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I have to admit that historical novels featuring an alternate fantasy world typically are not my cup of tea. But SPELLBREAKER, an historical fantasy/mystery with a soupçon of romance set in Victorian England, grabbed me from the start.

Elsie Camden is a wonderful, complex creation. She has lost her family, managed to leave the workhouse where orphans go, and hidden her ability to be a “spellbreaker” in a world where women don’t get to be wizards unless they are aristocrats. Above all, Elsie is a truly likable character, and her Robin Hood-like tendencies make her even more admirable.

"The twists are breathtaking. Holmberg is an experienced writer, and the clues she drops like bread crumbs throughout the story are cleverly scattered and concealed."

The world in which Elsie lives is, in some ways, very much like England was. However, with the addition of magic spells, somehow it seems even more “British” --- in the sense that the aristocrats are still the upper-class wealthy, but added to the mix are wizards who, after they complete their testing, may be eligible for a title, thus transforming them into members of the upper class.

We also meet Bacchus Kelsey, who has traveled from his home in Barbados to London to finish his wizard testing. He is hoping to obtain a special spell that he badly needs. We don’t know exactly what accounts for his desperation at the beginning, but author Charlie N. Holmberg does share slight hints as to what his problem is. Meanwhile, Bacchus will stay with the Duke of Kent, a longtime family friend.

When Elsie and Bacchus meet, they are immediately at odds. Bacchus is a caster of spells, and Elsie is a spellbreaker. She also is an illegal breaker of spells, which could mean death if she were caught. But as they begin to help each other, slowly but surely they develop a bond. While Bacchus is a wealthy landowner, he is illegitimate, and his dark skin makes him an object of condescension wherever he goes in England.

Holmberg makes Elsie vulnerable as she shares her feelings of abandonment as a child when her parents and siblings disappeared one night. But now that we know about her abilities, we wonder if there is something more sinister about their disappearance. Who are the members of the mysterious group that sends Elsie on her supposed missions of mercy to make the lives of the subjugated less oppressive? The twists are breathtaking.

Holmberg is an experienced writer, and the clues she drops like bread crumbs throughout the story are cleverly scattered and concealed. In fact, it feels like we were led by the nose in one direction, only to learn that the author, in a masterful piece of misdirection, has pulled a rabbit out of the hat a continent away. The clues were there but hidden so carefully in the action that you will be tempted to do as I did and reread the novel to catch all the foreshadowing and tidbits that lead to the conclusion of SPELLBREAKER.

While Holmberg gives us a partial ending, there is also something of a cliffhanger that will make readers eagerly anticipate the March 9th release of SPELLMAKER, the second book in this outstanding duology.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on December 4, 2020

by Charlie N. Holmberg