Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book Review: Spellwright by Blake Charlton

Blake Charlton's debut novel, Spellwright, is a mixed bag, with some particularly strong points to be found in its characterization and its heavy, almost hard fantasy focus on an often ridiculed method of producing magic: language. While the novel is not without flaws, Charlton makes up for it with strong action sequences that often result in a little of the gosh-wow that many have argued is sorely missing from fantasy's cousin, science fiction. Spellwright follows Nicodemus Weal, a wizard in training at an academy. He was once considered to be the Halcyon, a mythical figure prophesied to return to stop the Disjunction--a battle against the demons of the old world from across the ocean. The only problem is that Nicodemus is a cacographer, whose dangerous misspells of common languages makes him potentially dangerous to any other magic user. His cacography makes him anything but the "one." When a grand wizard at the academy is killed by a powerful misspell, Nicodemus and his teacher, Shannon, are the prime suspects. And as politics and prejudice play out in the academy, something with intimate ties to the forgotten, blasphemous magical languages from the old world sets a plan in motion that could destroy the academy and bring about the Disjunction, an event the Nicodemus will be a part of, whether he wants to be or not. What sets Charlton's novel apart from other fantasy works is its magic system. Firmly rooted in the author's dyslexic past, the magic system of Spellwright avoids spoken language and instead places all of the power in the written word. Spells have to literally be written within the body and then passed down through the arms to be cast. Likewise, you have to know the language(s) to be able to use them effectively (and there are many languages). The great part about this is that it creates a lot of fantastic limitations: particularly large and powerful spells take a long time to cast, not knowing how to spell properly can be unintentionally deadly, as is the case with Nicodemus, and magical languages become protected entities from other groups, because without knowing a particular language, you can't see or cast against it. Taking a detour from the magic, I think it's important to note that the characterization in Spellwright, while not as well-developed as I would have liked, does show a lot of promise. The fact that the main character and Charlton share a common origin shouldn't be misconstrued as a kind of Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, since Charlton is a man), but instead seen for what it is: an intimate portrayal of a character with a mental disability who must battle against a world that views him not as a person with some value, but as kind of disease. Nicodemus is not difficult to like. His struggles, motivations, and outbursts all make sense. I suspect that many will identify with Nicodemus, even if they have no disabilities (for lack of a better word) themselves; we can empathize with people who have been ostracized for one reason or another. To be critical for a moment, I do think that the characterization that exploded in the last third of the novel should have come more gradually throughout. The ending does feel somewhat rushed in terms of the characters, and it would make more sense for them to develop less abruptly. The action, however, will likely be seen as the novel's strongest point. It becomes clear early on that Charlton has thought through how his wizards will fight. A standard wizardly slug match where users just toss fireballs and the like at one another won't do, namely because spells that can do the most damage can't generally be put together on the fly (though some can). We see only a glimpse of the potential in Charlton's magic as a combat system, because the novel itself is not set within the Disjunction, but in a somewhat peaceful time. That glimpse is enough, though. The fights are exciting, the magic equally so, and all the creations that come as a result make for a very fast-paced book. The novel's weaknesses seem to be more within the realm of continuity and genre trappings than anything else. The magic system, while unique and quite intriguing, often isn't set in stone. For example, it's mentioned numerous times that characters cannot spellwright within the walls of the academy, and yet we see numerous characters do just that. Either I missed something, or the author didn't make it clear enough that he meant only certain characters (or something else). Finally, while I understand that fantasy is often repetitive, I have to wonder when we're going to see enough of this prophesy business. I like Charlton's novel, but the prophesy subplot plays a crucial role in the overall story, and I feel as though this takes away from the potential of the novel. Here is a book that has a great magic system, an interesting past, and interesting "races," yet it finds itself stuck using the all-too-familiar furniture of a genre burdened with familiar furniture. Prophesies are sort of like the cheap bookshelves you get at Walmart: a lot of people have them, and they're all the same--cheap, colorless, and weak. Move away from prophesy. We need more characters who rise up to the occasion on their own, without prompting from people who think they are something else. There's nothing heroic about someone fulfilling their destiny; it's just...expected. Spellwright's prophesy subplot does have a twist in it and much of the novel is spent dispelling the belief that Nicodemus is the Halycon, but the prophesy bit is still there in the background. Fantasy has sort of built up its foundations on recycled themes, and it continues to do so, because that's sort of how it's done; some of these themes, I think, should simply disappear. But moving away from that, I'll try to get back on a positive note, because I don't think it's fair to point all the fingers at Charlton, or to try to take away from what works in the novel. Charlton has a lot of potential. He could take the concepts of his novel very far: so much can be done with the cacography and all the unique languages he has created for his magic system. If he keeps pressing the details in his future novels, I think he'll become a strong player in the fantasy realm. Right now, Spellwright is fun, unique, and engaging, despite being a tad cliche. Hopefully we'll seem some improvement in the second book. You can find out more about Blake Charlton at his website. Spellwright is available at Tor, Amazon, and anywhere else you go to find your books. P.S.: Originally I was going to say I was upset with the ending, but I just discovered that there are more novels in this series, which alleviates all of my concerns. The series looks to be a trilogy at this point.

3 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I've read a couple of books or stories in which magic was focused into written language. Kind of neat idea but it seems like it would strongly limit plot possibilities.

SQT said...

How funny, I was about 3/4 of the way through this before having to set it aside. I've been meaning to go back and finish it for the review-- but you beat me to it. Which is great!

Totally agree with your assessment-- from what I had read. The magic system was interesting but a bit overdone. At a certain point you say Okay, okay I get it and you're ready for him to back off a bit. But it's generally a good book.

S.M.D. said...

SQT: I think it does take a little too long to get into the meat of things too. The magic is really nifty, though; I just wish he'd kept it consistent and that he pulled away from the trappings of fantasy that have, in my opinion, made the genre less relevant than science fiction. There's only so much you can say about carbon-copy feudalism and prophecies and so on.

But, there are moments where his explanation does get away form him. I agree with you there. There's definitely potential, though.