It’s pretty common knowledge that I positively adored The Disasters, M.K. England’s debut novel. (Read my review here, or watch my Best of 2019: Backlist Edition video here.) So when M.K. approached me wondering if I’d do a small book tour to promote the international pre-order campaign, I jumped at the chance!
I already found myself into the idea of Spellhacker – mixing fantasy elements like magic with sci-fi technology is a thing that will never, ever get old – but then I found out that this book also had elements of anti-capitalism? Sign me up.
Author: M.K. England
Age Range: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Science Fantasy
In Kyrkarta, magic—known as maz—was once a freely available natural resource. Then an earthquake released a magical plague, killing thousands and opening the door for a greedy corporation to make maz a commodity that’s tightly controlled—and, of course, outrageously expensive.
Which is why Diz and her three best friends run a highly lucrative, highly illegal maz siphoning gig on the side. Their next job is supposed to be their last heist ever.
But when their plan turns up a powerful new strain of maz that (literally) blows up in their faces, they’re driven to unravel a conspiracy at the very center of the spellplague—and possibly save the world.
Content warnings: poverty, death of a family member
☕ Quotes ☕
“She obviously doesn’t love me enough to not leave. None of them do. I want to sink in to that anger, to let its talons grip tight and pierce and fill my veins with heat. It’s right there under the surface, all the time, just waiting for the wrong turn of phrase, the wrong change of subject. But if I say anything, I’ll lose them all sooner.”
“No one should achieve that level of sadness at eighteen. It should be illegal.”
“We’ve been here before, lived in this exact moment, stood right on the cusp and challenged each other. Back away, move closer, what’ll it be? Are you feel brave tonight?”
“Play my badass illegal runtimes playlist, please.”
“I always thought I’d die in a suitably dramatic way.”
“When in doubt, make your own door.”
☕ Plot ☕
When I first began to read Spellhacker, I honestly didn’t know what to expect from it. But I knew I loved a good heist story, and I knew I loved a good blend of science fiction and fantasy – so I went in with high hopes. I was not disappointed!
Spellhacker takes place in a universe where magic – or “maz” – is a naturally-occurring resource. There are two kinds of magic users: spellweavers, who have a natural ability to use the different strains of magic; and techwitches, who can use magic but need tech to do it. Maz used to occur naturally on the planet, but after a magical plague and an earthquake stoppers up the planet’s mantle, where maz is created, only the Maz Management Company (MMC) have access to maz. Although they now sell a resource that once used to be free, people’s feelings toward MMC are pretty warm considering they were the ones who mobilised relief efforts after the plague and earthquake.
Enter Diz, Ania, Remi, and Jaesin, best friends who also illegally siphon maz and sell it to the highest bidder. At first, their heists are only about making ends meet and sticking it to “the man”. College is looming, and they’re about to go their separate ways. But when a new, dangerous strain of maz rears its ugly head, the crew decides to go on one last heist to discover the truth behind this maz, the plague and earthquake, and MMC’s role in it all.
A high stakes, action-packed plot is difficult to execute, but M.K. England did it so well. Everything about this story moved so well, one event flowing neatly into another. I honestly couldn’t put it down, I was so excited to find out what happens next! And not only was this a book that felt like an exciting movie, it was also one that discussed an issue that I’m very interested in, which is corporations controlling natural resources. It’s an issue that’s very relevant to the world we live in, and it was interesting to see it explored in a fantasy setting – especially with magic as the resource. I’ve never really read a fantasy novel that dealt with magic as a finite resource occurring naturally like water, etc. It was very interesting for me not just as a reader, but as someone very interested in current events.
☕ Writing ☕
Yep. Ya tita’s gonna talk about world-building again. Deal with it.
For an action-packed, plotty book, the world-building in this one was pretty well fleshed out – and I think that’s a testament to M.K. England’s world-building skills! I already mentioned that I love the concept of magic as a naturally occurring finite resource, but another thing that I loved was the two kinds of magic users: the spellweavers who can use magic naturally, and techwitches whose magic needs to be harnessed using technology. It was a very cool, very unique blend of science fiction and fantasy that I absolutely adored.
Another thing that I really liked was how well M.K. England describes what magic looks like. There are fourteen different strains of maz, all of which do different things. The book begins with a glossary on what the strains of maz are and what they do. Some are pure force and energy, some control fire, earth, air, or water, some control light or sound. It was such a cool and well thought out magic system.
I also really loved how we were shown maz being integrated into daily life: maz barrier earthquake shelters, flashy maz decorations in nightclubs, maz being used to power generators, etc. This is a detail that a lot of fantasy novels set in modern times forget. Humans are naturally innovators and adaptors. Within a few years of electricity, gas, hydropower, solar power, etc. being discovered, we’d harnessed it to make our lives easier. What more could our species do in a society where magic is the norm? Asking that question is indicative of an author’s talent in world-building and building of magic systems, and I really appreciated this book for showing its reader that.
☕ Characters ☕
Honestly, let’s just give M.K. England the crown of coming up with queer AF found families. Just like in their debut, The Disasters, this motley crew is a ragtag bunch of teens with more good intentions than common sense, and I mean that in the nicest of ways. I love them all and basically I’m their mom now.
We have four heisters (heist-doers…?). The first is our protagonist, Diz, a hacker extraordinaire with abandonment issues. Her best friends are Ania, a spoiled rich girl and a talented techwitch who would do anything for her friends; Jaesin, the Dad Friend of the bunch; and Remi, a non-binary maz whiz who got caught in the plague but who can weave spells in their sleep. (Of course, what Diz feels for Remi is just a little bit more than friendship…)
Of all these characters, my favourite would have to be Ania. I see a lot of myself in her, honestly. I too come from a fairly well-off background, but I like to think that I use what privilege I have to uplift those around me and help their voices be heard. I also like to think I can see past the relative comfort of my environment. Ania is pretty much the same. She uses her wealth and her position in society to help out her friends, all of whom are plague orphans, and she never hesitates to use her considerable resources to contribute to those around her. She’s first in, last out when it comes to a fight that her friends are involved in, and I absolutely love that about her.
But I could also really relate to Diz’s fear of abandonment and her unwillingness to make herself open and vulnerable, even to people she loves like her friends. It really speaks to that old saying about checking in on your strong friends, because they might not be all that strong. I myself don’t like asking for help, and I hate appearing “weak” or “needy”, so I could really relate to Diz not wanting to tell her friends that she didn’t want them to go their separate ways or that she needed them in her life. And in the end, I’m glad that she was able to overcome her fear of being vulnerable. Vulnerability is a kind of grace that everyone could stand to learn, and I’m really happy that this one of the main takeaways of this book as far as characterisation was concerned.
☕ Overall ☕
I can already tell that Spellhackers is going to be one of my favourite reads of 2020. It was fast and action-packed, but at the same time, it didn’t sacrifice some stellar character development and relationships, and it features one of the best found families I’ve ever read about. Definitely add this book to your shelves if you’re into heists, anti-capitalism, and chaotic good teens angry at The Man.
What did you think?
☕ Have you read Spellhackers yet? What did you think?
☕ What do you think about the science fantasy genre?
☕ How do you feel about the found family trope?