Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: Spellwright by Blake Charlton

What happens when you cross dyslexia, molecular biology, stuffy elitist universities, magic, demons, deities, grammar and an undeniable love of epic fantasy? You get Spellwright by Blake Charlton (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) – a classic-feeling epic fantasy with an imaginative magic system and intelligent writing.

Nicodemus Weal was once believed to be the prophesied savoir, but hopes and dreams were crushed when it was discovered that he suffers from cacography – the inability to spell correctly in magical languages. Now in his mid-twenties he languishes as an apprentice with little real hope of becoming even a low-level wizard in spite of his impressive fluency in magical languages. The murder of a wizard from a misspelled spell lands Nicodemus and his master as prime suspects as they struggle to clear their names and discover what evil is loose. And Nicodemus may be the prophesied savior after all… or the prophesied destroyer.

The magic system Charlton develops for Spellwright is simply wonderful, though it does take a bit of patience to fully understand and appreciate. Words are literally magic – they can peal off books, skin or whatever medium appropriate for the language and literally become spells – the words themselves are the magic. Those born with the ability to wield magical languages are known as spellwrights. Spelling, prose, grammar, and linguistic knowledge all take on new meaning and importance in this world. And it presents the opportunity for Charlton to be very creative with his own writing – intelligent, witty, and thankfully not too full of pun and wordplay as to become tiresome. This added flexibility of Charlton’s prose and how it interplays with his magic system was immediately apparent, and full of potential. At times it is uneven and uninspired and sometimes just a bit too clever, but overall Charlton does well, making for a fun and intelligent read.

It’s this magic system that allows for Charlton’s true inspiration to shine through. In a world where spelling is vitally important and misspelling can alter a spell enough to invoke deadly consequence, what are the implications of a dyslexic spellwright (known as a cacographer)?

Charlton himself is dyslexic and he overcame his ability by reading science fiction and fantasy, eventually landing at an Ivy League university and Stanford Medical School. Nicolas is very much a combination of Charlton’s own struggles with dyslexia and sort of a childhood wish-fulfillment of being a hero in a fantasy story. For the most part it works well and is a heart-felt representation of the struggle with disability, knowing one’s self, and the prejudice of others. However at times the wish-fulfillment comes across too much, crossing the line of clever homage, and simply annoys. Thankfully, the academic setting of the novel does not invoke the elitism of the Ivy League or feel derivative of Hogwarts, the new standard in wizardly education.

Charlton’s version of epic fantasy channels what feels now like an older breed – the epic fantasy of the ‘80s and ‘90s when the good were good and the evil, evil. Demons seek to take over the world and recreate humanity and are aided by human demon-worshipers. The good include the general wizardly community who vow to prevent demons from taking over and a more clandestine alliance of deities who seek to breed a savoir from the blood of an ancient imperial family – just as the demons seek to breed a destroyer from those same bloodlines. The world is full of magic and magical constructs, beasts, wizards, gods and demons (and presumably ordinary people, but we don’t see many of those). There are rival political factions and other complications, but at its heart, Spellwright is a story of good vs. evil with both a prophesied savior and destroyer.

In this Charlton readily embraces many of the common tropes of epic fantasy with only a small shift here and there for variety. Fans and critics are often too quick to praise subversion and condemn use of these tropes. In reality cliché and trope alike exist because they speak to the hopes and desires of people – and while epic fantasy purely derivative of these tropes is simply bad, quality epic fantasy that embraces trope and tells its story well can be great. Spellwright may not be great, but it’s far from bad – and it’s clear that Charlton is a true fan of epic fantasy.

Spellwright is the first book in the Spellwright Trilogy and does not stand on its own. The story arc does come to a resolution of sorts, but it’s not a complete resolution and much more remains to be told. The good news is that Spellwright is full of potential for the remaining books and much is hinted at that could make for an interesting future. However the end of Spellwright drags on much too long. The additional ~15 pages after the main climax reads as part epilogue and part bridge to the next book, but overall feels like a let-down. Spellbound is the next entry in the trilogy, expected in Fall 2010, and the tentatively titled Disjunction should close out the trilogy sometime in 2011 – but I think that we can anticipate much more from the Spellwright world, which has a rich, intriguing history (and presumably future) to be explored.

Spellwright is another 2010 debut that has been getting a fair amount of buzz. Its greatest strength is in the creative magic system that Charlton crafts and homage to a more traditional-feeling epic fantasy. There are a few bumps along the road and larger annoyances, but the overall result is positive and full of potential. 7/10

Related Posts: Blake Charlton Answers Questions Five


MitchellGaston said...

Good review. I have seen this book before in my library, I think I'm going to read it now.

Brett said...

I got it from the library and read it. Not bad for a first time writer, and I'm definitely interested in the rest of the series - I'm going to buy the book.


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