Book Review: Spellwright – Blake Charlton
Nicodemus Weal has trained at the stronghold of Starhaven since he was a boy. His mentor, the famous wizard Magister Shannon, taught him how to cast spells made from luminescent magical runes, how to peel written words off a page and make them physically real. Initially, Nicodemus showed great promise. Able to forge runes with great speed, he was once thought to be the Halcyon- a powerful spellwright prophesied to prevent the apocalypse known as the Disjunction.
There was only one problem: Nicodemus couldn’t spell. Every time he touched a magical text, he unintentionally corrupted it, creating a dangerous, potentially deadly misspell. Now aged twenty-five, while his peers advance as wizards, he is still an apprentice, dealing with the devastating knowledge that he has failed to live up to prophecy.
But not everyone interprets prophecy in the same way. There are factions who believe someone like Nicodemus could hold great power – power that might be used as easily for evil as for good. And when two of the wizards closer 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.
Usually when I get a book one of the first things I do is flip to the back and read the author blurb. I’m not sure why. Call it a sick fascination. Anyway, I read Blake Charlton’s blurb and my immediate thought was some perverted hope that the man would be bad at something. He’s a Yale grad and currently working his way through medical school. He tutors people, helps those with learning disabilities, coaches just about every sport known to man; I mean, come on! On top of it all he’s one hell of a nice guy. However, all of this is tempered by the fact that he obviously struggled very hard growing up to master his dyslexia and thus, deserves the rewards he has gained through his hard work. And this, in fact, plays a huge part in the book Spellwright.
It’s obvious that Charlton is a student of the eighties to nineties (depending on who you ask) fantasy novels where the good guys were good, wizards had long beards, the bad guys were bad, and mysterious prophecies are mentioned. While my interests tend to sway toward more gray area books, this book was a comforting read where all the typical fantasy tropes were marched out in new, interesting and refreshing ways.
It’s the magic system that makes the book, however. Spellwright is based on the art and magic of language. Being an obsessive reader, I instinctively appreciate this and feel a connection to the whole premise of the thing. Furthermore, I really enjoyed his addition of gargoyles to the plot. They were unexpected and continually made me think, “That’s really clever” when I read anything about them. While I think Charlton should be noted, and recognized for creating a magic system based purely on language, it also causes the reader to be far more focused on the language he uses to tell his tale. This is both a good and bad thing.
Charlton’s writing is strong. He’s descriptive where it counts without swimming in flowery prose. His characters are well fleshed out and there are some interesting supporting characters which pepper the novel with some color and diversity. The problem with such a strong focus on language, however, is that small things tend to stand out more. At times, the question-answer style dialogue seemed a bit stilted. There was a few info-dumps which seemed to cause a plot lag and a lot of background information to sift through and internalize. Furthermore, the magic system is fairly complex and required quite a bit of my brain capacity to sort through it all and keep it straight.
However, that’s not all bad. Many authors info-dump, and in a book like Spellwright, I honestly don’t know how he could have managed pulling the book off without a few info-dumps. He gets a gold star for making those sessions interesting. Examples would be when Nicodemus was teaching a class, or making the tales told by Magister Shannon interesting enough, and important enough to make even me read every line (everyone raise your hand who is guilty of skipping over info dumps! Sarah raises her hand).
If you read this book remembering that it’s the first book in a series, and fairly short at that, many of these issues I’ve listed can be largely overlooked. Charlton needs this book to develop his world, construct his characters, build a complex magic system and set up a well-ordered history. The 350ish pages mean all that has to happen much faster than it otherwise would. This, in turn, makes all of this stand out more than it would in a book that is longer thanSpellwright. It is quite a feat he has undertaken in these few pages, and he manages it masterfully.
There is quite a bit packed into this book. Spellwright started out as a sort of murder mystery that evolved quickly into something much greater and wider scoped. Charlton keeps his pace fairly breakneck, despite some slow moments I mentioned above. He excels at slowly unveiling layers of his world and subtly building it up along with the expanding plot. Because of this, the world, magic, characters and plot all seem to click together nicely and seem incredibly realistic when put in context with each other. Charlton quickly seems to find his literary stride as the book becomes a bit more complex, which makes the reading, as a whole, a more enjoyable experience.
This is one of those rare books where it’s obvious that the author has poured a lot of himself into it, from the cacographic (dyslexic) students, to the passion for education and the wonder of the world as a whole. Anyone who has struggled to overcome something as profoundly life altering as the disability Charlton, and his protagonist, suffer from will find a sort of empathy and empowerment from this novel as Nicodemus, much like Charlton, has managed to rise above that which has kept him bound in the past.
Despite its flaws, Spellwright is a satisfying, comforting addition to classic fantasy, which has seemed to be a “sub genre” that has been dying off in favor of the gritty, gray books I so love. Charlton’s book will do a good job at breathing fresh air into classic fantasy tropes. This book has attracted a lot of attention, making many speculative fiction readers lists of “best new fantasy debuts” and there’re good reasons why.
Personally, I feel as though many of the issues I have mentioned above will be ironed out by time and practice. My only true regret is that I wish Charlton had taken a few more risks with his plot and characters. While they are comforting and very well done, the book as a whole seemed to lack an edge I really wished it contained. However, perhaps because of that edge I just spoke of, this book can appeal to a much larger audience than it otherwise would, making it a good YA crossover. Spellwright is a book to look out for and I eagerly await the next addition to the series.
As an aside, thanks to the author for sending me an autographed review copy.
You can discuss this book and author with our community in the forum here!