Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.25 stars
Narrator: Erik Bloomquist
Length: 9 hours, 24 minutes
Scrying the past of objects is more of a curse than a gift. Rory learned at a young age that being a paranormal was likely going to lead him to an early grave. If he didn’t get permanently lost in the history of a thing, then surely reacting to the past in the here-and-now would lead to a fatal accident. It was a lucky break that Rory met Mrs. Brodigan when he did. The two have built up a respectable appraisal shop where she attends to all front-end dealings and he, posing as her nephew, handles the actual appraising, lightly exploring the past of a thing to determine its authenticity. But when the rich son of a big wig comes calling with a series of forged letters and a dastardly evil ring, Rory realizes the world of paranormals is far larger than he imagined.
Arthur Kenzie may not have a drop of paranormal ability, but he contains oceans of sympathy for those at the mercy of their power. What’s more, he knows that humanity in general can be put in grave danger if certain powerful objects fall into the wrong paranormal hands. Thus, the man maintains the edifice of a vacuous socialite while running himself ragged trying to track down dangerous relics. He employs a team of powerful individuals and when he gets wind of a woman running an appraisal shop who can accurately assess the past, Arthur is eager to form a working relationship with her. Thoroughly convinced Mrs. Brodigan is the paranormal he seeks, Arthur attempts to tease details about her ability from her rough shop helper…Rory. It takes several strong drinks and Rory’s loosening togue for Arthur to realize his error. Ultimately, Arthur’s attempt to pump Rory for information backfires and he comes dangerously close to scaring Rory off entirely. Not only does this bode ill for Arthur’s mission to find and contain the dangerous relics, but it means Arthur has likely ruined his chances at calling the intriguing young Rory a friend, much less anything more intimate.
For his part, Rory is desperately attracted to Arthur. The man is nothing but goodness, but Rory is convinced a wealthy, worldly man like Arthur could have no interest in Rory. Unless he saw Rory as nothing but a tool and Rory does not want to be anyone’s tool. Even when danger comes perilously close to Rory himself, he doesn’t take action until his beloved Mrs. Brodigan gets caught in the crosshairs. But by then, it may be too late.
Spellbound is an appealing period story set in 1925 New York that features a strong enemies-to-lovers theme that integrates beautifully with a paranormal thriller plot. I liked the juxtaposition of Rory being both headstrong and vulnerable. He is eager for independence after narrowly escaping being institutionalized by his own father and Mrs. Brodigan offers a way forward. He is also eager for love, but can hardly hope that a well-heeled politician’s son would be gay, let alone interested in a membor of the hoi polloi like Rory. This is a great mix of mixed emotions, but I didn’t think it worked well with the audio medium. Rory constantly has an inner monologue of “yes, please, let this be real” that is immediately followed with dialogue that vociferously claims “get the hell away from me.” This is mirrored in the way Arthur’s thoughts/speech are portrayed as well. While this did heighten the catharsis of Rory and Arthur finally finding that happy middle ground and getting together, as a listener, it filled me with false expectations about three times every chapter.
The paranormal aspects felt clearly delineated insofar as descriptions of what the various paranormal characters can do. Rory can see the past, Jade is telekinetic, their friend Zeng can walk the astral plane, and so on. There are a whole host of various paranormally-abled characters and each one has a power that is intricately woven into the plot. One paranormal’s ability serves as a subtle bit of foreshadowing, for example. Apart from the abilities of the people, there are also “relics.” These are a crucial element of the plot and drive the big climactic scenes at the end of the book. It was reasonably clear to me that these are important objects and they get imbued with power that can be damaging to certain types of paranormals. However, the specific powers captured within the main relics didn’t seem very momentous to me. One controls the wind, another controls the tide. While our heroes later spell out why such powers are so formidable, it wasn’t immediately clear why an aristocrat like Arthur and a working bloke like Rory would care.
As I listened to the audiobook, I also could not help but notice parallels between it and two other well-established books in the historical paranormal genre. I loved both of these previous series and I very much enjoyed this slightly more modern take on these tropes. At the same time, once I noticed these parallels, Spellbound felt more derivative to me.
The audiobook is narrated by Erik Bloomquist and clocks in at 9 hours and 24 minutes. I found the basic narration a bit dry and it took a while to warm up to Bloomquist’s style. While I admit I never really warmed up to his rendition of Arthur (the character always sounded like a stick in the mud), there were several enjoyable bits to his overall reading. Bloomquist’s delivery of Rory when the character is “ossified” (i.e. completely drunk) was absolutely charming. There was also a busy-body neighbor girl to whom Bloomquist gave a bit of a lisp and I will forever remember his delivery of her saying the line “He’s the bee’s knees.”