What is a boy with no magic to do when his magical grandmother passes away? The Consortium—aka the magical governing body that certifies, controls, punishes, and taxes the magical community—kicks Edison out of the only home he’s known and dumps him in the most unmagical apartment complex in the city. Desperate to rekindle his connection to magic, he talks his way into an office at Hex-a-gon, a curse-breaking company owned by Antonia Hex. Although she’s one of the most powerful beings on the planet, years before, Antonia was punished by the Consortium for something terrible yet mysterious that no one talks about but everyone fears. Antonia somewhat begrudgingly takes Edison in, renames him Rook, and changes his life. Rook has secrets of his own. Violating Consortium rules, he created what he dubs the Spell Binder, basically a tablet that can detect ley lines, the source of all magic. Too bad he can’t harness those ley lines and cast his own spells.
Soon enough Rook meets Fable, a rule-following cottage-core magician and their grumpy apprentice Sun. Antonia and Fable have a clash of personalities, as do the two teens, at least at first. The more time they spend together, the more sparks fly. When they get on the bad side of the Consortium, it’s up to Sun and Rook to save their mentors and maybe even topple a dictatorship.
So, I’ve been reading F.T. Lukens since their first YA fantasy novel The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic (which I adored!). I’ve read every YA fantasy they’ve written since, and loved them all. All of them are cozy and comforting, even when the protagonists are dealing with anxiety or trauma. The threads of love (in its myriad forms), found family, and queer affirmation and joy connect each novel. For a while now, reading each new Lukens book has reminded me of something I couldn’t quite place. Something on the tip of my tongue, on the edge of my mind. With Spell Bound, it finally hit me: Diana Wynne Jones.
If you have never had the pleasure of reading a DWJ book, I insist you move her up to the top of your TBR. There’s a reason Neil Gaiman dedicated his young adult graphic novel The Books of Magic to her, calling her one of his “four witches.” She was a titan in the field of children’s literature, writing nearly a novel or short story a year from the 1970s through the late 2000s. Her work is imaginative, empowering, and full of kindness and acceptance. Children fail or make mistakes, learn from them, often with the help of flawed but open-minded adults, and try to make the world a little better in the process. Sometimes the events are intense or frightening or dangerous, but you know that as long as they stick together they’ll come out okay. And that’s what it feels like reading a Lukens novel; they’re writing Diana Wynne Jones-esque novels but queer and young adult.
Spell Bound in particular has vibes that feel like a cross between the Chrestomanci series and the Moving Castle series. The Chrestomanci series involves a magician who works with the British government to monitor and manage magic in this and other worlds as well as all the chaotic magical children he encounters. In Charmed Life, there’s a character called Cat who has nine lives and a fiddle who is turned into a cat (called Fiddle, no less). The Moving Castle series deals with the adventures of the Welsh himbo wizard Howl and the ever-patient Sophie (most of you have probably seen the Studio Ghibli movie, but it’s pretty different from the book); in the sequel, Castle in the Air, two characters are turned into cats.
Spell Bound has all of the things I love the most about Lukens’ work. It’s romantic, diverse in terms of race and gender identity, and tackles topics like grief, trauma, mental health, neurodivergence without underscoring or lampshading them. It has the feel of a first romance, where everything is exciting and new. Rook has never been kissed or had a serious relationship. With Sun, we see their enemies-to-friends-to-lovers progression and it never feels rushed. Rook and Sun want to take things at a certain pace and with certain steps, and Lukens is careful to not invalidate, guilt, or shame them for it.
The novel also avoids angsting over queerness. Now, I’m not saying no book should ever show queer teens struggling with their identity or dealing with bigotry. But it is also nice to see worlds where acceptance and celebration are the norm instead of hatred and shame. There is no hemming and hawing over pronouns, no misgendering, no “my family cut me off” or “I had an ex who tried to ‘fix’ me.” We get two powerful, fascinating nonbinary characters who both use they/them, another queer teen, and a variety of other non-queer people to whom it never even occurs that they should be anything less than affirming.
I wrote this review on Trans Day of Visibility, in the midst of state after state passing laws that are attempting to erase me and my trans and nonbinary siblings out of existence. There are days I want to sit in my anger and read about characters fighting back, but sometimes I also just want to spend time in a world where everything is nice and happy and everyone gets to be their fullest, truest self without any obstacles. F.T. Lukens gave me 320 pages of queer joy in Spell Bound, and that’s more than enough for me.
Spell Bound is published by Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).