Monday, 17 October 2011

Book Review | Spellbound by Blake Charlton

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Francesca DeVega is a successful healer in the city of Avel, wielding magical text to close wounds and disspell curses, but her life is thrown into chaos when a dead patient suddenly sits up and tells her to run. Now Francesca is in the middle of a game she doesn’t understand, one that ties her to the notorious rogue wizard, Nicodemus Weal, and brings her face to face with demons, demigods, and a man she thought she’d never see again.

It has been ten years since Nicodemus Weal escaped Starhaven Academy, where he was considered disabled and useless... where he battled the demon who stole his birthright and killed his friends. Unable to use the magical languages of his own people, Nico has honed his skills in the dark language of the kobolds, readying himself for his next encounter with the demon. But there are complications: his mentor suffers from an incurable curse, his half-sister's agents are hunting him, and he's still not sure what part Francesca DeVega will play.


In the Acknowledgements appending Spellbound, practicing medical professional and part-time high fantasist Blake Charlton - known in some circles as the nicest man alive - pays tribute to an old adage often heard, and given voice as often, around and about the publishing business:

You have your whole life to write a first novel; for your second, you have a year. So the saying goes. When I first got the wheels turning on Spellbound, I had no idea how one person could possibly produce a second novel ten times faster than the first while simultaneously attempting to grow as an author. I quickly discovered that it was impossible. (p.411)

Charlton of course goes on to doff his hat to any number of folks involved in some way in the enterprise of assisting the composition of this sequel to his deeply endearing if not entirely dazzling debut, but much as I admire the man - and I do (though that is neither here nor there) - closing the book on Spellbound was for me a bittersweet experience, which brought nothing to mind so much as the sentiments the author expresses above. Bitter in that I had found therein, much to my dismay, a muddled, overstuffed narrative not nearly the equal of Charlton's first, despite the author's efforts to extend Spellwright's wonderful little world in a sensible and indeed interesting direction... and sweet inasmuch as, for all its issues, Spellbound is in the end more than the mediocre thing it begins.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Rather than picking up where Spellwright left off - with cacographer and would-be chosen one Nicodemus Weal in the wilds alongside his ailing instructor Agwu Shannon, where they aim to raise an army fluent in Language Prime against the demon Typhon, who will bring about the Disjunction  - Spellbound spins the wheel of time forward a decade, declares in the first chapter a new central character, then spends the longest time explaining what all's changed, which is to say... not a great deal. Still, Charlton manages to mangle the catch-up: intermingling belaboured explanations of the nature of the Disjunction and Language Prime's potential power to disrupt it and so on with meaningful new developments in the larger narrative, overcomplicated in their own way, such that by the time the catch-up - a necessary evil in serial fantasy - was done, I found myself more baffled than I'd begun; uncertain as to which of these things I should remember from before, and which Charlton had just now introduced, that I should not yet expect to understand.

It seems a sort of law, borne of incumbent expectations I don't doubt, that sequels should be - to paraphrase video-game designer Cliff Blezenski - bigger, better and more bad-ass than their predecessors, in every sense. Spellbound is certainly bigger... I'll give it that. But by so blowing out the comfortable niche Spellwright took place in and around - namely the magical academy of Starhaven - Charlton sacrifices a disproportionate amount of what made his debut such a gentle giant in the hopes of embiggening a world already a touch confused, or at least without the binary opposition of black and white fantasy has taught us to expect. Sadly, Spellbound ends up grey all over -- and that's as much a compliment as a criticism, because it's nice to have more than the two dimensions, sure; it's nice, but loyalties are a tricky thing to manage, and never quite sure where to put mine, I ended up feeling like I was treading water for the duration.

Anyway, among those things the author gives up, in order that he may develop this world further, and raise the stakes - because the stakes must ever be raised, right? - are the charm and the essential intimacy of Spellwright; the leisurely but pleasurable way it went about its business; a protagonist whose predicament the reader can in some way sympathise with; and any hope of attracting readers unfamiliar with the first book in the series.

On the other hand, there are dragons, and I'd part with plenty for a few good dragons.

"Oh, it just so happens, maybe you'd like to know that, dragons - funniest thing - are not always flying, fire-breathing storybook monsters. Sometimes dragons are ill-defined embodiments of all things powerful, deadly, possibly imperceptible, and yet really God-ofgods damned deadly." (p.117)

Add to the dragons - and good dragons they are, I do declare - a fascinating new focus for the very meta magic system so many Spellwright readers raved about: medical magic. Here Charlton aligns his fiction with the preoccupations of his other career, giving Spellbound's central character Francesca all the tricks and traits a healer would have in this world of his creation -- just as he imbued Nicodemus with a species of fantasy dyslexia once removed from his own in the first book. And it comes off at least as well; Charlton, needless to say, knows his stuff, and Francesca's medical magic is as relevant to the plot and the action as Nico's cacography ever was.

From the halfway point on, Spellbound tracks an upward trajectory which at times approaches the rather more modest heights Charlton scaled in Spellwright, but I'm afraid my enthusiasm for this ambitious, ultimately unequal sequel had by that stage taken one too many knocks. Overburdened early on by a world that seems suddenly bigger, infinitely more involved than the characterful academy we began in and not at all intuitive, Spellbound puts the reader on the back foot from word one, extends too little into too much, and finds its stride so late in the game that I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly.

I'll be honest: I had a real soft spot for Spellwright, and it got, I think, a raw deal from those critics who talked up its ingenious magic system but dismissed its every other aspect, effectively damning the thing with faint praise. So I had high hopes for Spellbound... hopes that the narrative unfurled at the end of Charlton's charming first flush would spread its wings like a dragon finally taking flight. And at the very end, I dare say it does, resetting the stage with an interesting... addition -- and a not insignificant subtraction, as well. Alas, otherwise, Spellbound seemed to me something of a misspell, with little of the magic that made Spellwright such a pure and simple pleasure. I can only hope the author takes whatever time he needs to doctor the third and final novel in the trilogy into something worthier of his dear debut.


by Blake Charlton

UK Publication: September 2011, Harper Voyager
US Publication: September 2011, Tor

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