By Allie Therin
Genre: Speculative Fiction/Historical Fiction
QUILTBAG Main Character: Yes
QUILTBAG Minor Character: Yes
Main Character of Color: No
Bechdel Test: Yes
Summary: New York City, 1925. Rory Brodigan works in a small antique shop, using his unique and secret magical abilities to read the past of any item he touches. When his employer brings him a stack of letters and a unique task, Rory is drawn into a world he didn’t know existed, one that is increasingly perilous. He is shown this new world by Arthur Kenzie, the youngest son of a prominent family. Arthur has spent much of his life tracking down rare magical artifacts with the goal of keeping them safely out of the hands of people who might use them for evil. Two such objects are now in New York. Arthur has more than a little bit of a vested interest in tracking them down, but the longer they are in the city, the less control Rory has over his abilities. The clock is ticking as danger and attraction grow ever nearer.
Let’s Get A Little Deep:
Historical fiction is always a bit of a tough sell for me. It isn’t that I don’t like the genre in and of itself. It is only that there is a certain glorification, a romanticizing of the past that makes it shiny and beautiful while willfully ignoring the darker, more insidious aspects. We have so much nostalgia for another way of living that we forget how much the world has changed for the better, particularly for people of color and queer folks. I knew going in that Spellbound was historical fiction. I also knew that it was a queer romance which is why I picked it up. What delighted me about this book was how little of the past was looked at through rose-colored glasses. By making a story that doesn’t romanticize but instead criticizes the past, Therin creates a rich world that feels relevant today.
Spellbound begins in a small shop with Rory scrying away at objects, looking into the past to see which antiques brought in are genuine articles and which are fakes. His employer, a sweet woman who took Rory in when he had no one, hands him a stack of letters from one Arthur Kenzie who wants to know by breakfast the next morning which are real. Unknown to Rory, Arthur has given these letters as a test. He suspects that more than just normal appraisal is afoot at the little shop. One cursed ring and a drunken night later, Arthur has found a man with the exact gifts he needs; and Rory has found himself drawn into a world he is extremely unprepared for.
The world of this story is very rich, with magic that works under a set of metaphysical rules that balance perfectly on the page. The characters are detailed with personalities and quirks that make them feel real and dialogue that feels right for the time but is never over-the-top. The romance is believable and the stakes high enough to keep the reader going. All of these things make a good book, but Spellbound doesn’t stop there.
Therin sprinkles no small amount of social justice issues into the plot. Arthur is wealthy but is also a veteran of the First World War, making him a man who has seen the absolute worst and best of humanity. He is aware that his status in society affords him privileges other people cannot. Arthur spends his time helping those who need it quietly. He keeps his friends as protected as he can, often finding work that is safe for immigrants in a world that would exploit their bodies and their labors. Arthur knows horror and wishes to spare anyone he can from what he’s been through.
Rory, meanwhile, has also seen horrors, but his were at the hands of his father – a priest who got a young immigrant woman pregnant and then abandoned them both. When Rory’s mother passed away, he had no choice but to live with a father who despised him, forced him to cut his dark curls, and eventually sent Rory to a place of horrors when his powers manifested. Rory knows the world is an unkind place, has felt first hand what someone who wants to hurt you can do. His distrust means he has spent so much of his life hiding that he barely knows who he is.
What connects these two is more than just magical artifacts that could destroy the world. Because they have both seen horrors, they both inherently wish to protect others. In fact, the desire to save innocent lives, to care for those who have less than them, ultimately brings them to understand that they must also care for themselves. Spellbound is, at its heart, a book about how caring for others too much can hurt when we don’t also care for ourselves. Fighting injustice is necessary, but it is just as necessary to allow yourself to be cared for.
The romance that blooms is this book is one built from a shared need to do better, to be better, and to help those that can be helped. Rory and Arthur are both survivors of traumas they never want to see repeated. Together, they are able to build themselves and others. It is a beautiful story for anyone who has ever cared too much or felt that they had to care for others at the expense of their own mental and physical health.
Spellbound is the first in the Magic in Manhattan series, and it is well-worth your time. I suggest picking it up from your favorite indie bookstore. If you, like me, enjoy audiobooks, you might try the Libro.fm app. It’s a great way to get audiobooks and support small bookstores!
Thanks for going a little deep with me! I post reviews every other Thursday. Did you love Spellbound? Leave a comment telling me what magical ability you would want. You can also find me on Instagram @booked.with.grace and on Twitter @gwasserst! Special thanks to Yasi (@ynbushehri) for editing my posts.