“A Season of Spells” by Sylvia Hunter

This is the last book in a trilogy that I’ve enjoyed a lot. Sadly, I didn’t review either of the first two books on this blog. I reviewed the first book, The Midnight Queen, on Goodreads, but the second was neglected even there, with only a few incoherent ramblings about “yay, lesbians!”. So, this review will be of limited interest to those who haven’t read the rest of the series. Apologies about that.

a season of spells

Publication date: May 18th, 2017

I originally picked up the first one in a charity shop purely because it had a pretty cover, and was delighted to find that it played into a lot of my esoteric interests, including Celtic languages and magical university. (I can’t overstate how much I love magic university as a trope: whenever a book contains it, it’s always my favourite part of that book.) Finally, after several months and a mishap of editions, I got my hands on the third one, and despite the wiser course of action being either to do some work or go to bed, I decided to read it as soon as I could.

I enjoyed this book, but nonetheless would probably say it’s my least favourite of the trilogy. This is mostly because it contains fewer of the things I adored about the earlier instalments (for example, academic study of magic), and more of the stuff I found a bit less interesting (politics). It did have some more tantalising glimpses of the alternate history that underlies the worldbuilding, though, so it was nice to get a better idea of the world’s history — something I’d been clamouring for in the earlier books — but that wasn’t quite enough to fill the hole.

The fact is, this book opens with Sophie’s graduation from the University of Din Edin, and thus the academic study of magic which so intrigued me earlier on plays a fairly minor role in this book. Sophie knows how to do magic now; while there are still a few scenes poring over old books trying to reconstruct spells and understand dense writing styles, they were somewhat few and far between. Instead, the politics of relations between Britain, Alba, and Gaul take the foreground — and while I cared about Alba because of its role in book two, Gaul was a new player on the scene, and one I wasn’t entirely invested in.

Moreover, there was slightly less time to get to know new characters and fall for their personalities all over again, because they were all so well-established by this point and there weren’t many late additions to the cast who were supposed to be sympathetic. Though admittedly I found myself liking Roland a lot more than I had in previous books, and becoming much more interested in him.

Something I did really appreciate, though, was the relationship between Joanna and Gwendolen, and the fact that while it was unusual and occasionally the idea of discovery came as a concern, it wasn’t a big deal, it wasn’t shocking, and their friends and relations were, when they knew about it, supportive. The book may be alt-history but it’s still historical, and almost entirely angst-free representation within that context is extremely rare and valuable.

Generally, I think the relationships between the characters have been one of the strengths of this series. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance in book one but, as the trilogy has continued and more time has passed, I’ve become much more invested in Sophie and Gray. Having said that, it was nice to have them separated for a while in this book, but not in a way that incapacitated either of them: it allowed them to stand more on their own feet as characters.

I also love the platonic relationships, particularly Sophie’s friendship with Lucia, and the way that characters support each other even when they’ve all got different strengths. It would be easy, I think, for Sophie as a ‘magical all-powerful unexpected royal heir’ to fill a boring Chosen One role and constantly save the day — but she doesn’t. Or rather, when she saves the day it’s with help from supportive friends who do things that she can’t; she may be gifted, but there are certain things her gifts won’t help with, and other characters who may have less in the way of magic are able to step in and fill those roles, making for a much more balanced cast.

Speaking of balance, though, I felt the pacing was somewhat off. All of the books in this series are long, and I don’t think they’re supposed to be fast-paced, but I found myself getting impatient with this one at times — and yet the ending, when it comes, is rather abrupt and sudden, and I didn’t think everything was explained as well as it might have been.

I still really enjoyed it, but it was definitely the weakest instalment for me, with book two the strongest — mostly because it had the best balance of magical scholarship and minimal romance, with lots of fun alt-history and relatable mutterings about the difficulties of Gaelic.

Overall, I’d probably give it 3.5*s, but I’m going to round it up to 4* because I was surprisingly invested in the slow burn of Roland and Lucia’s relationship.

Rating: ****

Buy ‘A Season of Spells’ on Amazon (UK)
Buy ‘A Season of Spells’ on Amazon (US)

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