Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4.5)
Spellbreaker by Charlie N. Holmberg was a quiet surprise, jumping to the top of my TBR list after arriving at my door by way of Scribbler. For those of you unaware, Scribbler is a book box subscription for writers that sends out books and writing goodies every month.
Often, I find their books just a little different from what I'd normally pick up for myself, but that's one of the draws of the subscription! Frequently, I find a welcome little surprise in their boxes. Spellbreaker is one of those unexpected finds.
Infusing outlawed and regulated magic into the London of 1895, Spellbreaker begins with the story of orphaned Elsie Camden. While the upperclass of society pay to for the ability to study magic and become registered magicians, housemaid Elsie is well aware of magic. In fact, she can feel and see it all around her. However, unlike the upper-crust magicians who can afford to cultivate their gifts and discover where their affinities lay, Elsie is no magic wielder, no "aspector" of any kind. She's a spell-breaker. Unregistered and hiding her abilities, by day she works for an artist in a small town outside of the city; by night, she completes missions for the Cowls, a secret organization that serves to help those disadvantaged by power-hungry aspectors of all magical affinities.
When Elsie receives a letter detailing that a nearby magician is mistreating his employees and locking his servants in at night using magical wards, she is determined to free them from their captivity. Able to touch and unknot all sorts of magic, Elsie sneaks away and finds all kinds of runes placed along the property of a local Duke's manor. Desperate to undo the magic and free the servants from their confinement, Elsie moves in close to touch the runes, to trace the intricate patterns, and release the magic from its hold.
Soon after, however, Elsie is caught undoing the spells along the property, apprehended by "an exceptionally large man whose hold was tighter than that of the bespelled hunting path." Bacchus Kelsey is a physical aspector - a man with the ability to influence physical matter. Bacchus is newly arrived in London, on business to finish his magical education and ascend to master level, all in search of a single spell that will change Bacchus's life. His plans, however, are thrown off track when Elsie Camden lands in his world.
In order to keep him from throwing her to the authorities, Elsie and Bacchus strike a bargain. She'll help him fix unruly spells around the Duke's estate; he'll keep her secret (and her company). But as they spend more time together, Elsie's curiosity about the elite spell master grows, as does her fondness for this foreign man.
But as Bacchus works to complete his education and Elsie finishes out her work on the estate, she grows more and more worried about the recent murders of local elite magicians - more worried for Bacchus, whose secrets leave her desperate to know more, desperate to protect him, desperate to save him from threats on multiple fronts.
Spellbreaker examines the class structure through the magical system, shining a light on the prejudices that impact Bacchus's life at every turn, the injustices that keep Elsie in a life of hiding the very truth of who she is. The book is clever and nuanced - a page turner with a message that doesn't hit its readers over the head.
Within this world where the elite can cultivate gifts that the lower classes can only dream of, Bacchus - a man of color from a colonized island - and Elsie - an orphan turned servant working for the only show of power that ever gave her the time of day, come together despite their differences, in light of their similarities. From opposite worlds, the two find common ground in the swell of their lives, and their secrets.
Spellbreaker is a hidden little gem with a story to tell and characters who brings you along for the ride with a subtlety that makes you forget where you are. By the end of the novel, I was already online, searching for an e-book copy of the next in the series, only to be severely disappointed that Spellmaker isn't out until March 2021, and I'll have to wait for more of Bacchus and Elsie.