I'm sure they must be getting close to fifty fighters by now. So I duck inside the food court's washroom, remembering to listen for the bell that says the fight's starting- if you're late, you're out. Only one of the five stalls is occupied, and I hop into a free one.
I'm about to flush when the sound of quiet retching comes from the other stall.
I wait, holding my breath, unsure what to do. Ignore? Ask?
“Um, you okay?” I finally call out.
There's a long pause. “Yeah, I must just be nervous.”
Another fighter. She does sound nervous, her voice thin. And young. I peek down to see her shoes from beneath the stall.
Rose-gold sneakers, their canvas properly scuffed up. They're cute, even if they're not my style. But she's definitely more a kid than a grown-up.
“I'm nervous, too,” I tell her, trying to make her feel better. It's the truth anyway.
“You're also fighting tonight?”
“Yes, and I have no real clue what I'm doing,” I let myself admit. I probably should be more careful. But since Shire died, there's been a lot I can't talk about with anyone – using full magic might be the biggest thing – but there's also all the stuff I keep from my parents. I can add killing Rudy to that list, too. And now, in this bathroom stall where no one can see me, I sense some of those secrets coming way too close to the surface, the ways they make me feel wanting to come out. “I'm still trying to figure out what I signed up for.”
“Maybe I'll just cast a shield spell so I don't die, and wait everyone else out.” Her laugh is tinged with hysteria. “Exciting right?”
A chill washes over me.
The tile floor swims, and I brace my shoulder against the side of the stall. Rudy, you couldn't have known, right? Couldn't you have just made plans for a midnight date?
“I'd do a shield spell, too,” I finally manage just for something to say. Though I'm not sure what she means.
“Well right now I don't even care about winning,” the other fighter says. “I just want to make it to the next round.”
Her secrets are just like mine, threatening to bubble over. Would she be saying any of this if she could see me? It'd be like her handing me her fighter's psyche on a silver platter with permission to take it apart.
Want to exchange secrets? I'm nearly tempted to call out. You tell me what kind of fight this is supposed to be, and I'll tell you I don't belong here. Deal?
But all I say is “Good luck.” I don't really know how I mean it – not sarcastically, just as I wouldn't have meant it that way when I nearly said it earlier to Navy. Maybe I do want her to stick around during this tournament. Or maybe it's her secrets I'm wishing her luck with. I understand secrets right now more than I do this whole fighter thing, that's for sure.
Aza Wu is a caster of full magic, the very same part of her identity that is killing the earth whenever she casts and the thing that killed her sister one year ago. Aza's family lives in Lotusland, a dystopian world on the edge of the Pacifik where magic has almost destroyed the earth and continues to do so whenever it is casted, causing natural disasters after casting. Long before the events of Caster, magic was cleaved into parts, and now there are only a few people with full magic, and the rest have leftover magic. Those with full magic are not supposed to cast using it because of the damage it causes, and they are tracked down by Scouts if they do use their magic.
Aza's world, Lotusland, is divided into different sectors, each named after the main trait or selling point of that sector. Aza's sector, Tea, is run under the tight grip of Saint Willow, a ruthless gang leader who requires the people living in Tea to pay honour marks so they can stay there. Shire, Aza's sister, used to cast full magic for clients in order to pay off their family's debt, but since her death, Aza has taken up the responsibility of doing the same thing. However, her parents think she's working for Saint Willow as a delivery person, and Jihen, Saint Willow's enforcer, thinks she is a tutor. The only person who knows what she really does is Rudy, an apothecary and Shire's old mentor. When Rudy dies of a weak heart, Aza finds a message leading her to an underground casting competition (put on by the Guild of Now, a group of casters that defy the harsh restrictions put on full magic casters) that forces her to confront new and old demons. Aza learns that Shire was killed in the competition by Finch, the reigning champion, and she meets Kylin a younger girl who reminds her a little too much of herself. The winner of the competition gets two thousand marks, enough to pay off the Wu's debt to Saint Willow; and so Aza enters, vowing revenge for Shire and redemption for her family. The competition, however, tests the limits of Aza's magic and her morals. With just a week to pay off her debt and fend off a Scout, Aza unlocks the secrets surrounding the competition and its fighters and learns more about herself.
Chapman's urban fantasy is a fast-paced wonder of a novel, with the timeline of one week raising the stakes for Aza and the reader. Lotusland bears some striking resemblances to our world, and the connection between magic and the earth is compelling and thought-provoking all at once, creating a unique and consistent magical world. Chapman gives the readers bits of the world's history before every fight through the guild leaders explanation and by transporting the fighters and readers to battle landscapes of the ancient past in Aza's world. These bits of exposition are beautifully presented and keep readers engaged with Lotusland, wanting to learn more of why the world is the way it is.
Combined with her excellent world building, Chapman brings up questions of the caster's control over magic, with Aza constantly wondering if she can control her magic or if it controls her. These questions add to the frustration and anger that plague Aza. Her anger is incredibly well-written and visceral; her pain realistically feeds her anger, and the cycle drags readers into Aza's mind, showcasing a young girl realizing her mistakes and trying to grow from them.
In addition to writing Aza's anger realistically and truthfully, the whole Wu family, and how they deal with the trauma of losing Shire, is masterfully executed. Aza and her parents are unsure of how to move on without Shire, and the scenes where the Wus are together are truly heartbreaking. The family interactions, filtered through Aza's eyes, show rather than tell how the collective trauma has broken them apart, and Aza's anger is fuelled by this.
Caster is a masterpiece of world building, realistic characters, engaging fights, and intriguing magic that will draw in all kinds of readers with its lightning paced twists and turns. Elsie Chapman has created a world and a cast of characters that leave readers begging for a sequel if only to see more of Aza, a captivating heroine whose feelings and actions are written to ring true for any young woman.
Deanna Feuer is an English Literature graduate from the University of the Fraser Valley. She lives in Langley, British Columbia.