A clever, engaging magic system! Talented young folks waging a futuristic heist against a powerful, corrupt organization! Fast-paced, high-stakes adventure! There’s a lot to love about M. K. England’s epic new novel Spellhacker, but the throughline at its core is the tenderly rendered queer chosen family of the main cast.
Diz and her friends live in the futuristic city of Kyrkarta, in a world in which magic, known as maz, used to be a freely available resource. There are fourteen known strains, such as firaz for fire and explosives, sunnaz for light and darkness, and vitaz for health and vigor. Everything changed when an earthquake released a deadly plague of raw maz, killing thousands and striking hundreds more with spellsickness, a chronic illness. Now, the inhabitants of Diz’s world are completely dependent on the Maz Management Corporation, which heavily regulates maz at sky-high costs.
That’s where Dizzy and her friends come in.
Diz, like many other Kyrkarta teens, was orphaned by the spellplague. She doesn’t have a talent for maz herself—she’s the central hacker of the group. Then there’s Ania, a wealthy techwitch, and her ex Jaesin. He’s a mundie like Diz, his skills are generally focused on getting them food, keeping their apartment liveable, and keeping each of them in as much of one piece as possible. And, then there’s Remi, an incredibly powerful spellweaver with spellsickness from the plague. It left them severely immunocompromised, and requires constant management. The four of them are incredibly close, bonded by shared values—and a good amount of crime. Together, they compromise an impressive spellhacking crew, siphoning the MMC-regulated maz and selling it illegally, keeping a bit for Remi’s experiments.
But as it goes for lots of friend groups when they’re growing up, change is in the offing, and Diz doesn’t like it. After ten years of friendship, of living together, of a thousand are-we-going-to-cross-this-line moments with Remi, the dream team is splitting up. Everyone besides Diz has made plans to leave Kyrkarta and start their new lives. So when a strange man offers Diz what seems like an exciting business proposition, she takes him up on it. Because maybe with a new form of maz and an enormous sum of money, maybe they can stop hacking forever and start a new life, all four of them, together in Kyrkarta.
Diz could never have predicted that what was supposed to be their last job ever would end up not only risking their lives and the lives of everyone in Kyrkarta, but unearthing a criminal conspiracy that threatens to undo everything they know about their world.
Spellhacker strikes an elegant balance in two potent ways. The effective genre-blend of science fiction and fantasy creates an immersive, believable world in which smartphone-contact lenses coexist with elemental magic. And the propulsive high-stakes heist plot serves as an excellent counterweight to the equally compelling—and equally high-stakes!—shifting of a tight-knit found family.
England tops this off with a tender will-they-won’t-they slow burn central romance. The pining is beautifully awkward, and highlights Diz’s absolute queer disaster energy. Diz is the life of the novel, and she’s an excellent protagonist: sarcastic, brash, deeply insecure, achingly big-hearted, and an absolute boss at what she does—usually. Her longstanding, long-buried crush on her charming, talented best friend is thoroughly relatable and refreshing. And Remi lights up the pages—charismatic, sweet, and earnestly powerful, it’s entirely understandable why Dizzy’s so smitten, and it’s a joy to read the emergence of their queer, nonbinary love story. Queer and trans identities go unquestioned and unoppressed in the world of Spellhacker, which reads like its own form of magic. I also simply loved reading a queer, trans, nonbinary love interest who uses they pronouns, especially in a genre YA novel. I loved Diz agonizing over her crush, not wanting to ruin their friendship. I loved that Remi is inextricably nonbinary but also a masterful spellweaver in their own right. England also gives us a generous amount of background queerness, including elder queer rep in two side characters. They’re terribly adorable, and England allows Diz and the reader alike to bask in the gentle triumph of their love.
Spellhacker lets a group of misfit, morally questionable teens uncover the truth behind corporate cover-ups and save the world. The dialogue is witty and bright, the pacing quick and the setting immersive and vivid, and it moves with snappy, fun energy. Diz’s crew, even when they’re fighting with each other or mad at each other, always manifests earnest, loving teamwork. It’s incredibly vindicating to read a young, fractured but capable chosen family come up against a terrifyingly powerful organization and hold their own, especially through England’s clever twists of plot.
Ultimately, Spellhacker works so well because it’s so hopeful. Even in futuristic Kyrkarta, England touches on many real traumas and corruptions, but Diz and her crew stand together and actively fight back, relying on each other even against the greatest odds. With a lot of love, friendship, magic, and a healthy dash of anarchy, Spellhacker will steal your heart.
Spellhacker is available from HarperTeen.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.