Spellbound is the second book in Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles. The third books, Warbound, is nominated for this year's Hugo ballot, so being the completist that I am, I figured I should read these first two books. I enjoyed the first book, Hard Magic, enough that I'm not finding this to be a chore, though I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have been inspired to proceed through these sequels if it weren't for the third one being nominated this year.
After an introduction set at the close of WWI, this book picks up where Hard Magic left off, with the Japanese Imperium having suffered a defeat at the hands of newfound Grimnoir knight Sally Faye Vierra, with assists from Jake Sullivan, and a diverse crew of magical "actives." The American government, led by FDR, is trying to align around how to handle actives, possibly leading to registration and reeducation camps and other such dystopian nightmares (which, as established in the previous book, is how the Soviets and Japanese Imperium are handling the Actives). A sudden uptick in terrorist attacks seems to be driving this strategy, and the Grimnoir are being set up. Even more troubling is that Okubo Tokugawa - the fearsome chairman of the Imperium who was thought dead after the Grimnoir victory at the end of Hard Magic - appears to be alive and well. Oh, and the alien being that everyone derives their magical powers from? It has an Enemy, and the Enemy's scout, called the Pathfinder, is on its way.
So there's a lot going on in this book, and it very much reads as a sorta middle part of a trilogy to me. Hard Magic set up the world and the magic system, but basically told a self-contained story. This book introduces several elements that are unresolved at the end of the book, though it doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger either. Again, this seems to be a common thread amongst trilogies, so who knows where it's going from here. In that way, the plot is a bit more flabby than it was in Hard Magic (which wasn't exactly tight either), but I'm also reasonably confident that Correia will manage to tie things together in the third book.
As I mentioned in my review of Hard Magic, one of the challenges that any book with magic faces is this sort of escalation of power that is needed to continually up the stakes in the story. This worked well enough in Hard Magic, but it did get a bit excessive towards the end of that book. As such, I was a little worried that this book would just keep escalating, but Correia has shown an admirable restraint. What's more, he even manages to explain how and why the escalation of power happened in the first book, and he does so in a way that is natural and satisfying. It's clear that Correia had thought all this through and let that guide the first book without actually explicitly laying out why, for example, Faye has seemingly endless reserves of power. Indeed, after her heroics at the end of Hard Magic, she spends a good portion of this book significantly weaker in power.
I didn't spend any time going over details of the magical system in the previous review, but it's worth discussion a bit here because it does naturally lend itself to the story. Each Active has the ability to pull magical power from an alien being, but they are generally limited to a single ability. So Jake Sullivan has the power to manipulate gravity (increasing, decreasing, or shifting the direction of gravity) and he's referred to as a "Heavy." Faye is a Traveler, and she has the ability to teleport herself and others (she also has the ability to map out the world in her head, so she can avoid teleporting into other objects, etc...) There are Healers, Cogs (who have supernatural intelligence), Brutes (guess!), Voices (they can do Jedi mind trick manipulations), and so on. The Power seems to be in another plane of existence, and its comprised of all sorts of fancy geometric shapes. If you can see the Power, as some folks can (like Sullivan or Chairman Tokugawa), you can copy some of those geometric shapes and leverage the magic those areas represent. These shapes are kinda like spells, and if you carve them onto yourself, you can gain new powers (for example, many have Healing spells on their body). Of course, it's a painful process and one person can only take so many spells...
So this is all well thought out and reasonably well balanced. There are still some situations where the magical powers escalate, but Correia is pretty good at keeping it all grounded and reasonably well balanced. There are powerful villains, and you will fear for our protagonists, but Correia is able to come up with solutions that are reasonably satisfying.
The expansion of story threads has also lead to an expansion of characters. We still have our core Grimnoir Knights from the first book, lead by Sullivan and Faye, but we also get another cell of Grimnoir, some more of the Grimnoir elders, a whole group of villains at the OCI (a government organization that is being set up to take control of U.S. actives), a woman named Hammer (sorta freelance), and even an Iron Guard from the Imperium. For the most part, I was very happy to return to the characters from the first book, and that's usually a good sign. The structure of the magical powers sorta lends itself to a large ensemble, kinda like the X-Men, so it's good to know and like many of these characters.
Ultimately, this was a fine sequel, even if it felt like it was setting up a lot of things that wouldn't be resolved in this book. Correia can spin a good yarn, but I'm find it to be a little too loose. This is probably a matter of preference, and I'm sure there are many who love these characters so much that they want to spend as much time as possible hanging out with them, but I find that these books don't necessarily need to be as long as they are. So what we have here is a well executed sequel, and I am looking forward to seeing how some of these threads are resolved in Warbound, which I am starting this week. Given what I've read so far, I can't really see Warbound taking one of my top two votes, but it's got a pretty darn good chance at snagging that #3 slot in my Best Novel ballot.
In other news, I've knocked down 3 out of 5 Novellas and am hoping to finish that category off this week. After that, I've got to finish Warbound, and then I'm done with the fiction categories. I'm looking at a few of the other categories (Dramatic Presentation, Fan Writer, Zines, etc...) though there are definitely a few categories I don't think I'll be voting on (how does one vote for the "Editor" categories?) So yeah, I hope you're enjoying these Hugo posts, because we've got several more to go!
(Oh, I almost forgot: Obligatory note of all the controversy surrounding the nomination of Correia's book. I've already (briefly) discussed it elsewhere, but for now I'm concentrated on actually reading the books and stuff. I may get around to doing something in more detail about it, but then, I may not, because who cares about that sorta Inside Baseball crap when I could be reading about how Faye is going to kick the crap out of this Enemy Pathfinder thing we keep hearing about?)