Caster (2019) / Spell Starter (2020)

by Elsie Chapman
Series Review

**This is a series review that may contain spoilers for Spell Starter**

Caster_cover


Caster

ASN/ISBN: 9781338332629
Publication: September 3, 2019
3h-stars

Aza is left to ensure her parents’ debt to the Tea District’s gang leader is regularly paid after her sister is killed. Although against the law, she resorts to using full magic to make money while also trying to learn what happened to her sister. When she stumbles upon an underground tournament for casters such as herself, the prize money is too much to pass up. 

Caster grabbed my attention right away. I liked Chapman’s writing style, which immersed me in Aza’s life, even though it takes place in a matter of days only. It’s an atmospheric read that will have you also thinking about the potential demise of our world. The world of Caster is dark and bleak, especially for individuals like Aza. Losing her sister and trying to protect her parents spurs Aza to put her life at risk daily by casting full magic to make ends meet. The magic system Chapman creates is a harsh one, where its use exacts a high price. Not only do casters such as Aza pay with headaches and bruises, but the earth breaks down each time. This made me question why individuals would still choose to cast. From Aza’s perspective, it’s both a matter of choice and survival, but there’s also a need to cast that is created by magic.

Aza is a flawed protagonist, which was why I was both drawn to her and struggled with some of her decisions. Lies easily leave her tongue if her survival depends on it. It isn’t necessarily that she’s only interested in looking out for herself, but her family’s well-being is also her top priority. Don’t expect her to go jumping into a fire to save someone; she’s more likely to look the other way if it means she can keep those she loves safe. I found it admirable but also winced a little each time someone’s life was forfeit because of her. While her actions throughout the book are reflective of her priorities, there are glimpses of her fighting against herself to not care about other people, showcasing that if life were different she had the potential to be the protagonist I wanted her to be rather than straddling the middle.


SpellStarter_cover-rs


Spell Starter

ASN/ISBN: 9781338589511
Publication: October 6, 2020

Aza deals with the aftermath of her decisions during the tournament. Left beholden to Saint Willow, she becomes an enforcer, shaking debtors for late payments, until it’s decided her skills are more useful in one of Saint Willow’s new endeavors. Compliance is mandatory because refusing to do Saint Willow’s bidding could spell disaster for her parents.

Spell Starter feels similar to Caster but more dangerous due to Aza’s new circumstances. Just as things seem like they can’t get any worse, they do. I thought this was clever of Chapman because her magic system already requires such a high payment. While the second book ups the stakes, Spell Starter isn’t nearly as intriguing a book because it was mostly already done (and done pretty well) in Caster. Parts of the book also feels cheaper, but it’s obvious it is meant to feel this way. If you read it, you’ll understand what I mean and that it’s not a jab at Chapman because I think she purposefully does it well. Aza’s story is still compelling, but it doesn’t hit the same way Caster does with loss and revenge at the forefront of her decision-making. 

The beginning of the book had me a bit frustrated because it didn’t make sense why Aza didn’t just think about incapacitating or even just destroying Saint Willow until it was too late. She has full magic! My best guess is the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. While she tries to protect her parents throughout both novels, it also gets tiring and even frustrating, especially in Spell Starter. I started to question their obliviousness at so much of what Aza was doing and everything else going on. They couldn’t be that unaware…could they?


Overall Assessment

Caster is a gritty duology with a protagonist who isn’t always likeable. Aza goes to great lengths to protect her parents from the district’s gang leader and to find out the circumstances behind her sister’s death. The world is a bleak one, and Aza’s decisions aren’t always ones I readily approved of, even if I understood why she made them. The duology left me in a dreary state, with a less than positive outlook, as it moved from the impact of losing a loved one to the costs of a world where magic not only destroys the user but the world. Although I enjoyed Caster more than I did Spell Starter, the series is a worthwhile read, and there’s potentially more that can be added should Chapman continue Aza’s story. I’m all in.

Scavenge the Stars (2020) / Ravage the Dark (2021)

by Tara Sim
Series Review

**This is a series review that contains spoilers for Scavenge the Stars**

ScavengeTheStars_cover

Scavenge the Stars
ASN/ISBN: 9781368051415
Publication: January 7, 2020


Amaya is nearing her final day on a debtor ship when she saves a stranger from drowning. He gives her an opportunity to take vengeance on the man who destroyed her family but things get complicated when she starts to fall for the mark’s son, Cayo.

I’ve never read The Count of Monte Cristo so I likely missed the book’s references to the novel it is based on. Aside from this, having not read the foundational material doesn’t take away from enjoying the book. It might even be better since that means I’m less likely to compare it to what I hear is a phenomenal classic. Up until about the end of Scavenge the Stars, I felt this was what revenge novels should be like. Amaya’s chapters were my favorite, a lot darker and intriguing, while I was not nearly as invested in Cayo’s plight.


Ravage the DarkRavageTheDark_cover
ASN/ISBN: 9780753555334
Publication: March 9, 2021

Betrayed by someone she thought was more friend than foe, Amaya and her friends narrowly escape with the help of a friend. Cayo and his sister also accompany Amaya and her colleagues. While it’s difficult to tell whether Cayo and Amaya will be able to overcome Amaya’s betrayal, everyone will have to work together to save the state of Moray. 

Ravage the Dark focuses more on Cayo’s development as he searches for his place outside of his father’s household. There’s less of a focus on Amaya and she does a lot of brooding in this one–so much. Ravage the Dark is repetitive in many parts, following Cayo and then trying to figure out the source of the illness.


Characters: Amaya & Cayo

Amaya is trying to fulfill the revenge plot of her benefactor while also trying to understand why her mother gave her up to a debtor ship. Her time on the ship has stolen her childhood and hardened her to life, but has amplified her desire to protect the other children she served her time with–those too young to fight against the life their parents have given them to. There are two sides to Amaya: the hardened child slave seeking revenge on those who have wronged her and the girl who believes in love, yearning to break free of the chains of vengeance placed upon her. She is strong and full of conviction, ready to uncover what happened to her family.

While Amaya as this stronger, capable individual, Cayo is written less so. Aside from his father’s wealth and reputation, Cayo comes across as weaker in character. He is trying to overcome a gambling habit and hasn’t been able to live up to his father’s expectations. Except for loving his sister, initially his only redeeming quality, I wasn’t a big fan. Of course, he is trying to be a better person. Cayo is constantly trying to prove his worth throughout both books, but it’s not until Ravage the Dark that he slowly comes into his own. Overall, Cayo isn’t a particularly likeable character. In each other, Amaya and Cayo see qualities they desire in themselves. Additionally, in each other, they seek freedom from their obligations and even hope to find redemption.

Overall Assessment

This is a well-written duology, however, both books suffer from the same fate: a great build-up with somewhat lackluster endings. Sim does a great job of creating the world along with an intricate plot. I kept turning the pages, wanting to find out what would happen next. As I got closer to the end, however, I became increasingly frustrated. This happened with both books. I was able to forgive the ending of Scavenge the Stars, just a little, because most everything before the end was great. Also, I hoped it was building to something bigger in the next book. I was more frustrated with Ravage the Dark than I was with Scavenge the Stars. There was a character who had so much potential but was underutilized. Then, what could have been an epic ending happened outside the pages of the book! I was flabbergasted by this. Sim had me fully immersed in Amaya’s plot for revenge but the endings in both books reduced my overall enjoyment of the duology. I couldn’t return from that even though there was much to like, especially in the first book.