Monday 1 July 2024

The Spellshop by Sarah Beth Durst

Kiela has always had trouble dealing with people. Thankfully, as a librarian at the Great Library of Alyssium, she and her assistant, Caz—a magically sentient spider plant—have spent the last decade sequestered among the empire’s most precious spellbooks, preserving their magic for the city’s elite.

When a revolution begins and the library goes up in flames, she and Caz flee with all the spellbooks they can carry and head to a remote island Kiela never thought she’d see again: her childhood home. Taking refuge there, Kiela discovers, much to her dismay, a nosy—and very handsome—neighbor who can’t take a hint and keeps showing up day after day to make sure she’s fed and to help fix up her new home.

In need of income, Kiela identifies something that even the bakery in town doesn’t have: jam. With the help of an old recipe book her parents left her and a bit of illegal magic, her cottage garden is soon covered in ripe berries.

But magic can do more than make life a little sweeter, so Kiela risks the consequences of using unsanctioned spells and opens the island’s first-ever and much needed secret spellshop.

Cosy fantasy is a relatively new genre, starting to gain popularity in the mid 2010s and coming to general attention with Legends and Lattes. The genre is characterised by low stakes, local stories rather than worldwide, and often - but not always - copious descriptions of delicious food and drink. The Spellshop continues this wonderful tradition with Kiela, a librarian on the run from a rebellion who finds herself making jam and creating small magical remedies to help the people of one small village on one small island. Between her jam and the wonderful cinnamon buns made by the village baker, I'm sure I gained weight just reading this!

Plot Summary
Kiela has spent years in her small section of the central magic library, with only Caz, a sentient spider plant, and the occasional lost student for company. When rumours of rebellion reach their ears, they don't really believe it, but they pack up some of the priceless books anyway. Forced to run before they're ready, they take the books to Kiela's long-abandoned family home on a remote island. She plans to keep her distance from the islanders and safe guard the books there until she can return. Kiela soon discovers that the islanders could use a helping hand, and with the help of some carefully chosen spells from the books, she might be just the person to provide it. A spell to strengthen the weakening trees on the island, one to bring on her crop so she can support herself on the jam, one to make the long dry fountain in town run - what harm can there possibly be in those? As long as the Imperial fleet don't arrive...

Kiela, our main character, is nervous and finds people difficult, so her job in the library was perfect. Learning to interact with the islanders is hard for her, but she applies herself to it as she does with any problem. I loved her research oriented thinking, her practicality and her dedication.
Caz, her sentient spider plant accomplice, is the best character in the novel, hands down.
There are several islanders, most of whom I don't want to mention because of spoilers, but the way they accept and help her is wonderful and made me happy to read.

Writing Style
Sarah keeps the description to a minimum, which makes the moments where she does use it - for the sight of the sea in the morning, a herd of waterhorses or the smell of Kiela's first batch of jam - all the more impactful. The writing in general is chatty and easy to follow.

Themes and Messages
The major message is that home is where you make it, but along the way Kiela struggles with some other things; the regime she worked for kept knowledge restricted to only a few, but Kiela believes that anyone who wants to learn should be encouraged and helped; there's also a minor 'if we can help, we should help' idea. None of this overwhelms the story at any point; it's all very cleverly woven in so that you only really notice it when thinking about it afterwards.

The bulk of the story is set on a tiny, faraway island. Kiela was born there, but her parents moved her to the capital for better opportunities as a child and she hasn't returned since. Culture shock hits her hard at first, but within a couple of days on the island she's remembering her childhood and starting to fit right in. Sarah's description of the sights and smells of the island are amazing and really help to ground things - there may be centaurs and waterhorses and talking spider plants, but there's also oak trees and raspberry bushes and cliffs with gorgeous views over the sea.

  • Strengths
  • It's definitely very cosy
  • I don't even like jam and I wanted jam while reading it
  • It's great to remember sometimes that small stakes can be just as entertaining as huge world ending ones

  • I felt that Kiela's culture shock didn't last very long at all
  • Literally no other problems!

Personal Connection
I really enjoyed this! Who knew jam was that simple to make? This is sweet and gentle and low stakes and I had a great time reading it.

Highly recommended to any fans of cozy fantasy or fantasy in general! This might be a good entry book into fantasy for younger readers coming into adult books for the first time - it's low stakes, it's gentle, but it will still introduce them to a lot of themes and ideas that show up in a lot of adult fantasy.

Author Information
Sarah Beth Durst has written in several genres: there's both cosy fantasy and epic fantasy for adults, thrillers, fantasies and folklore retellings for teens, and adventures for younger readers. Something for everyone!

Further Reading/Viewing
Legends and Lattes is the cosy title most people know; you could also try Til Death do us Bard or the much older The Hobbit, which shares many features with cosy fantasy and acts as a precursor. The video game Stardew Valley feels like this novel in game form!

The Spellshop publishes on the 9th of July, 2024. I received a free copy and am giving an honest opinion.

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