Review: Soulbound by Bec McMaster
Book Genre: Fantasy Romance
Romance Heat Level: Jalapeno (medium hot)
I first found Bec McMaster through her Steampunk London series, a set of enjoyable fantasy romance books featuring vampires, werewolves, and steam-powered machinery set in the class-conscious Regency Era. Soulbound is the third book in her Dark Arts series—more historical fantasy romances, these set in Victorian England, but with a focus on magical spellwork over creatures and class.
The historical aspects of these books are less important than the fantasy and the romance, which is fine by me—the setting just adds a little flavor and some fun fashion. McMaster’s strengths are emotional romance, fantasy world-building, and magic systems.
The Dark Arts series draws on Aleister Crowley-style magick for its overtones. Think hexagrams, grimoires, relics, and demon-summonings. There were sexual undercurrents in the magic system that seemed to go directly against what you would think of as Victorian morés, but it was refreshing to see the leading ladies showing some confidence instead of repression in that aspect of their lives.
In Soulbound, we catch up with Sebastian Montcalm, the youngest of the de Wynter brothers, and the most tortured. His mother had enslaved him with a magical collar in the previous books, making him do terrible things, and he has never been able to use his considerable power under his own control. Essentially, Sebastian is a survivor of both rape and abuse. His mother also forced him to marry Cleo Tremaine in a match of convenience, an alliance that she thought would give her power. When Soulbound opens, Cleo and Sebastian are estranged. Sebastian is finally free of his mother’s power, but he is struggling to come to terms with his new existence—free but traumatized, welcomed yet feared by his newfound family of half-brothers and sorcerers.
Cleo, Sebastian’s wife, is likewise at sea. Her father’s last act was to tear a blindfold from her eyes, a blindfold she had worn since she was a child that she believed allowed her access to her visionary powers. Despite being confused by her new lack of power, what Cleo truly desires is a loving marriage with Sebastian. But he has rejected her repeatedly.
Thus we find the emotional conflict of the romance in Soulbound: a tortured hero terrified of his own emotions and a gentle heroine longing for well-expressed love. Their road to happily-ever-after will reveal many dark secrets about their pasts, and they will have to confront who they are—and who they want to be—in order to find their love.
The plot conflict centers around developments from earlier books: Drake de Wynter, the patriarch and leader of all sorcerers, Sebastian’s estranged father, allowed his body to be possessed by a terrible demon to save his youngest son. Sebastian and his half-brothers have pledged to save their father from the demon. An array of enemies attempt to protect the demon from the brothers, including Sebastian’s evil mother, Morgana.
McMaster cleverly and seamlessly weaves her romantic conflict into the plot conflict of the book—a skill that sets her apart from many other fantasy romance writers. She creates a vivid world full of intriguing details. The plot drew me in, and after the first few chapters I was hooked on Soulbound.
That said, Sebastian and Cleo fell a bit flat for me as characters—I preferred the first two romantic couples in the series. At times McMaster slipped into “telling” the reader what her characters were feeling instead of showing us. Now, don’t get me wrong—I love a good introspective, brooding character, especially a hero—but in this case, the writing tended to get a little loose and could have stood some tightening to develop these characters in a more engaging manner. In general, I think all the books in this series could have stood more forceful editing.
That said, the entire series was a great escape read, the world-building was excellent, the magic system was complicated and interesting, and the plot kept me turning the pages. All in all, a juicy, satisfying read for good entertainment. Four Stars.