A few years ago I discovered a neat little book called Magic Lost, Trouble Found, about an elf named Raine who inadvertently becomes linked to a soul-sucking magical rock called the Saghred. Lisa Shearin provided a kickass protagonist with the kind of witty voice I love, particularly in my urban fantasy. Here we are, five more books later, and the story of the Saghred has finally reached its conclusion.
Raine, Mychael, and Tam are following Sarad Nukpana and the Saghred to Regor, the goblin capital. Nukpana, Raine’s occasional nemesis and a mad sorcerer, plans to use the Saghred’s magic-amplifying abilities to take over the world. Raine would like to stop him, as well as destroy the Saghred in the process. But it won’t be easy, because their resources are limited and time grows short.
This definitely isn’t the kind of book where a reader new to the series can jump in and hope to follow along. All Spell Breaks Loose is the culmination of the previous books’ plot and character development. Granted, a lot of the characters we’ve come to know and love don’t get much (if any) page time in this book—no Phaelan, and not much in the way of Justinian or even Piaras and Talon, though they have minor roles. And in that sense, it’s kind of disappointing as the concluding book to the series (sort of like Mass Effect 3’s ending), because Shearin wraps up the plot but leaves a lot about the characters dangling. Yet I still think this is an effective conclusion for fans, because it delivers what we—and Raine—need most: emotional closure.
Being the Saghred’s bond slave has changed Raine’s life in so many ways. It’s easy to forget that, for her, less than a year has passed since she first encountered that awful rock. In that time she has fought Sarad Nukpana and imprisoned him in the Saghred—only to see him escape—fought demons and their queen, and saved the Isle of Mid from the escaped souls of evil sorcerers. Along the way, the Saghred has amplified her magical abilities—but at the price of chipping away at her soul, sinking its tendrils into her, making her enjoy the power she can now wield. Raine recognizes that the Saghred is not a neutral tool, not something she could ever continue using without repercussions. She wants it gone.
This immense burden is evident in All Spell Breaks Loose from the very beginning. As they gear up to go through the mirror to Regor, Raine and her comrades get caught in an attack on Mid itself. Raine reflects on her relative uselessness—her last use of the Saghred left her without access to her magic, so she can do little to defend against the Khrynsani goblins coming for them. This recurs throughout the first half of the book, until Tam’s (and Sarad Nukpana’s) former teacher takes Raine aside and tells her to buck up.
The secret, you see, is that it’s never been about the magic. It’s never been about who can hit harder, cast spells better, or more effectively wield the Saghred. Raine has never triumphed because she’s a stronger mage; she wins because she’s smart, careful, and compassionate. And when she’s captured and it seems all is lost, that reliance on planning and execution instead of sorcery and deception is what saves her.
All Spell Breaks Loose is almost a recantation of the transformation Raine has undergone in the past five books. As she looks to heal herself of the psychological scarring the Saghred has caused, Raine has to come to terms with being of nominal magical ability again, and the implications this would have for her relationship with Mychael and the Guardians. In a way, I think the worst thing the Saghred has done to her hasn’t been using her as a conduit for souls or stealing her father—no, the worst thing about Raine’s association with the Saghred has been the extent to which she has become codependent on it. She gradually began to believe that, in order to win against the impossible odds set before her, she needed to draw upon the power of the Saghred. Now, with that power cut off and the Saghred in Nukpana’s hands, Raine has to rediscover who she was and use that person to save the day.
Like its predecessors, this book is fast paced and tightly written. I have little more to say about it than that—anyone familiar with this series and Shearin’s writing will feel right at home here. As I mentioned above, the tight timeline and economy of characters makes this feel like a much sparser experience than the one I’ve become accustomed to with these books. Shearin could have taken more time to build up toward the expedition’s departure, I think, so that we could have one last goodbye with Mid and the characters on it.
Sarad Nukpana’s role as the Big Bad leaves a lot to be desired. He is essentially a cartoon character of a villain, all gloating and cackling and evil, his motivation that of a psychopath rather than anything more interesting. It works, and there are some points where he can be terrifying in his cruelty, but he never really has me quaking in my boots. He’s just so over-the-top, as a villain, that it’s obvious Raine has to win, and her victory is a little less satisfying as a result. Carnades, Raine’s on-again/off-again/on-again enemy, suffers from similarly shallow characterization.
I guess part of my disappointment is that the series has come so far, and I was expecting more from its final book. As just another book in the series, it’s good (though still not great). And Raine’s personal catharsis is excellent. As a conclusion to the series, however, I’m less satisfied. I wanted to see a little more growth, a few more risks, and didn’t quite get it.
I’m really looking forward to Shearin’s new forthcoming urban fantasy series. As far as the Raine Benares series goes, it has sometimes been bumpy, and the books have not always made me swoon—but even the roughest ones managed to entertain. I can’t wait to see what Shearin has planned next. All Spell Breaks Loose is Raine Benares through and through: bumpy but brilliant, and usually good times.