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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

“Spellwright” by Blake Charlton (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Blake Charlton Website
Order “Spellwright” HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Blake Charlton overcame severe dyslexia in grade school when he began sneaking fantasy and science fiction books into special ed study hall. Inspired, he went on to graduate summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University. Blake is currently a third-year medical student at Stanford Medical School, where he teaches creative writing for medical students and has received a fellowship to write fiction. “Spellwright” is his first novel, but the author also has a short story included in the “Seeds of Change” anthology edited by John Joseph Adams.

PLOT SUMMARY: Imagine a world in which you could peel written words off a page and make them physically real. You might pick your teeth with a sentence fragment, protect yourself with defensive paragraphs, or thrust a sharply-worded sentence at an enemy’s throat.

Such a world is home to Nicodemus Weal, an apprentice at the wizardly academy of Starhaven. Because of how fast he can forge the magical runes that create spells, Nicodemus was thought to be the Halcyon, a powerful spellwright prophesied to prevent an event called the War of Disjunction, which would destroy all human language. There was only one problem: Nicodemus couldn’t spell.

Runes must be placed in the correct order to create a spell. Deviation results in a “misspell”—a flawed text that behaves in an erratic, sometimes lethal, manner. And Nicodemus has a disability, called cacography, that causes him to misspell texts simply by touching them.

Now twenty-five, Nicodemus lives in the aftermath of failing to fulfill prophecy. He finds solace only in reading knightly romances and in the teachings of Magister Shannon, an old blind wizard who’s left academic politics to care for Starhaven’s disabled students.

But when a powerful wizard is murdered with a misspell, Shannon and Nicodemus become the primary suspects. Proving their innocence becomes harder when the murderer begins killing male cacographers one by one . . . and all evidence suggests that Nicodemus will be next. Hunted by both investigators and a hidden killer, Shannon and Nicodemus must race to discover the truth about the murders, the nature of magic, and themselves...

FORMAT/INFO:Spellwright” is 352 pages long divided over forty-six numbered chapters, a Prolog, an Epilog, and a World Map. Narration is in the third-person, mainly via the protagonist Nicodemus Weal, but also includes narratives by Grand Wizard Agwu Shannon, the druid Dierdre, sentinel Amadi Okeke, and the villainous “creature”. “Spellwright” is the first volume in a trilogy, but many of the book’s major plotlines are satisfactorily concluded, while the closing chapters set up events for the upcoming sequels. The second book in the trilogy is currently titled “Spellbound”.

March 2, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Spellwright” via Tor. Cover art provided by Todd Lockwood. The UK edition (see working cover below) will be published on July 8, 2010 via HarperVoyager.

ANALYSIS: In Blake Charlton’s debut novel, “Spellwright”, readers will find everything from wizards, druids, apprentices, prophecies, chosen ones and magical institutions to dragons, demons, kobolds, gargoyles, deities, and more. Sounds like another run-of-the-mill fantasy novel, right? In some aspects this is true as “Spellwright” is heavily influenced by classic fantasy tropes, but there’s more to the book than meets the eye...

For starters, the magic system in “Spellwright” is simply brilliant. On the surface, magical languages and runes is nothing new, but Blake Charlton takes the concept to a whole new level, one revolving around the system of writing, which is then governed by its own elaborate set of rules & theories and where familiar words like prose, literacy, edit, erase, censor, compound appositives, deconstruct, subtext, syntax, central passages/arguments, paragraphs, conformation, etc., take on new meaning. For instance, to perform magic in “Spellwright”, one must first learn the alphabet of a magical language such as Jejunus, Magnus or Numinous, which are depicted as runes. In turn, these runes must be forged within the muscles of a person’s body:

As with any language, you will need to build a vocabulary and understand the grammar governing that vocabulary. After that, you will learn how to move the runes through your bodies, how to string them together into sentences, and finally how to cast them out into the world.” —Nicodemus Weal on Introductory Spellwriting

Believe it or not, this is only a small example of what “Spellwright’s” magic system has to offer. In fact, there’s so much other stuff to process like cacographers, quatenary cognition, Language Prime, constructs, avatars, metaspells, ghostwriting, godspells, wartexts, impressed spells, synaesthesia, tomes like the Index (think of it as the magical version of a library’s search engine), etc.; not to mention how nearly everything in the book is tied in some way to magical languages, runes or spellwriting including the world’s history, religions, and different races as well as the novel’s characters and plot; that it can be a little overwhelming, which is really the only negative thing I have to say about the magic system. In short, I couldn’t get enough of the magic found in “Spellwright”, and feel it’s one of the most innovative and fascinating magic systems that I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel, ranking right up there with Brandon Sanderson’s Allomancer concept.

