049 – Spellbound by Cara Lynn Shultz

Spellbound cover What’s a girl to do when meeting The One means she’s cursed to die a horrible death?

Life hasn’t been easy on sixteen-year-old Emma Connor, so a new start in New York may be just the change she needs. But the posh Upper East Side prep school she has to attend? Not so much. Friendly faces are few and far between, except for one that she’s irresistibly drawn to – Brendan Salinger, the guy with the rock-star good looks and the richest kid in school, who might just be her very own white knight.

But even when Brendan inexplicably turns cold, Emma can’t stop staring. Ever since she laid eyes on him, strange things have been happening. Streetlamps go out wherever she walks, and Emma’s been having the oddest dreams: visions of herself in past lives – visions that warn her to stay away from Brendan. Or else.
Dear Paranormal Romance Authors, Aspiring Paranormal Romance Authors, and Aspiring Aspiring Paranormal Romance Authors,

I think we can all agree that certain tropes have become somewhat overused in the past couple of years. They were well-worn in the ParaRoma boom of the ’90s, but with the advent of Twilight and the thousands of knock-offs and look-alikes that followed in its wake, what was once simply “well-worn” has now become painfully, frustratingly trite.

Which is why we need to LET THEM GO. Starting about twenty and a half books ago.

Admittedly, very few books are completely original. Every ParaRoma novel has elements that have been done before, but most manage to inject some spark, some freshness, some new twist on old ideas that make them distinctive, even memorable. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least they tried, right? And yet every now and then, we end up reading a book that doesn’t manage any of that, a book that settles for formulaic. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Spellbound.

I’m sure you can tell just from the flap summary what I’m talking about. We’ve got the heroine, Emma, a New Girl in the Prep School Full of Spoiled Socialites. She’s a Secret Born Witch who falls in Insta!Love with the Mysterious Bad Boy the first moment they see each other, but of course, he pulls the bullshit Hot and Cold Game with her. She finds an Insta!Enemy in the Queen Bitch, whose boyfriend is the Douchey Jock/Man Whore, develops a Token Gay BFF, and befriends an Exposition Character in the form of the school’s Token Witch and Scholarship Student all rolled into one.

It would be different if, say, the sum of these tropes were something unusual or innovative, but it’s not. The story is very typical, and the cliches are there to serve the same purpose they’ve served in every other paranormal romance book ever. Why does Emma’s love interest, Brendan, play the Hot and Cold Game? Because it draws out the first act. Why does the Token Bitch instantly hate Emma? Because she provides conflict and contrast. Why does Emma find a Token Gay BFF? Because we’re diverse, okay, and also because she’s so irresistible that if her male BFF weren’t gay, he’d have to be in love with her!

Then there’s the presence of Reincarnated Soul Mates and a plot based on the Cursed Reincarnated Lovers trope, which makes Spellbound undeniably reminiscent of a certain other book that has already pretty much cornered the market with this premise. Yes, Spellbound has quite a bit in common with Fallen. It comes off like the Transmorphers to its Transformers, which is to say, a bit of a knock-off. And a generic one at that.

This is the only – ONLY – time I’ll ever say anything good about Fallen, but at least it had angels and shit. Sure, it did absolutely nothing with them, created no substantial internal mythos, but at least they were there, lending a bit of their angelic flavor to the bland reincarnation schlock. Spellbound doesn’t have that. Spellbound has arbitrary curses and bad poetry, and Witches in Name Only.

I’d hesitate to even call this a “paranormal romance”, except that, well, that’s all this is. While most other “paranormal romance” titles have plots that concern something other than the heroine’s love life – or alternately, the heroine’s love life is a part of something bigger – Spellbound is only about getting the guy, breaking the curse, and two people finding a happily ever after. And I mean, I guess that’s fine if that’s your thing, but when I read paranormal romance, I generally read them for the other stuff – for the world-saving, the evil-defeating, the mystery-solving – and that was painfully lacking here.

Really, Spellbound is exactly what it says on the tin – a traditional Harlequin romance novel for teenagers, with all the requisite pop culture references to make it “teen-y” enough (the heroine listens to Paramore and Blink 182! I relate now!), and the life-defining romance to make it typically Harlequin. It’s a book that spends about a quarter of its page count swooning over how soft the hot love interest’s eyelashes might be before anything interesting happens.

Yeah, it’s 75 long pages before we even get an inkling of anything supernatural, which is also the first time the overall plot makes its debut. While this is better than, say, 400 pages (and that alone puts it a star above Fallen), it’s far too long for so little.

There are exactly two instances of the heroine practicing witchcraft in Spellbound. The first occurs when Emma “awakens” as a witch, and causes your typical magical gust of wind to dramatically swirl her hair around. The second occurs during the climax, and it doesn’t really require Emma to do anything more witchy than desperately scream for help. This spell doesn’t even immediately seem like a spell at all – you have to be told that it was later, because all that happens is some mysterious stranger strolls up, helps Emma save Brendan, then ~disappears~, having totally not been Emma’s dead brother. It’s like one of those old “guardian angel” stories, which to me is more kitschy Lifetime movie twist than actual witchcraft.

