It's just a routine rain spell. Jessie and her teacher and lover, Cooper, head to the city park to call up a storm and make a few bucks. But something goes horribly wrong. By the end of the night, Cooper has been sucked away into a Hell realm, and Jessie has suffered devastating injuries.
Then, things get *worse*. Benedict Jordan, the leader of the city's magicians, gives Jessie a choice: either she agrees not to rescue Cooper, or else she becomes anathema. Jessie is definitely not the kind of girl who'll leave her boyfriend to rot in Hell, so she chooses anathema. Jordan proceeds to ruin her life and leave her with nothing. Nothing, that is, except her never-give-up attitude and Palimpsest, an uptight ferret familiar who is described as having the voice of a Canadian librarian. (Not knowing any Canadian librarians, my brain has substituted an unholy cross between Rupert Giles' voice and C-3PO's.) Pal provides much of the comic relief in Spellbent.
Together, Jessie and Pal do everything within their power, first to survive, then to save Cooper. Jessie's tenacity and resourcefulness make every step of her journey compelling. Jessie could be forgiven for wallowing in angst, given what happens to her, but she doesn't. She never stops moving toward her goals. I read Spellbent in a single afternoon and evening, unable to tear myself away. I had to know what happened next!
It's a good book even before we get to Hell, and then it's the Hell scenes that really blew me away. I was expecting the usual flames and pitchforks, but Snyder doesn't go that conventional route. Cooper's Hell is an intensely personal one. And wow, is it dark. I think my jaw was on the floor when Jessie (and I) learned about the horrific events that lay at the root of the entire plot.
Spellbent is dark enough that it won't be for everyone; a previous reviewer compared the gore level to that of Ilona Andrews' first Kate Daniels book, Magic Bites, and that's a pretty accurate parallel. This comes in part from the horror elements and in part from the magic system that Jessie and Cooper use: ubiquemancy, the art of finding the magic in everything. This sometimes means unsavory ingredients, like bodily fluids. It can get a little gross. But at the same time, it adds a verisimilitude that I can't help but respect. Ancient and medieval "spell recipes" often called for ingredients that would make most of us squeamish.
A minor aside: There's an odd little editing glitch in my e-ARC (it may be corrected in the published book). Jessie remarks that she's "not afraid of some third-string football-player rapist," which had me rereading earlier pages to make sure I hadn't missed anything. I hadn't; we meet the football-playing rapist in the next scene. It has no bearing on the plot, so all it did was make me scratch my head for a few minutes.
Jaded urban fantasy fans should consider giving Spellbent a try. Snyder adds together a determined yet flawed heroine, fun secondary characters, a plot with tons of forward momentum, and one seriously creepy Hell, and the end result is a visceral, powerful modern-day Orpheus myth.