Queer YA Spotlight: Spellhacker

spellhacker cover

Rainbow rep: a queer protagonist, a non-binary love interest, various queer side characters including a mentor character and his husband

Content warnings: depictions of panic attacks and other trauma responses, dead parents in backstory, chronic illness

Premise: magic (known as maz) is a physical resource that comes up from under the ground, but to access it you have to pay the big bucks to the corporation that has monopolised it. What if you want maz but don’t have the aforementioned big bucks? Well, that’s where Diz and her crew of thieves come in. For years now they’ve had a sweet side hustle where they siphon maz and bring it to the highest bidder. It’s a risky business, though, and Diz’s friends want to graduate and move on with their lives. So Diz (reluctantly) sets them up for One Last Job… but rather than this being the end of their story, the crew instead finds themselves in the midst of a corporate cover-up that is putting millions of lives at risk.

M.K. England’s brand has been pretty well cemented as “be gay, do crime”. Spellhacker has a similar energy to The Disasters (which you’ll remember I also enjoyed the heck out of), but situated in a glorious genre-blend of sci-fi and urban fantasy. The worldbuilding is delicious fun, describing bonkers future-tech like contact lenses with computers built into them in the same breath as it describes someone shooting fire magic from their fingertips. If you like your magic systems tangible, logical, and very visually appealing, this may be the one for you. The integration of magic and tech is fascinating and I particularly enjoyed the recurring imagery of maz as literal threads that folks literally weave between their fingers into a physical spell that they then cast.

Is it geeky of me to say I kind of want an anime adaptation of this book? Or a video game? It has a lot of that spark, colour, and pop to its action, without being too chaotic to follow.

This is not to say Spellhacker is not a down-to-earth novel; quite the opposite. Also as with The Disasters, the highlight of the novel is the group dynamic at play within the rowdy rebels who makes up the core cast. Whereas the rag-tag team who sticks it to the corrupt Powers That Be are fire-forged friends in Disasters, here they’re a found family who found each other a long time ago and have been simmering in their chaotic, ride-or-die friendship ever since.

Set among the neon skyscrapers and the twirling threads of elemental magic, the central emotional conflict is whether the crew will stay together. Three out of four of Diz’s partners in crime—magic-genius and maybe-love-interest-if-Diz-doesn’t-screw-things-up Remi, glamorous “tech witch” Ania, and designated Team Dad Jaesin (who can’t do much with magic, but can punch pretty good and cook even better)—are planning on leaving their home city once they graduate. Hence Diz sets up the One Last Heist promised on the book’s cover: maybe with enough proverbial gold to retire, they can all stick together!

Naturally, this plan does not pan out: the offer to buy one last goldmine of stolen maz quite literally blows up in the gang’s faces, and they find themselves on the run from the authorities. All this would be bad enough, but in the process of investigating the rigged explosion, Diz discovers a conspiracy that goes (quite literally) deep into the earth. The stakes are high on a physical, save-the-world sort of level, but (unsurprisingly) while this was extremely cool I found myself much more invested in the great platonic “will they or won’t they?” of the gang’s future together.

Diz’s resentment at her friends for pursuing goals outside of their tiny apartment (and a literal life of crime) seem petty at first, until it becomes clear that abandonment issues form a big part of Diz’s personal trauma. And this is, I think, at its heart a story about the complicated business of trauma recovery. After being orphaned by a disaster that spilled mysterious, infected magic into the world—the (supposed) reasoning behind The Big Corp’s lockdown on access to maz—Diz has some pretty serious emotional baggage, and the narrative handles it extremely well. She’s a deeply angry person, the inside of her head sometimes impossibly loud and messy, and she hits what feels like a physical wall when it comes to expressing complicated feelings or reaching out for support. The novel never shies away from the realities of trauma response, but it also never paints Diz as unsympathetic for all this.

While obviously there’s not one universal “correct” way to depict such things, it felt very authentic, and I appreciated the nuanced portrayal of a character going through this while remaining heroic and loveable. Diz is placed at the helm of the narrative, and she’s placed among friends who genuinely make efforts to understand and care for her even if the relationship is sometimes complicated and strained.

It’s less of a part of the book since Diz is our narrator, but it also did, I think, a wonderful job depicting a character with chronic illness. Remi is immunocompromised due to their exposure to aforementioned infected magic as a child, so moving through the world is risky. But an emphasis is placed on Remi’s agency, by the characters and by the narrative itself: Diz and the others work consciously to strike a balance between being protective of someone they love while also letting them make their own decisions.

I enjoyed Diz as a narrator, but Remi may have stolen the show as my favourite character overall: they’re eccentric without being too much of a tropey “quirky genius”, they’re full of compassion that fuels both their good will and their rage at The Powers That Be, and they have a wonderfully complicated and endearing dynamic with Diz. After a few brushes with “maybe”, can the two of them really make an actual romantic relationship work, or will their respective issues—and you know, saving the world and stuff—get in the way?

This is a very fun blend of sci-fi and fantasy elements with a strong rebellious core: big companies are grabbing for money and will stomp on innocent people to get it, and only you can do something about it. It’s a very relevant narrative (the whole Evil Corp Destroying the World thing seems a little heavy-handed until you remember, well, everything about contemporary capitalism), and while I obviously enjoyed it, I can also see it really resonating specifically with Gen Z. Get out there, queer, disabled, non-white, marginalised nerds, band together and kick the shins of the powers that would step all over you. Get out there and make some magic (…or steal some. Whatever works).

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Filed under Alex Reads

4 responses to “Queer YA Spotlight: Spellhacker

  1. Mercedez

    I really, really enjoyed this review: I’m always looking for something nice to read, and this might be it! It genuinely sounds like a fun romp of a read with a lot of heart.

    As always, thank you for such excellent reviews!

  2. Pingback: A Big Ol’ Pile of Book Recommendations (2020) | The Afictionado

  3. Pingback: Pride Month YA Spotlight: Sci-fi and Fantasy | The Afictionado

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