Emma’s prophetic dreams warning her about her fate are supposedly a result of her witch-ness, as well, but that’s so common to Cursed Reincarnated Lovers-themed stories that I have a hard time counting it.

Ultimately, what the book hinges on is its Doomed Lovers plot, with the witchcraft being so much window dressing. I’ve mentioned I’m not a fan of reincarnation stories before, and Spellbound doesn’t change that. In fact, the book’s backstory for Relationship Zero is hokier than usual, and I didn’t really think that was possible.

What we come to find out is that our heroine and her boyfriend are the reincarnations of medieval lovers – a great big peasant Sue and an over-privileged Lord, respectively – who met and fell in love like the day before his wedding to someone else. He broke it off, and DEFIED CONVENTION to marry Sue instead. The had a child, and were living happily ever after until Peasant Sue got killed by the Lord’s jilted, bitter, ex-fiancee (women!).

The Lord got grief-stupid, going to a witch in order to find some way to be with his ~beloved~ again, and for entirely unknown and UNEXPLAINED reasons, the witch decided to be a dick and curse the two. As per the standard Doomed Lovers rule set, they would meet over and over again, but the girl would die and the Lord would be forced to live without her, unless they followed the instructions for breaking the curse, which were CONVENIENTLY PROVIDED but not put into practice once in hundreds of years. You’d think that would be the sort of thing that the Lord made sure his descendants knew about, if it really was that important to him.

Anyway, I’m telling you this for two reasons. A) the backstory is painfully generic, providing unspecified Anglo-Saxon “mythology” that is to actual mythology what over-processed white bread is to actual bread. The whole thing is flavorless, boring; a pale imitation lacking any unique flair to make it compelling.

And B) the story itself, as well as the way it is related, is ridiculous. Our heroine Emma finds it in a book of fairy tales, and so we get a long expositional sequence in cartoonishly false-sounding “ye olde” speak, complete with badly-written spell-poems that don’t seem to follow ANY INTERNAL RHYTHM WHATSOEVER. The story itself is dumb, with all the aforementioned characterization problems – seriously, MARY SUE OMG his wife composes a LOVE POEM to her husband WHILE SHE’S LYING THERE BLEEDING OUT WHAT IS THIS – and just batshit logic.

The Lord is allowed to write an absurd amount of riders into his contract with the witch: he is always reincarnated rich and gorgeous and smart and as a member of his bloodline – NO SERIOUSLY he can do that – and his wife is supposedly given the gift of super-speed, although we NEVER SEE THIS, and will always show up bearing his crest, because property marking is awesome. They’ll always fall into Insta!Love, and Emma’s witch friend says that the Lord apparently also requested his wife be born poor (LOL builds character), but I didn’t see that anywhere in the contract scene, so IDK typo? Either way, Jesus Christ, would you like fries with that? Apparently evil hags and mystical contracts in this book work like ordering a Whopper at Burger King – you can have it your way, right down to the three-quarters of a pickle and two-inch in diameter green tomato that you requested.

And I still want to know why, exactly, the hag went evil on him at the last moment. There’s no adequate explanation for it, the hag just morphs into an extraordinarily pretty young man (which seems like something that should be significant in the story later on, but it isn’t), and…that’s the end of it. Not even our heroine wonders why the Lord got screwed over there, she’s just like swoon, “How romantic, we are probably reincarnated lovers. I should think about doing something about this cursed-to-die-thing,” and it’s on to Act 2.

This particular phase consists mostly of dating scenes, talking about the curse, making out, talking about the curse, Emma being insecure, talking about the curse, discovering nothing new, and oh yeah, talking about the curse. The heroine has absolutely nothing else significant in her life except for her boyfriend and their Doomed Love, which reduces the sources from which interesting action can develop. I kept expecting, say, the reincarnated or immortal witch from the fairytale to show up, but no luck. We’re left with relationship issues and high school drama, and while, to their credit, Emma and Brendan do manage to evade the usual Ill-Advised Romance traps (like “I’m breaking up with you for your own safety”), this means that all the conflict is provided in the form of high school gossip bullshit and OMG DO NOT WANT.

Even when Emma finds out she is a witch, she doesn’t really do anything about it, which is a bit counter-intuitive. She idly tries to make things move with her mind when she’s bored, but actual spells? Working on developing her powers? No, it all takes a backseat to fun dating time.

When we finally do get to the climax – which takes place in the last twenty or so pages and, all together now, at the danceSpellbound apparently gives up and just throws character integrity out the window. I know there has to be a climactic battle – even though there’s very little reason for one, since the forces keeping Emma and Brendan together haven’t been given a physical representative – but instead of say, stealthily maneuvering her couple into a vulnerable position, Schultz firmly plants them in a safe place and then requires her heroine to do something extremely, EXTREMELY stupid to get them out of it. Emma has to willingly put herself in a bad situation for no logically justifiable reason.

Yeah, like that. There’s just no recovering from that kind of characterization.

