Review of Spark and Carousel by Joanne Hall

Spark cover version two


This is the first in an occasional review series that I’ll be posting on this blog. A shorter version of this review has appeared on Goodreads and my other blog, Living in the Maniototo.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s very different to a lot of fantasy I’ve read, and refreshingly so. It has a touch of grimdark, a gritty realism that runs through it and helps to make a compelling narrative.

The main characters include a teenage boy who can’t control his magic powers, Spark, and an older girl who befriends him when he hides in the big city, having committed what he regards as an unforgivable crime. He believes himself hunted and takes refuge in the criminal underworld where he is befriended by the feisty Carousel,  a “street rat”. Carousel is a waif; tough yet vulnerable, on the edge of womanhood, who has grown up under the protection of a (mostly) benevolent underworld baron, and who aspires to work in a brothel, without fully understanding the hardship involved.

There are different kinds of magic: that practised by the immortal, green-eyed mages, who are searching for Spark, and Telesian magic, based in blood. Magic itself is morally neutral, until humans use or misuse it, when it can be destructive and dangerous. Spark does harm because he can’t control his powers, or his emotions; at the opposite extreme is creepy blonde aristocrat Allorise Carey, who uses power for selfish ends.

The two Mages who come to rescue – or punish – Spark are my favourite characters: Kayall, the man, is a peacock who loves good clothes, sleeping with men and women, and beer. Elvienne, the woman, is more austere, but a strong and powerful character. She is much older than Kayall, and she is definitely the leader, someone of greater wisdom than her charming but unreliable friend.

The story builds to a satisfying conclusion. I was caught up in the fate of the eponymous hero and heroine; Carousel in particular is strong and likeable, much more than a victim of her circumstances. And the city itself is like a character in the story, with a believable history that is hinted at. Spark grows throughout the story, and has to try to control his powers, which have unleashed a demonic threat.

The important thing is that I was eager to find out what happened, and cared about the fate of all the characters, even the villains! But there is plenty of subtlety and the characters are not straight up good or evil, but complex and well-motivated.