Spellcast
by Barbara Ashford
Reviewed by Scott T. Barnes

Let me confess something right up front. I'm a guy, and I enjoy musicals. For our five-year anniversary, my wife got us tickets to see South Pacific. I've seen it about a dozen times over the years, and each time I discover something new. I enjoy the music, the story, the life lessons, love and loss, and the magic of having the performers only yards away, the curtains and the marks and the makeup visible to the discerning eye, until the music rolls and the actors make us forget all that and transport us to an imaginary isle in the balmy south Pacific.

A good book can do the same thing. Spellcast does such a thing.

One of those rare gems of a fantasy novel, Spellcast is an original, something completely unique in the pantheon of novels I have read over a lifetime. It is a love story, a fantasy, a mystery, and a theatre book all rolled up into one. Spellcast is not a dark story; nor is it an adventure, so if you are looking for the next Legend of the Seeker this isn't it. The narrator's tone has more in common with Legally Blond than Song of Ice and Fire. But there is plenty of tension and mystery to keep even the most jaded reader turning pages into the night. I carried it everywhere with me, even to my cousin's wedding rehearsal (though remembering my Emily Post I left it in the car for the wedding.) 

Maggie Graham, help desk employee and former (small time) musical theater actress, leaves New York in a hurry after her job fizzles. A road trip. Need to get away and all that. She drives until she finds herself in the cozy little town of Dale, Vermont where a mysterious theatre draws her with its siren song. The shows take place each year in a barn resembling a gothic cathedral...or a Wiccan house of worship. Within a few days she gets swept up in the magic and has pledged her summer to the casting call.

That's where the mystery and romance begins. The theatre's director, Rowan Mackenzie, casts a spell over everything and everyone in the theatre--and the town--drawing out professional performances from seemingly hapless amateurs. He casts people in roles based on what they "need" to learn, rather than in the roles they seem best suited for. And, despite whirlwind rehearsals, the performances dazzle. At least until Maggie begins to dig a little deeper into the mystery of the place and part of the magic fizzles.

Like many romances, the direction this one will take is clear from the beginning. The interest lies in how it will proceed, rather than in whom Maggie will turn her affections on. (Think back to the great romances of literature:  You always knew Elizabeth Bennett would fall for Mr. Darcy, didn't you?) There is more than enough mystery, suspense, and yes, conflict, to keep the interest up.

All the cast members carry their own personalities, quirks and foibles. The staff is imbued with a subtle magical energy to keep everyone in line, but the master sorcerer is certainly Rowan Mackenzie. The great director seems at once in love with his theatre and its performances, and tormented with the necessity of being here. We get the feeling that he is some sort of Sisyphus, doomed to stay here and put on performances until the end of time. The scars on his hands and neck seem to indicate the same, not to mention the mysterious goings on (fireflies whirling, enchanted music, mass hypnosis...) around Midsummer.

Reading Spellcast, I couldn't help thinking that the theatre really does cast a spell on us. Who has never fantasized about working in theatre? Who has never wanted to mesmerize with his delivery, to sing like Lea Salonga or Michael Crawford, or jerk an audience's heartstrings like Elizabeth Taylor? For those of us with no background in stage, learning the terminology is a hoot (cast lists, green room, pit, upstage, downstage, stage left and right, wings, sight lines, gaffer tape, cheating front...), yet done in small enough, entertaining bits that even theater aficionados won't mind the review. If Spellcast doesn't make you want to pick up theatre tickets to recapture the magic, then nothing will.

As you can see, I enthusiastically endorse Spellcast. I can almost guarantee that it will make you want to see Brigadoon

Spellcast
by Barbara Ashford
DAW Books, Inc
May, 2011
ISBN 978-0-7564-0682-0

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