Secondly, “Spellwright” is incredibly charming. So charming in fact, that it sometimes felt like I was reading a Harry Potter novel, although comparisons can also be drawn to Patrick Rothfuss, Tad Williams and Raymond E. Feist. Most of the book’s charm can be attributed to the author’s accessible writing, the likeable characters—particularly Nicodemus and Agwu Shannon who possess similarities to Harry Potter and Dumbledore—or the novel’s PG-13 tone.

Thirdly, “Spellwright” is a labor of love. In addition to spending several years writing and developing his first novel, Blake Charlton also incorporates many important moments from his personal life in the book like the protagonist suffering from a similar disability, Nicodemus’ love for knightly romances, and the method Nicodemus’ mother uses to teach her son how to read. On top of that, it’s obvious how much the author loves fantasy and how much fun he had writing the book. As a result, “Spellwright” is infused with Blake’s passion for the novel and his enthusiasm for the genre . . . a passion and enthusiasm that will rub off on the reader...

Despite the book’s undeniable charm & passion, and the inventive magic system, “Spellwright” is not without its flaws. Characters for one, lack depth. Specifically, the characters suffer from shallow backstories and unconvincing motives. So even though Nicodemus, Shannon and company are easy to like, it’s a superficial charm, and I was never able to connect with any of the characters on a deeply emotional level. Then there’s the world-building which, compared to the magic system, was insufficient and unoriginal—the story of the ancient continent, the Maelstrom and the Exodus reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Haydon’s The Symphony of Ages for instance. Another example is the book’s religion which is basically depicted as different races giving thanks to different gods: Creator, Celeste or Hakeem for the wizards; Boann for the druids; Los for the demons, etc. Blake’s writing meanwhile, had mixed results. Prose, for instance, though accessible, was at times plain, while the fast pacing was occasionally too rapid, skimming over events that could have used further explanation. Finally, the plot deals with a lot of overly familiar ideas such as prophecies, chosen ones (the Halycon), wizard apprentices, magical schools, opposing factions of good & evil, and so on. Fortunately, because the author incorporates so many recognizable tropes in the story, he was able to take the book in several unexpected directions, which included some nice surprises and at least one shocking turn of events. After the novel’s climactic scene however, “Spellwright” languishes for twenty pages too long with events that could have been developed much further, and which I felt would have worked better at the beginning of the next book in the trilogy.

CONCLUSION: Even though Blake Charlton’sSpellwright” suffers from problems with world-building, characterization, prose, pacing and uneven storytelling, the book is still one of the most entertaining and satisfying fantasy debuts I have ever read, mainly because of its charming appeal, highly imaginative magic system, and the author’s obvious love for the genre. In fact, I enjoyed reading “Spellwright” so much, I worry about the sequel living up to the high standards set by Blake Charlton’s remarkable debut...


Anonymous said...

Nice review. I definitely want to check this one out now.

I appreciate that you discussed the issue of whether this was a "run-of-the-mill" fantasy, since as you said it includes many classic fantasy tropes. Classic fantasy has almost gotten a bad rap these days as being overdone or unimaginative, but as you point out, what's important is whether or not it's a good and inventive story. If a book is well-written and has true creativity, the presence of classical elements won't automatically make it cliche.

Robert said...

Thanks Rachel. In my opinion, it's nearly impossible to find something that is truly original anymore, whether you're talking about literature, movies, video games, or so forth. So for me, execution is very important, as is my level of enjoyment. In that regard, I can overlook whether something is 'original' or not...


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