A Review of Kelley Armstrong’s Spell Bound (Vintage Canada, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille
When you define yourself by your abilities, by the powers that make you distinct from others, what happens when you lose those powers? Kelley Armstrong explores this question in Spell Bound, the twelfth book in her Women of the Otherworld series. In Armstrong’s world, supernaturals are rare, and represent a small part of the population. They are born into categories of supernatural race: werewolf, vampires, witch, sorcerer, half demon. They can’t acquire these powers except through their own birth, or, on a few rare exceptions, through a bite. They are minority groups, surrounded by a huge sea of humanity, but now some of them want to acknowledge their existence: come out of the coffin, out of the broom closet, out of the woods.
Savannah Levine is trapped in the middle of the struggle to come out. Most of her is interested in maintaining the status quo of secrecy among supernaturals (though there is still a part of her that revels in the idea of being open about her powers), but the supernatural group that wants to reveal themselves and the existence of all other supernatural races to the world has a huge interest in her. Savannah is unique – a blend of the bloodlines of a witch and a sorcerer (which is normally impossible), with a little bit of demon blood in the mix. This uniqueness makes her fascinating enough, but she also fulfills one of the group’s prophesies, making her an icon that could be used to gather interest from others.
This is all further complicated by the fact that the thing that makes her a witch, the thing that distinguishes her as a supernatural and other than human – her magic – has been taken from her. She experiences a loss of identity, the search for herself and what her new life without powers could mean, and the general sense of helplessness that comes with a rapid change in ability. Savannah worries that she has lost an essential part of herself that defined her as a member of a community, and fears the way she will be treated by friends and family now that she has changed. Her experience mirrors that of many people who acquire disabilities later in life: she has to learn new ways of doing things, she accidentally falls back on what worked before her body changed, there are moments when she feels globally disabled instead of seeing her disability as an isolated part of her overall abilities, and she fears that her new disability will mean that she will be treated in a fundamentally different way by her social circles. Armstrong complicates the disability trope in this novel by also creating a character whose outsider identity is based on belonging to a group that is defined by the very ability she has lost. Savannah is left feeling like a double outsider, cast as an ‘Other’ by her identity as a witch, and then further ‘Othered’ by the loss of the thing that most defines her as a member of that group: her powers. She is left in a place between identities and this is fantastic place to explore notions of identity itself.
As with most of the books in the Women of the Otherworld series, in Spell Bound Armstrong shows an incredible grasp of the psychology of her characters, an understanding of what the character’s innermost thoughts and feelings would be while experiencing supernatural turmoil. She infuses the question of identity and supernatural psychology with an exciting, fast-paced plot and twists and turns that illustrate the defining humanity of her not-quite-human characters.
You can discover more about Kelley Armstrong and her Women of the Otherworld series at http://www.kelleyarmstrong.com/ .