Special thank you to Shealea and Caffeine Book Tours for organizing this blog tour and providing me an ARC of the book in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are from an advance copy and are subject to change in final publication.
While this review is spoiler-free for Spell Starter, it may contain spoilers for Caster.
Title: Spell Starter
Author: Elsie Chapman
Publication Date: October 6th, 2020
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Source: Physical ARC via publisher
Age Range & Genre: YA, fantasy
Content warnings: violence, death, threats
Synopsis: Yes, Aza Wu now has magic back. But like all things in her life, it has come at a great cost. After the tournament, Aza is able to pay off her parents’ debt to Saint Willow. Unfortunately, the cost of the gathering spell she used to strip Finch of his magic has put her permanently in the employ of the gang leader. Aza has been doing little errands using real magic — collecting debts, putting the squeeze on new businesses in the district. But that had never been the plan. Saint Willow is nothing if not ambitious and having Aza as a fighter is much more lucrative than as a fixer. Especially if she can control the outcome. Aza is going to have to put it all on the line again to get out of this situation!
Much like its predecessor, Spell Starter took me by surprise and packed a punch – pun intended – but while Caster is very much a story about loss, Spell Starter is one of cost. Aza thought she paid the ultimate cost in getting revenge against her sister’s killer, Finch, by giving up her magic, but in this sequel, she finds that there are even more painful punishments to bear. Spell Starter takes a darker turn as Aza is suddenly forced to participate in a new tournament at Saint Willow’s bidding, and is even more relevant as it tackles environmentalism and greed.
Throughout Spell Starter, Aza struggles. She struggles with her new magic, she struggles with her grief for Shire, and she struggles with the person she’s starting to become under Saint Willow’s employment. No matter how much Aza tells herself that she is fighting in the tournament against her will and that she has no other choice, it does little to relieve any of the guilt she’s feeling. Aza is trying to be fine, both for herself and her parents, but whether she’s ready to acknowledge it or not, she’s now coping with the loss of multiple things. Aza has lost Shire, Kylin, and her magic, and she’s not sure how to start moving forward – if she even can.
From maybe 2013-2016, I was a huge Once Upon a Time fan, and a much repeated quote (some might even say it was repeated too many times) from the series is “magic always comes with a price,” and that’s essentially how I would summarize Spell Starter. Even though Aza has magic back, she quickly learns that it is nothing like her own magic and is left with painful reminders to drive that lesson home. She’s suffering from the consequences of casting physically, emotionally, and mentally, and yet she continues to fight because she has something to fight for. Everything Aza does, she does for her family, whether it’s in Shire’s memory or for the parents she’s slowly reconnecting with. Whatever the cost to herself, Aza is determined to protect the people she cares about.
Spell Starter includes all of the themes that made Caster such an impactful read for me, but while Aza is new and naive about the world she’s entering by fighting in the Guild’s tournament, she knows exactly what she’s getting into when Saint Willow forces her to compete again. The knowledge that Aza is working with in Spell Starter brings up the question of choice: under Saint Willow’s employ and the constant threats to her parents and their livelihood, does Aza have any other choice but to fight? But when fighting means losing control of magic that isn’t hers, toppling buildings, and tearing the earth apart, is there really a choice at all?
While Aza’s agency is at the heart of the story, so too is that of the earth’s. Once a world brimming with full-magic casters, the planet now reflects the damage that casters do to themselves when they use their magic. But despite the stigma against casters and the resentment they face due to their part in the earth’s destruction, other people are still willing to employ them and even bet on them for sport. The culture surrounding the tournaments is supposed to be a celebration of full magic and a recollection of days past, but Aza has already realized that it is actually one that endangers both the contestants and the earth’s for the entertainment of others.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing how Caster is adapted and how its environmentalist themes translate on screen, as well as watching people cast! We still don’t have much information about the movie, but check out the announcement on Tor!
About the Author
Elsie Chapman grew up in Prince George, Canada, and has a degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia. She is the author of the YA novels Dualed, Divided, Along the Indigo, and Caster as well as the middle-grade novel All the Ways Home, and the coeditor of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings and Hungry Hearts. She currently lives in Tokyo, Japan, with her family.
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