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Book Review: Spellwright by Blake Charlton

# Genre: Epic Fantasy
# Hardcover: 352 pages
# Publisher: Tor Books
# Publication Date: March 2, 2010
# ISBN-10: 0765317273
# ISBN-13: 978-0765317278
# Author’s Website: Blake Charlton

Blake Charlton’s novel writing career starts off with a bang in Spellwright. A complicated magic system, a large secondary world, and a tale of academic intrigue, murder and prophecy might seem more than a freshman novelist might be able to handle, but Charlton does so with aplomb.

The story revolves around Nicodemus Weal, a bastard son of a nobleman who has been taken into the Drum Tower, a special place in the academic city of Starhaven where magic wielding individuals with disabilities reside. Known as cacographers, these individuals are unable to touch a text without rearranging its letters, turning seemingly simple sentences into a garbled mush. In a world where magic must be written in the muscles before it can be cast, this is a significant disability, one which only a few learn to cope with. Nicodemus, before his disability was discovered, was once thought to be the Halcyon, an individual who would stand for order against the chaos brought on by demons and the War of Disjunction. But his cacography makes that impossible. Yet there is a theory of a counter Halcyon, the Storm Petrel, and it may very well be that Nicodemus is the man who was born to serve chaos. In his quest to discover the truth, Nicodemus is aided by his kindly tutor Agwu Shannon, Simple John – who can only pronounce three phrases, and Deidre – a druid whose motives are not entirely clear.

Charlton’s writing style takes a little getting used to. Charlton is himself a dyslexic, a person whose mind causes them to misspell words when written, even when they intellectually know the correct form. His term “cacography” is not made up for this novel, but is a real word that means poor handwriting or spelling, an all too common affliction as English and other languages get more and more complex, education is unable to serve their needs properly, and more and more individuals are correctly diagnosed.

Charlton’s prose was a little stilted at first, and he tends towards the prescriptive rather than the descriptive. Much of the dialogue reads like a bout of the Socratic Method, where one character asks a question, and then another responds with the answer, usually having to do with the history of the world in which Nicodemus resides. So while Charlton avoids creating a massive information dump, the narrative, at times, reads like it is one 350 page information dump, as bits and pieces of information are added to the story so often in this way that it becomes obvious what Charlton is doing.
That being said, the story is by no means slow-moving. Charlton keeps the narrative flowing. A murder, an accusation, an infestation of bookworms, and an appearance of a heretofore unknown creature, all rivet the mind of the reader. Careful reading is required, as the magic system based on human understanding of how people process words is quite complex and requires reader’s full attention to follow.

The magic system is perhaps the best part of this novel. As a teacher of English myself, I can appreciate that before Spellwright, many of the wizardly magic systems of other fantasies lacked a true understanding of how words work. (Though to be fair, their intent is different from Charlton’s.) Charlton, a former teacher and a person that has struggled with words all his life, understands the complexity of language, an understanding that shines forth in the convolution of his magic system. I especially enjoyed the scene where Nicodemus teaches composition to a room full of students (don’t groan, it isn’t boring, and besides – it is short). Charlton understands what it is to teach, and what it is to care about a student’s success. As a teacher, this particular scene will likely remain one of my favorites of all fantasy fiction.

In reading Spellwright an interesting comparison comes to mind. Years ago, architect Norton Juster wrote a novel for children called The Phantom Tollbooth. In it, Juster wrote a tale worthy of Lewis Carroll that plays with words and numbers in a way that still entertains children today. In fact, versions of the story are found in many school textbooks. Like Juster, Charlton is obsessed with words, and he takes them seriously enough to make them the crux of his novel. Though Spellwright has too many adult themes (and an adult protagonist) to be used in the classroom, it too will likely resonate with older students, especially those who may have struggled with language all their lives. I wish that Charlton would write a novel of this type aimed at the younger set, a book more Rick Riordan than Robert Jordan, but a writer must write what story he has.

I like Spellwright but I don’t love Spellwright. The complexity of the magic system got confusing after too many additions, and the question and answer style of the dialogue made it seem wooden. There is a lot of backstory in this novel (and it is important, as several key plot developments hinge on it), but at times the backstory overwhelmed the primary narrative. I lost the character of Nicodemus in the building of the world and magic system, and so though I pitied him and his cacography, I didn’t invest in him as much as I wished.

Spellwright is a fairly good debut novel and well-worth reading. It is a creative addition to the traditional epic fantasy canon, but its writing shows that its author is new to the novel form, and one hopes that the sequel will smooth out some of the rough edges of the writing.