What’s worse, when it comes right down to it, the fight is between Brendan and the villain. Emma’s powers play no part in it. She isn’t allowed use that super-speed she supposedly has, or even do witchcraft until the very end, and that is just a token gesture so that the story can claim later that she helped, when all she really did was run away like some horror movie victim. Seriously, at one point she even opted to run through a deserted park rather than stick to the streets, making that picture up there ALMOST LITERAL.

Emma is strictly a damsel in this situation, not only because it’s more ~romantic~ that way, but because the curse requires this in order to be broken. Her lover must “be her armor” (UGHHH) to break the spell, which means that if we’d had, y’know, any kind of competent heroine, they’d totally have been screwed!

It’s a shame, because Emma, as a heroine, actually had a semblance of a personality. She was even occasionally funny, certainly more so than many other “spunky” heroines. But as usual, that all went down the drain once the One True Dick got involved. With Brendan, she was constantly insecure, seeking reassurance because she didn’t feel worthy. Even after knowing that they were literally destined to be together, she continued to fret about being good enough. What’s with that? Why can’t we have a heroine who is confident enough to know that she is worthy of being loved by a great guy?

Emma also had a nasty habit of needing to be rescued. Like constantly. So much so that her aunt actually gets worried, because Emma gets injured nearly every time she and Brendan are together. One instance in particular really frustrated the Hell out of me.

Towards the end of the first act, Anthony, the Douchey Jock/Manwhore, had spread a rumor that he’d slept with Emma’s little cousin, Ashley. Naturally, Emma is furious, especially since the truth was that he’d gotten kinda rape-ish, and then kicked the girl out of the apartment when she wouldn’t sleep with him. So, after school, Emma confronts him, and I was like FUCK YEAH MAN, KICK HIS ASS. Instead, it went a little something like this.

Emma: *storms up* Tell them you didn’t fuck her
Anthony: LOL sure. She sucked anyway.
Anthony: LOL WHATEV look me up if you wanna get with a REAL MAN LIKE ur cuz.
Anthony: *shove*
Emma: I’m NOT AFRAID OF YOU! *dodge shove*
Anthony: *ears steaming*
Anthony: *blocks exit*
Anthony: *pulls back hand to hit*
Emma: *cowers* At least if he hits me he’ll be expelled.

Yeah, that was around the time she lost my respect. Instead of defending herself, Emma waits to be hit, probably because the Outdated Laws of Romance Novels require that she be saved by the hero, which is exactly what happens. Brendan steps in, beats Anthony good, and Emma’s all “OH MY HERO, we’re together now!”

Brendan was the only one besides Emma to get any development, and as love interests go, he was the usual ~dreamboat~ mix of protective, endlessly reassuring, and OMG SEXY. He wasn’t terrible, but again, there was very little about him that didn’t come off as Generic Dreamboat A.

Nearly every other character was simply a pawn to get Emma and Brendan together, from Token Gay BFF to the Queen Bitch. She is something of an area of frustration for me, but that’s a rant for another time (in the not-so-distant future). Suffice to say, as a character, the Queen Bitch present in Spellbound is an intentionally undeveloped one-dimensional stereotype whose only real purpose is to make Emma look better in comparison (and eventually prove she’s too stupid to live).

Actually, most of the female characters seemed to be there to show how much better Emma was in comparison. The rest are catty or dumber or blackout drinkers (why?), with the possible exception of Emma’s witch friend, but she was there mostly for plot convenience’s sake, so yeah. And Emma certainly seemed to hold this opinion, instantly characterizing Brendan’s former girlfriends as “crafty” girls worming their way into his world, because none of them could possibly have had feelings for him as genuine as hers!

All in all, I just can’t recommend Spellbound. While it did at least manage to tell a complete story in one book (which is why I don’t understand why this is Spellbound #1, where could it possibly go from here?), it was generic to the core, purely teenaged girl romance porn with very little, if anything, to offer to a reader who might want something more.

two stars

Man, all this fail just makes me that much more grateful for Melissa Marr.


6 Responses

  1. LupLun

    October 3, 2011 11:26 pm, Reply

    “And I still want to know why, exactly, the hag went evil on him at the last moment.”

    Maybe this is the equivalent of a harried BK employee clandestinely spitting in the customer’s custom-made whopper?

    (Wendy’s is better anyways. Spicy chicken FTW.)

    Shooting for the Moon

  2. Jessie

    October 24, 2011 12:09 am, Reply

    This is a great review. Excellently worded and thought out, you guys nailed every issue I had with Spellbound – except I didn’t even bother to finish it. Now, thanks to you, I don’t have to feel about missing this pile of cliches.

  3. dreamworlder

    April 22, 2015 12:08 am, Reply

    Excellent review – I laughed at your description of the awful “ye olde” poetry.

    “She is something of an area of frustration for me, but that’s a rant for another time (in the not-so-distant future).”

    I’d love to read your thoughts about how the Queen B/Mean Girl is characterized in this book. I can’t like her as a character because she’s so mean and catty, but I got annoyed at how much the narration dumps on her. She gets compared to a booger (while Emma gets compared to a diamond), and her physical description makes her sound completely repulsive – apparently she wears so much fake tan that her skin is bright orange.

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