Caster by Elsie Chapman: A Thriller feat. Dangerous Magic Games, Diasporic Subthemes, & Gangs

Caster is one of those books that only gets better as you continue reading.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew there was magic, fights, and gangs in this story, and I was all in. And Chapman really pulled through in bringing an engaging and extremely entertaining thriller featuring a giant web of lies, pain-linked magic system, and multiple enemies at every twist and turn.

Oh, and a giant magic competition.

If you’re a fan of the gangs and the atmosphere of Jade City, meeting a Hunger Games style competition with sectors, you’ll definitely want to pick Caster up. It’s fast paced and thrilling and Aza is definitely a character you’ll want to cheer on.

One of the things I thought a lot about was how the Chinese influences were so subtly tied in.

Unlike some other Asian-inspired novels, this is one that doesn’t rely heavily on a lot of references (i.e. hanfu, specific nouns, etc.). Not to say that either style is bad, but I think this is really important to point out about Caster. A lot of it honestly feels diasporic, and Chinese culture has a really huge but subtle role in the story.

I know a lot of people unfamiliar with this might question why Aza is doing everything she is—she’s dealing with cops, multiple gang members, and casting magic that causes her pain in a giant tournament, all in order to get money to pay her family’s debt so they can keep their tea house, and without her parents knowing—but it made sense to me. I don’t think it’s necessarily right that Aza picks up the entire responsibility on herself, but I understood why she did it.

This type of filial responsibility is so ingrained in Chinese culture—especially diasporic ones where parents sacrifice a lot to come to another country for better opportunities. And I felt like Chapman was acknowledging this and making it standard and custom and treating it as normal, which heavily coded the story as Chinese, despite only saying the word “Chinese” once in the story.

I just really appreciated how Chapman was so subtle with this, yet this is such a huge thing to me and my family and a lot of people I know. I felt understood by this and I understood Aza’s motives, even though other readers might be questioning why she’d decide to take all the responsibility on her shoulders, when she could have just talked to her parents (and it wasn’t just for the sake of the story).

Plus, the story was just really exciting.

I mean . . . it’s tense, but it was a lot of fun and full of twists and turns.

Casting magic itself is already really dangerous because the user is caused pain correlated to how strong of a spell they cast, and it also damages the earth. But even more than that, Aza’s sister used to cast magic to pay their teahouse’s bills to Saint Willow, the gang who runs the Tea Sector, and now that Aza’s sister is dead—and under mysterious circumstances—Aza must step up and take her place (see: the previous section).

So not only is she being hounded by Saint Willow to pay up, but she is struggling to get the training from Rudy, her sister’s mentor, and hide what she’s been doing from her parents who never wanted her to cast in the first place.

And then Rudy dies. And this launches Aza on a path full of more lies—as she gets hounded by a cop, tries to decipher Rudy’s mysterious last words, and ends up getting launched into a dangerous magic tournament.

The story just builds and builds and builds as it progresses and we get more twists and turns, more reveals, and Aza gets deeper and deeper into trouble. And the ending left me shocked and desperately in need of the sequel. (Is there a sequel? I’m gonna pretend there will definitely be one.)

Casting is a really interesting magic system.

The worldbuilding was so strong but I also wish we got to explore more of the effects of casting full magic (because not only does it cause the caster pain, but it also ends up causing a disaster to the Earth, i.e. killing a bunch of animals or breaking apart the earth) and the question of full casters and the way they interact with society.

I feel like there was a lot left to explore and the magic system is so so cool, I really hope we get a super awesome sequel that goes more in depth in this and closes up Aza’s story because THAT. CLIFFHANGER.

I feel like although the immediate storyline is wrapped up in Caster, there’s still more to Aza’s story that would do really well with a sequel. Please. I have a great need.

Overall, I’d highly recommend.

Caster was a thrilling and gritty fantasy featuring revenge, filial responsibility diasporic children will relate to, and a dangerous magic system that will engage any reader. I’d highly recommend anyone who wants a story about a girl going against the odds and fighting, even when all that seems to be happening is that she’s getting deeper and deeper in trouble.

If you like stories like Jade City, The Hunger Games, and Empress of All Seasons, you’ll want to pick Caster up. Just do it.

4.5 stars

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Aza Wu is struggling to pay her family’s debts and keep their struggling teahouse alive. Saint Willow—the local gang—is hounding her to pay their debt, but Aza can’t give them the money they want as well as her sister, Shirin, who died mysteriously last year.

Although Aza is a caster of full magic—something that’s illegal and banned by the government—she doesn’t have the control Shirin did in order to properly carry out any under-the-table dealings in full magic, especially when Shirin’s mentor, Rudy, won’t tell her anything.

But when Rudy dies and cops are snooping around, Aza gets more and more desperate. And it leads her to a dangerous underground magic tournament where she could get the money she needs to pay her family’s debts—if it doesn’t kill her first.

Content Warnings: debt, gangs, pain-based magic system (understanding that casting more magic means more pain, and doing it anyways), cops

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Thank you so much to Scholastic for sending me an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review!

Have you read any of Elsie Chapman’s work? What did you think?

3 thoughts on “Caster by Elsie Chapman: A Thriller feat. Dangerous Magic Games, Diasporic Subthemes, & Gangs

  1. I love your whole review, but you had me at “the atmosphere of Jade City, meeting a Hunger Games style competition with sectors” 😍. That sounds like the best combo. I’m really happy the story is wrapped up in the book – even if it becomes a series I love reading the types of series that don’t end on cliffhangers, and instead solve most/all of the issues in each book. Also, I’m excited about the twists and reveals you mentioned, who doesn’t love to be surprised like that? Fantastic review! 🙂

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  2. Beautiful review, Vicky! ❤ Wow, this one sounds spectacular! I really love what you mentioned about how the Chinese influences were tied in so well! Although I haven't read this one yet, I can certainly understand why Aza would choose to take on that responsibility. I've been craving some thrillers and fantasies lately, so this one sounds perfect for me! I'll be adding it to my tbr immediately!

    Like

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