Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review: Spell Bound, by Kelley Armstrong, book 12 of the Otherworld series

Savannah Levine, witch/sorcerer hybrid and mighty spellcaster has lost her powers. They’ve been stripped from her by a poorly worded promise, leaving her with only her mundane abilities to get by

But rarely have her skills been more tested. Not only does she have to get her powers back to where they should be and find who is responsible to take them, but she is also being hunted by Witch Hunters – several factions of them in fact.

And, more than that, the entire supernatural world in turmoil as there is a growing movement to reveal themselves to humanity. The disaffected are gathering in unprecedented numbers, spurred by a mysterious leader and the number of strange occurrences that have been widely publicised across the modern supernatural community. But Savannah and the whole Council must be at their best and most united to face this ever growing threat. And even demon lords are starting to pick sides in this fight.

The plot of this book is an ultimate mystery. We have the witch hunters with 3 or so conflicting stories and it’s a question of who to trust and which version is the correct one. We have the cult that is growing and they don’t’ know who is behind it and why and what they’re doing. We have Savannah’s missing powers and they whys and wherefores of that. On top of that we have both lord demons and apparently deities being involved.

This is a book about questions. Endless questions and discovery but not many answers – just an increasing powerful sense that something epic is brewing and something huge is developing. Reading the book I had a constant sense of not only something big brewing but also a sense of being lost – because so much was happening we didn’t have the answers to – and every time we found something out there was not only more questions but more hugeness was revealed. The problems continued to escalate and grow and connect into something greater and more frightening – but with even more questions attached. And normally just questions and foreshadowing annoys me when it is too prolonged – but this has just created a huge sense of the epic – which could collapse into an anti-climax.

I’m in 2 minds about Savannah being depowered throughout this book. One the one hand, I agree that a strong female character doesn’t mean she has to have 5 super powers, have mastered 8 kinds of martial arts and been able to fire a pistol with her little toe and still hit her enemies in the sinuses. And it is nice to see more of Savannah other than “woman with super powers” and it’s an interesting dynamic to pursue to see how Savannah deals without her powers after so long relying on them to the exclusion of all else. It shows different levels of strength, resilience and maturity from her that, again, makes her stronger, more well rounded and generally a better character. Yet, at the same time, her being robbed of her primary aggressive skill for a whole book – and more – isn’t fun.

But I’m less pleased with how everyone treated her. Adam and Clay both seemed to expect her to adapt to this new situation overnight. And they have a rather excessively strict definition of what counts as “maturity” – which seems to involve being obedient, taking no risks yet at the same time adjusting enough to having your powers stripped to be willing to wrestle with half-demons. And I dislike that Savannah was presented as manipulating Adam into doing what she wanted – when what it seemed she was actually doing was refusing to do what he wanted. Yes, he had a point, but it wasn’t like she was delaying going to Miami for no reason at all either.

And can we please, for the love of all that is holy, STOP having the protagonists kidnapped. Seriously, it’s reaching such a joke level that even the characters in the book are lampshading it. Is there a single female character in these books who hasn’t been kidnapped? In fact, no, that’s too hard – is there a single female character in these books who hasn’t been kidnapped multiple times? (Eve, I think, is the only one).

Ok, let’s look at Sean Nast, heir apparent to the Nast cabal and one of only 2 GBLT characters in the entire series. In most ways I’m pleased by Sean, he’s well rounded, capable, intelligent and lacking in any pressing stereotypes, in fact the book goes out of the way to dismiss stereotyping. I approve muchly. But then there’s the minus side. First of all, Cassandra and her heckling him about being closeted is ridiculous and, if anything, a 300 year old vampire should be well aware of the historic and current prejudice against GBLT people – yes part of it is Cassandra being Cassandra and she does so like to heckle people, but there’s heckling and being utterly oblivious to prejudice. Also when you throw in that this little scene probably takes up half of Sean’s “screen time” in the entire book, it’s not ideal. Which is another problem. Sean is not now nor has ever been a protagonist. Nor has the story every followed a character close enough to Sean for him to be a regular character. Instead he gets repeated appearances as the “reasonable Nast”, the only member of the Nast cabal who can be trusted not to be a pain in the backside. So, what does this mean in practice? It means we only see Sean when the protagonists want something from the Nast cabal whereupon he can be guaranteed to risk his family’s disapproval and go against their wishes for the sake of the protagonists. Or, in other words, he only really makes an appearance when the protagonists want something and he can do something for them. This service role is sadly common and problematic.

As for racial diversity we have Hope but not in any large role.

I think this book is a definite turning point in the Otherworld series. Previously we had an ongoing meta-plot but it was more a meta-world – the same world, the same characters moving on with their lives while we focused on the issues that consumed each individual’s lives. Their lives met at times, but on the whole they were independent from each other. Now we have a dominant meta-plot an ongoing conflict and it is a conflict that is pulling all the characters together. While we focus on one character, it’s clear this is going to involve everyone heavily. It’s almost like the entire series to date was setting up this plot line, establishing the characters so they’re all ready to go with this, the beginning of something epic. I also feel this by the number of back references there are and the way it’s careful to involve every character – with the daughter of Lucifer (Hope & Karl) to the Sorcerer/Witch hybrid (Savannah, Lucas, Paige, Adam & Eve) to the werewolf children (Elena, Clay, Jeremy and, to a lesser extent, Jaime) – so that they’re not just involved to help friends, but all the previous protagonists have a personal stake in this war. It’s elegantly tied together and a brilliant way to involve everyone directly and ensure everyone we’ve already met will have a part in this up coming storyline.

In the end I am both curious and eager for the next book while at the same time vaguely frustrated by this book. I’m eager because this storyline that is developing looks incredible, all the characters coming together, epic powers, major changes in the world, a whole new direction and style – this is going to be fascinating to read and I can’t wait for the next one. I am frustrated because this book just set that up. Yes it was fun and yes it set up this epic storyline perfectly, but the book itself was something of a prologue. Nothing the characters set out to achieve was achieved. It wasn’t failed and progress was made but it wasn’t resolved either. This book is more a prologue for the next book(s) than a book in its own right

All in all, I like the book it is setting up some incredible stories to come – I just love the sense that everything this series is built is now coming together in one place. We’re going to see some real epic – it’s just not quite there yet. I’m going to give this book 3.5 fangs but with a caveat – if the foreshadowing comes through then the next book will be a 4 or 4.5 at least. Or we could face a dramatic anti-climax.