When I first heard about Spellbound, I couldn’t wait to read it. Love. Magic. Queer. Paranormal. Suspense. Prohibition-era Manhattan. First in a series. Friends, the author had me at “Love”. I couldn’t ask our publisher for this book fast enough! Ms. Therin, in her published début, almost delivers on all this promise, and Spellbound is a compelling, entertaining and intriguing set-up for stories to come. Unfortunately, her lead character is an immature, awkward, frequently rude oddball who falls for his exact opposite – a sexy, handsome, sympathetic, rich and suspicious stranger – and their total lack of believable chemistry together is a jarring counterpoint to the story in which they star. It’s a shame. The writing is strong, the world-building is compelling, and the secondary characters (especially the women) nearly steal every scene in which they appear. But the romance is a mess.
Rory Brodigan is a recluse, afraid of life and what he believes is a perilous future. His magical gift (or curse) – psychometry (he can touch an object and scry its history) – nearly destroyed him once, and he fears it’s only a matter of time before he’s subsumed in the past and lost again. To protect himself, he hides away, working with his elderly aunt, Mrs. Brodigan (the only other person who knows of his gift) at her antique shop, helping her recognize counterfeits. Jumpy, paranoid and lonely, he’s resigned himself to this unhappy life… until a powerful object comes into the shop and forces him out of his self-imposed isolation.
Arthur (Ace to his friends) Kenzie, the handsome, wealthy son of a powerful and connected New York political family, was a soldier on the WWI battlefields when his eyes were opened to a secret, magical shadow world. Following the painful and tragic deaths of two close friends – and loss of another – he’s dedicated his life to intercepting powerful magical relics before they can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world or fall into enemy hands. He’s recently received reports that an amulet with the power to control the tides is on its way to New York – and possibly into the hands of a formidable enemy. Only a powerful psychometric can prevent a catastrophe – and fortunately, Ace thinks he might know where to find one. An antiques store with an uncanny record of spotting counterfeits has snagged his attention, and a fake ‘test’ has only intensified his suspicions. After a tense confrontation with the store owner (who suspects there’s more to Mr. Kenzie than meets the eye), he entrusts her with a ring in a locked box – failing to mention it also has the power to control the wind – but tells her not to open it, yet. Rory, working late and unable to resist opening the box, is instantly sucked into its dangerous, sinister past. Unbeknownst to him, his magic triggers the attention of Ace and his loyal band of supernatural relic hunters – and others who might use his gift to harness the power of the amulet.
After Ace and his friends (Jade, a telekinetic; Zhang, an astral walker) finally realize Rory is the supernatural in the shop, they vow to keep him – and the relics – away from villainous forces who might misuse and abuse his gift. But Rory doesn’t want anything to do with them. Wary and suspicious (and inconveniently attracted to the handsome, friendly and urbane Mr. Kenzie), he behaves like an immature adolescent brat towards the older man. Lucky for him, Ace finds that attractive. Ahem. Rory triggers Arthur’s protective instincts and his lust, and the combination is… ridiculous? Bizarre? Ace and his crew ignore Rory’s overwhelming hostility, and instead, offer to help him however they can. And before long, he needs their help – and craves it too.
Therin does a marvelous job of introducing her secret supernatural world and hooking readers into the story. The diversity of the cast felt appropriate and organic to melting pot Manhattan in 1925, as does the palpable fear Ace and Rory feel knowing they’re attracted to each other at a time when homosexuality was a dangerous (and potentially ruinous) proclivity. The setting, the tension between the lead characters, the intriguing secondary characters – they bring this story to colorful life. I particularly enjoyed the friendship/professional interplay between Ace and Jade and Zhang, and Rory and his aunt. The author also cleverly incorporates the prohibition-era time period into her narrative – giving readers a sneak peek into Jade’s life (more please!), and Therin’s magical world is fascinating. I loved learning about the origins of relics and potions and their respective powers (although I wanted more here, too), the application of magic for good and evil, and the struggles and challenges facing supernaturals in this world. The first half of this book is tremendously entertaining and illuminating despite the information dump.
Unfortunately, after a scared Rory softens towards Ace and his goodness and patience and kindness (and good looks, wealth and sexiness), the magical elements are shoved to the background (except when we need a clever plot device). Therin rapidly pivots and focuses instead on the developing rhw opposites-attract romance which, frankly, doesn’t work. Arthur, damaged by his wartime experiences, is dedicated to saving the world. He’s blessed with friends who know and love him, but he’s lonely. His work (and the secrecy inherent in it), along with his sexuality, compel him to keep people at a distance. He falls hard for an unstable, paranoid, an immature oddball who’s often rude, hurtful, and selfish. Rory, who can count on one hand the people he likes and/or trusts, instantly falls in lust with Ace. Rory could be lovable too (his backstory is compelling), except the author insists on writing him as a spoiled, tantrum-prone, petulant grown up child; even after we discover his secrets, he remains an unlikeable, polarizing figure. Really folks, I hesitate to call him a hero because he’s so reluctant (and fearful) to use his powers, and only reluctantly does so. I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t like him. Nothing about these two as a couple or crime-fighting duo works. And I absolutely hated the tease and then fade to black love scenes. Therin wastes an opportunity to show their connection, and leaves readers removed from their intimacy.
There is a clever and complicated suspense plot that unfurls as the story progresses. Individual plot threads eventually coalesce, but the bizarre romance between Rory and Ace (unfortunately) steals our attention just when the story reaches its climax. Plotlines are left underdeveloped just when good and evil, friends and enemies, past and present, finally converge. The author tries to pivot from action to romance, and good vs. bad, but what should have felt urgent and thrilling, is instead confusing. The villains aren’t villainous enough, and I wish I knew them better. I wasn’t invested in Rory’s last minute heroics or powers, and I wanted more magic, more villainy, more supernatural powers… just more, more, more. And less (unbelievable) romantic yearning.
Spellbound didn’t keep me spellbound, but nevertheless, it is a strong and compelling début. Unique, and sometimes dazzling, it kept me entertained and eager for more of its magical, supernatural world – and hopeful for better yet to come.