Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Book Review: Spellwright by Blake Charlton

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"In a world where words can come to life, an inability to spell can be a dangerous thing. And no one knows this better than apprentice wizard Nicodemus Weal. Nicodemus is a cacographer, unable to reproduce even simple magical texts without 'misspelling' - a mistake which can have deadly consequences. He was supposed to be the Halcyon Nicodemus Weal is a cacographer, unable to reproduce even simple magical texts without 'misspelling' -- a mistake which can have deadly consequences. He was supposed to be the Halcyon, a magic-user of unsurpassed power, destined to save the world; instead he is restricted to menial tasks, and mocked for his failure to live up to the prophecy.

"But not everyone interprets prophecy in the same way. There are some factions who believe a cacographer such as Nicodemus could hold great power -- power that might be used as easily for evil as for good. And when two of the wizards closest to Nicodemus are found dead, it becomes clear that some of those factions will stop at nothing to find the apprentice and bend him to their will!"


Blake Charlton is an author, a medical student and a gentleman; a great guy, by all accounts. But a nice writer doesn't necessarily equate to nice writing. And though the buzz on Spellwright has been positive almost without exception, in truth, pretty much all I'd heard about his debut was that it boasted a brilliant magic system. I mean, that's great. I'm all for inventive new takes on exhausted fantasy staples, but however revolutionary, a magic system does not in itself make a novel worth reading.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I began this deceptively slim volume, the first of an apparent trilogy following the adventures of one Nicodemus Weal. Nicodemus is an orphaned, twenty-something cacographer - which is to say a dyslexic spellwright - studying in a grand academy dating back to a bygone era where young wizards are taken into the tutelage of more experienced magicians. Nicodemus' master, Agwu Shannon, is a blind but brilliant spellwright who oversees all the cacographic students - though he has a soft spot for Nicodemus, who came to Starhaven long ago as a child of prophecy.

But the prophecy didn't pan out; Nicodemus' cacography saw to that. For in the world of Spellwright, language is magic - the written word realised in fantastic form - and the chances of a young student whose corrupting "touch misspells all but simple texts" being the destined Halcyon are slim to none. By all rights, it's more likely that Nicodemus is the Storm Petrel, an anti-Halcyon of sorts, and so when a disturbing number of shocking deaths occur within Starhaven's age-old walls, he and Shannon are the prime suspects.

It took all of a chapter for me to realise that there's a whole lot more to Spellwright than some fancy magic. From the very outset, in fact, which has a "grammarian... choking to death on her own words," Charlton's voice rings out with natural rhythm and striking clarity. Stylistically, he is often alliterative and frequently assonant, conjuring up with each passing page such lavish prose and entertaining exposition to set the scene and animate its various players that it's easy to put aside a passing resemblance to the comparatively humdrum Harry Potter books during the story's early going. If the likes of vermillion and incarnadine skies appeal to you more than a red sunset, trust me: you're going to love this. I certainly did.

As a storyteller, Charlton is no less authoritative. Even when its action - much as its protagonist - is confined to the halls and chambers of the vast academy, the narrative moves along at a refreshingly brisk pace. Discussions between Shannon and Nicodemus and a class that cacographic latter lectures serve to enrich the history and environment of Spellwright without resorting to the tedium of worldbuilding. Conflicts evolve without ever seeming stale while characters develop in unexpected ways; you rarely, if ever, detect the slightest hint of contrivance. Charlton is charming and purposeful, pointed and witty, and the many movements of his tale - not to mention the people and creatures with which it's concerned - follow suit.

Charlton's debut boasts a villainous antagonist to propel Shannon and his potentially prophetic pupil along the thoroughfare of its narrative, but the core conflict at the heart of Spellwright is Nicodemus' struggle against his cacography, and it's an absolute joy to see traditional fantasy tropes reinvigorated by such an innovative spin on a formula that so many authors are content to trot with little more than their name on the front cover to distinguish it from other such efforts. Above all else, above even the magic system - creative and expansive though it surely is - this is a fantasy about language, about its capacity to enfeeble some even as it empowers others, and coming from an author who has struggled against dyslexia his entire life, it positively bleeds authenticity.

Clever, gentle and entertaining from end to end, Blake Charlton's brilliant debut marks the emergence of a persuasive new voice in speculative fiction.  It introduces readers to a spellbinding world replete with lively and likeable characters; its conflicts are enrapturing in their inventiveness; and it breathes new life into a host of tired old tropes - among them, yes, the magic system. You've a hard heart indeed if Spellwright doesn't work its magic on you.


by Blake Charlton
May 2010, Harper Voyager

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  1. I would say that having a 'magic system' is in and of itself a tired old trope as well as an example of the clomping foot of nerdism.

  2. I agree with you for the most part, especially the "gentle" aspect. If anything, the book bordered dangerously on YA.

  3. @Alec – You say that like it's a bad thing....

  4. I agree. It was a very well done book. His writing is top notch. And the magic system was very interesting.