When Lucy Snyder's funny, snappy Spellbent begins, Jessie Shimmer is only a novice Talent, or magic user, working a day job and studying magic in her off hours with her boyfriend and teacher Cooper Marron. But when a standard rain spell goes haywire and sucks Cooper through a portal to a hell, Jessie needs to do the work of Talents with many years' more experience to bring him back and defeat the various demons chasing her.
Spellbent's plot doesn't come with too many surprises. After Cooper is sucked through the hellhole, Benedict Jordan, the head of the local magical governing circle, forbids Jessie to go looking for him. When she refuses, he places her under an anathema decree, keeping her from contact with any of her fellow Talents and leaving her and her familiar, a ferret called Palimpsest, to hunt for Cooper alone while being chased by Jordan's goons. Detours along the way bring in the Warlock, Cooper's bartender half-brother, and amusing bit characters like the college students who rent Jessie a room in exchange for her promise to magically speed up the growth of their marijuana plant. Somewhat predictably, Jordan, who was so eager to put Jessie under the anathema, turns out to be more deeply involved in Cooper's troubles than it first appears. And Jessie, also not surprisingly, manages to wriggle out from under the anathema long enough to find her way to Cooper.
What makes the book worth reading is Jessie's voice, which is witty and sarcastic but still takes the dangers Jessie faces seriously. A few lines are laugh-out-loud surprising, as when Jessie answers her cell phone, vibrating in her pocket with a call from surrogate mother/fellow Talent Mother Karen, with the words, "Hello, vibrating pants."
Jessie's also willing to laugh at herself, a definite plus in a book where there are dragons, hells, and dangerous dudes in dark suits around almost every corner. She furnishes her sublet by shrinking down furniture at Target and stealing it in an empty soda cup. She sees the humor in the way she has to foist her anathema off on unsuspecting mundanes, or non-Talents, using a spell that involves a mundane's blood without alerting them that she's doing it.
The balance between humor and emotion in Spellbent sometimes feels off, however. There are hints of darkness in Jessie's past: her mother died when she was young, the man she thought was her father never treated her well, and the aunt who cared for her as a teenager committed suicide when Jessie was in college. Benedict Jordan tries to pin some of the blame for her aunt's death on Jessie, and Jessie does spend a few paragraphs remembering her mother's death and feeling guilty about her aunt. But unlike Cooper's childhood, which Snyder captures in a few chilling scenes toward the end of the book, what sound like significant and traumatic moments from Jessie's past don't actually cross her mind as often as I expected them to. Nor are her feelings for Cooper explored very deeply; Jessie is convinced she loves Cooper and wants to rescue him, but since we're given very few glimpses of their relationship, even in flashback, it's hard to feel invested in his fate.
In fact, the character other than Jessie about whom I cared the most was Palimpsest, or Pal, Jessie's ferret familiar. Jessie and Pal communicate telepathically, as do all Talents and their familiars, and Pal's voice in Jessie's head is just the right mix of knowledgeable, affectionate, and parental. Pal teaches Jessie necessary spells and tricks, but sometimes he annoys her to the point where she calls him a "mother hen." He has his own bothersome governing circle of sorts to deal with as he tries to help Jessie, and he even narrates a few chapters when Jessie is out of commission. By the end, I was reading to know the outcome of his story just as much as hers.
The novel's biggest weakness is that its magical worldbuilding doesn't quite match its wit, quirkiness, or cast of characters. The magical system in which Jessie, Cooper, and their fellow Talents work often feels like a hodgepodge. Jessie uses any material at hand to perform spells that will solve the problems she's facing, without any clear sense of the rules about what can and can't be used in a spell. Different types of magical creatures and devices pop up, too, whenever they fit the story, as when the Warlock gives Jessie a magical fake eye to replace the eye she loses fighting a demon. And there are very few limits to what Jessie can accomplish with her magical talent, despite not having much training or experience; she turns out to have what are allegedly rare gifts at convenient moments in the story. The result of all this is that even though Jessie faces a series of stressful and dangerous situations, the stakes never feel as high as they could. Spellbent is entertaining, but there's never much doubt that there's a spell within reach to save the day.
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