There are three requirements to earning a mage's name among the JanTep. The first is the strength to defend your family. The second is the ability to wield the high magics that protect our people. The third is simply to reach the age of sixteen. I was a few weeks shy of my birthday when I learned that I wouldn't be doing any of those things.
And we're off, into the duel. Kellen's problem is that he doesn't have magic. This is not a survivable problem. But Kellep does have a very, very clever mind. In a lesser book, Kellep would discover his magic and wipe the floor with his opponent, winning the acclaim of the crowd.
This is not a lesser book. Spellslinger is actually about a young outcast discovering and creating his own moral fiber. Kellep's struggle, although he doesn't realize it early in the book, is to become a decent human being in an indecent society. This is a far more interesting coming-of-age story than you usually get. When the Mysterious Stranger shows up, she's not a kindly wizard mentor. She's (possibly) not a wizard at all. She doesn't teach Kellep: she gives him opportunities to teach himself. Kellep acquires some new resources, but they are challenges as much as gifts.
Oh, the Mysterious Stranger kicks ass. I can't say more, because it would be a spoiler. She is compelling and ambiguous and funny and tough.
The characters are engrossing. The worldbuilding is unusual and clever. It's partly based around an original variant of a Tarot deck, but is in no way woo-woo; the cards do not predict your future, but (sometimes) illuminate your choices. The cards are playing cards, but are also a weapon. The cards have nothing to do -- as far as we know -- with the magic of the JanTep.
The book itself is gorgeous, in a way that made me extremely nostalgic. The red-and-black cover has two line drawings of the main characters, presented as a face card. (Don't look too closely at Kellep; it's a spoiler.) Red is used as a spot color, very effectively. There are interior illustrations of relevant Tarot cards at the beginning of each section. And the page edges (forget the technical term) are red! Taken as a whole, the book looks a bit like a deck of cards, which is, I'm sure intentional.
Here's the catch. There (as of time of writing) no U.S. or Canadian distributor of Spellslinger or its sequel, Shadowblack. If you're in North America and want to read them, you'll have to order from the, in my experience, reliable, fast, and cheap www.bookdepository.com or an equivalent.
Note: de Castell's Greatcoat books are also awesome. If you like the Musketeers books, you should love them. The nice thing is that they preserve the essential "three duelists against the world" spirit without either copying the plots or being pastiche-y. The second nice thing is that the author is a stage fight choreographer and is able to communicate fights clearly to the non-fighter (me).