Review: Spellcast and Spellcrossed (Barbara Ashford)

As at least some of my readership is aware, I have been a theater junkie — if a somewhat undernourished one — ever since junior high school (which is to say, for a scarily long time now).  I have, of course, also been an avid reader of fantasy for even longer than that.  And it’s been my experience that there just isn’t much modern genre fiction that makes effective use of theatrical settings.  There are a very few exceptions, and mystery has done somewhat better than fantasy in this regard, but even good theatrical mysteries are a trifle thin on the ground.

You may therefore imagine my cautiously optimistic delight some weeks back, when I ran across a new(ish) book at my local library promising just this: a fantasy yarn set against the backdrop of a small musical theatre company in rural Vermont.  The ingredients seemed perfect — but would they be well blended and skillfully served up?
They would indeed, and I can enthusiastically recommend not one but two titles from Barbara Ashford: Spellcast (2011) and Spellcrossed (2012), both from DAW in mass-market paperback.

Ashford, it turns out, is herself a musical theatre professional, and it shows in the convincingly detailed portrayal of the Crossroads Theatre, a ramshackle yet fiercely sincere enterprise based in the little town of Dale, Vermont.  The deft, perceptive writing extends to the characters as well — major and minor players alike are engaging and nuanced.  The two leads in the unfolding tale are Maggie Graham, once and future stage actress recovering from a stalled career in customer service, and Rowan McKenzie, the Crossroads company’s reclusive artistic director.

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Rowan is, in fact, faery rather than human, and chemistry is definitely in play, but Ashford is writing fantasy with romance rather than romance with fantasy, and the plot revolves as much around the theater as it does our heroes’ evolving relationship.  There’s also — as one might expect from a novel hip-deep in classic musicals — a good deal of often-irreverent wit in play, and Ashford does extremely well at balancing her tone so that neither the comedy nor the honest emotion goes off the rails.

It’s also worth noting that this is a series rather than a serial.  Spellcast ends solidly enough to stand entirely on its own; the sequel, Spellcrossed, does likewise.  That said, the books should be read in order for best effect, and the back cover copy for Spellcrossed contains just enough of a spoiler for the first book to warrant a cautionary note.  For my own part, I’m hoping that there’s a third book in the pipeline — for anyone who’s like me, a fan of theater and of fantasy, these novels are a rare and deeply satisfying find.