Saturday, February 27, 2010

[Review] 'Spellwright' by Blake Charlton

Title: Spellwright
Writer: Blake Charlton
Pages: 352
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Standalone/Series: First in The Spellwright Trilogy
Publisher: Tor Books

Nicodemus is a young, gifted wizard with a problem. Magic in his world requires the caster to create spells by writing out the text . . . but he has always been dyslexic, and thus has trouble casting even the simplest of spells. And his misspells could prove dangerous, even deadly, should he make a mistake in an important incantation.

Yet he has always felt that he is destined to be something more than a failed wizard. When a powerful, ancient evil begins a campaign of murder and disruption, Nicodemus starts to have disturbing dreams that lead him to believe that his misspelling could be the result of a curse. But before he can discover the truth about himself, he is attacked by an evil which has already claimed the lives of fellow wizards and has cast suspicion on his mentor. He must flee for his own life if he’s to find the true villain.

But more is at stake than his abilities. For the evil that has awakened is a power so dread and vast that if unleashed it will destroy Nicodemus... and the world.

‘Spellwright’ and Blake Charlton registered on my radar since August 2009. Given that Aidan from ‘A Dribble of Ink’ spent a series of posts dedicated to this debut’s path to publication, my interest intensified and with each new notification I began to anticipate March and read this book. Quite naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to read a ‘Spellwright’ ARC. I wasn’t disappointed and I am happy to report that the good rep given by several well-known authors is not artificial marketing hype. Quite the opposite. ‘Spellwright’ is my February’s top read and in my list of all-time favorites.

Although fantasy has adopted a violent, gritty mantle with almost irredeemable characters and exploration of the darkness, which lurks in the human soul, ‘Spellwright’ ploughs straight through well trodden paths and will ring a very nostalgic bell. The villains have no qualities to suggest any excuse for their actions and the protagonists are drawn and sworn to subdue the arising chaos. Lives are at stake. The world as it is known is threatened. There is a mission and prophecies, which will be fulfilled by a few destined ones. Sounds familiar in general, but rest assured that clichés associated with these fundamental for the genre tropes are not hiding in between the pages. It’s all a matter of execution and Charlton is a natural. His prose is a rare breed of scholarly sophistication and lyrical streaks, which grabs the mind, ensnares it and makes sure that the reader will keep reading.

The biggest delight in ‘Spellwright’, however, is the magic system. Fantasy without magic as an element would be crippled and in almost every magic system, language and words enable spellcasters to perform miracles or inflict pain. Charlton takes this basic trait of magic a step further and devices a world, where languages hold the power. Wizards are linguists, devoted to their studies. Each language follows a different logic, owns separate syntax, formulas and set of runes and serves a different purpose. So far in ‘Spellwright’ the reader is treated most to Magnus, a language with effects on the material, and Numinous, a language that affects light and energy. However, we are also introduced to other languages with other properties and other dimensions, because each spell must be cast from the spellcaster’s muscles and becomes both visible and corporeal.

With this I am just scratching the surface. There more evolved concepts such as constructs, which are sentient and complex spells with a shape and a function. Durable metaspells and powerful godspells. Quaternary thoughts, which enable a person to think unthinkable thoughts and the potential danger, when handling these languages. Precision and skill are required at all times or otherwise the spellwrights may end up hurting themselves with spells, which have exploded and backfired. There are no inconsistencies within this magic system, which is also a possibility due to the high complexity involved.

As drawbacks here, I would point out that the reader must be patient about explanations, regarding several spells or other ideas as far as magic and the history behind it is concerned. Because the story uses the Starhaven academy and the protagonists are academics, what they narrate about is known to them and unnecessary to explain, when it pops up. I had a few moments, where I had to use the logic within the world to piece what a spell’s purpose was, but explanations were provided at an appropriate moment for their justification. At the same time the reader must be patient with the stage-setting, explanatory paragraphs and the bits and pieces of information until the world becomes familiar enough, so that the action sequences do not raise eyebrows in confusion, when spells start flying around. I personally had no issues with any of this and welcomed the extensive world-building.

‘Spellwright’ is as much scholarly as it is dynamic. However, untypical for epic fantasy, the events in the novel transpire on Starhaven Academy’s grounds. There are no parties with the hard task to travel across the world. Nevertheless Starhaven’s massive size and labyrinthine architecture bring danger and the characters never know what they can expect from the halls and bridges, spanning from tower to tower. Speaking of the characters, I was intrigued by the majority of the characters, primary and secondary alike.

Nicodemius’ struggles with his condition to misspell magic texts are earnest and heartfelt. His soul is torn between the reality he has known that he is a retard in a world, where literacy is supreme, and the hope that perhaps he is not supposed to be cacographic, but whole. Normal and capable, not powerless. Not someone, who people look down upon. To a level everybody can relate to such an emotional turmoil and since Charlton himself is a dyslexic, the internal conflict about one’s worth packs a bigger punch, because it has been written by someone, who has first-hand experience. However, Nicodemius would not be as intriguing, if it were not for the blind Magister Agwu Shannon with a violent political past and his construct bird Azure, Amadi and her intrusive and authoritarian persona, Deirdre and her devotion and selflessness in order to please her goddess, Fellworth and his nefarious schemes, etc.

Perhaps, my only issue with ‘Spellwright’ is how the novel ended. While the culmination was spectacular and rich in revelations that foreshadow events to come, I would have preferred the novel ended there, while I was still high on the adrenaline and my interest was in my highest. However, the story continues well past that, covering Nicodemius’ training for the upcoming battles, which will define the world’s fate. I feel that this would have better fitted the sequel ‘Spellbound’, because it suggests a buildup for a new adventure.

Verdict: [A++] I am quite biased, when talking about this book. It appealed to me on so many levels to a point, where even if there are serious issues with ‘Spellwright’, I would never spot them. Charlton has converted a life-long fan in me and I am recommending ‘Spellwright’ left and right to everyone. Certainly a superior book and a promising debut, which most likely will result in a healthy and long-lived career.


ediFanoB said...

Well done Harry! Welcome to the club of SPELLWRIGHT lovers.

More and more reviews are popping up.
And every review emphasize the extraordinary magic system. I did the same in my review of SPELLWRIGHT

Harry Markov said...

It is an extraordinary novel, that one. I am just loving it to pieces.

I cannot imagine what the next installment will hold apart from what was mentioned in the interview.

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