force to be reckoned with. You can see they are a team, but there’s still alliances that are forming, which keep it interesting as you keep guessing at what may transpire between them.

I especially appreciate the focus in the plot on Amanda’s relationship with her best friend Lydia because it demonstrates a healthy and mature friendship between women. Too often, women are pitted against each other as competitors, portraying them as envious or not to be trusted. I found it refreshing to see the dynamic between these two, who openly share their opinions on the other’s love life (is the guy ever really good enough for your bestie?), work through their disagreements, and continue to be honest and loving with each despite differences of opinion.

Beyond the variety of characters, there’s also competing secret societies, each with their own agenda that add even more complexity to the story. The book perfectly satiates readers’ curiosity about these rumored secret societies, so often alluded to in modern times, while laying a web that ties another main character, Basil, and his family to these different organizations.This is just one example of the foundation laid by Valenti that keeps the readers questioning what lay ahead for the characters further into the series.

Another unique feature of the book is Valenti’s profession as a psychiatrist, which allows her to expertly weave in psychological and medical concepts. Being that many of the characters have a scientific background, she creates the perfect counter of reason and logic to all the paranormal happenings, which adds humor and keeps the story grounded in a reality that seems plausible to the reader. Valenti’s use of contrasting perspectives enables the reader to see the characters’ perspective from a scientific view-point and also supernatural one, especially in disagreements between Lydia and Amanda, and leaves the reader’s reflection on whose point is right.

My favorite part of the book was when the Sentinels get their initial training. I have been very into studying defense and protection magic recently, and Amanda gave me a lot of inspiration for accepting my abilities and learning how to protect myself with them. I used the technique for turning off psychic receiving that Amanda got in training in real life with much success. It was fun to engage with the experience of the characters in this way and to imagine what it’d be like to be a Sentinel myself.

One-downside of the book for readers may be their frustration with Amanda’s romantic choices. Just like a good friend, you’ll be screaming “Why are you putting yourself through this heartache?” when she full-fledge throws herself into a rather toxic relationship. Since it seems Amanda’s childhood wounds are only healed by utterly consuming love, she tosses all reason to the side and dives in headfirst to an “unconditional” love affair with a domineering suitor. It’s a classic mash-up of toxicity and bonding over abuse that fuels the love, in my opinion, and this may have some more level-headed women smacking their palm to their face saying, “Girl, get a grip.” However, by the end, the twist of events certainly seems to be a set-up for the evolving plot in the upcoming books. As much as I wanted to hate on Amanda for her choices, I also have experienced my fair share of flings with the bad boy. Being that she’s young, I hope to see her mature as the series goes on.

The only other thing worth mentioning about The Diamond Rose is that it’s lacking any BIPOC in it, which is a bit disheartening. I think a little more diversity would make it more appealing to a wider range of audience. Amanda is a very much “basic white girl,” though still with enough depth to make her an interesting lead.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Diamond Rose and read it under 24 hours (I even stayed up late one night because I wanted to know what would come next). I think Valenti is off to a great start with the series – I’m already invested in the characters – and I look forward to seeing what’s next for the Sentinels. This book perfectly blends the suspense that comes from a good thriller with the romance at the heart of chick lit. I highly recommend it for anyone whose is seeking a paranormal-romance, especially for those who are looking for a fictional role model to inspire them as they hone their psychic abilities.