Blake Charlton's Spellwright is a fantastic first novel, set in an intriguing world of magic based on the written word. Charlton uses his own experiences with dyslexia to create a protagonist, Nicodemus, whose learning disability could unmake the world.
Reading Spellwright as a bibliophile is a real treat, and the focus on language, reading, writing and understanding as a wizardly trait is something that seems somewhat new, and honestly, something long overdue in the fantasy realm. Wizards tend to be geeks, and for that reason alone, this book captured my attention through all of its twists and turns.
In Charlton's world, magical training involves the construction of spells, long sentences that have specific meanings and effects. In a way, the system is akin to a sort of programming language, where practical effects are put together by stringing known components into a sentence. In this world, Nicodemus is known as a Cacographer, afflicted by a form of dyslexia that infringes upon his ability to correctly put together spells in ways that will work - oftentimes, his spells will backfire on him, or come out with less than desirable effects, because of a misspelled word or phrase. Charlton's descriptions of the words themselves having meaning is quite powerful. The words become the swords, shields and tools of the wizard craft, and I fell in love with the imagery of wizards hurtling sentences at one another. It's a world that could come out of every sort of Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but a whole lot better.
The worldbuilding in this story is superb. Putting together societies with political, magical and supernatural factions is no easy task, and Charlton does it quite well - while Nicodemus takes the top spot in the book, he's supported by a host of believable secondary characters who come and go throughout. Spellwright shows us just a glimpse of Nicodemus' world, which is enough to leave me wanting a lot more from future installments. In this, Charlton puts together an interesting back story for the reader.
All of this is combined with an intriguing story that blends the history of the world with Nicodemus' own issues learning magic, as he is thrust into a plot orchestrated by ancient forces. In the beginning of the book, a spellcaster is killed, leading authorities to Nicodemus's master, all the while the real killer is out seeking the learner for his own purposes, born out of a much larger storyline that is unraveled over the course of the novel. Nicodemus is placed into the events, where he must overcome his disability and learn the nature of it, all the while trying to determine the issues facing him and how to go about solving all of the problems. In a large way, this book is about brains over brawn, but there are points where the story pulls out the swords for some action. There's a good balance between all the separate elements from the book.
Still, despite all of the good going with this book, there are a couple of things that hold it back from being a great book. At points, there's a lot of repetition in the sentences. There was one page where I counted various characters "whisper[ing]" as they encountered something, and there are points where the story structure follows that same pattern as Nicodemus has visions or dreams about his foe.
Harder still to swallow is the numerous information dumps that happen periodically, as a character uncovers some vital element of the story, and turns to recount it to the other characters nearby. A quote from Pixar's The Incredibles comes to mind: "You almost got me monologuing!" after one particular scene when the villain brags about some of his accomplishments. These elements work fine for the story itself, but as a reader it jars a bit simply because it's the sort of story device that is used ad nauseum, and are elements that break the 'Show, don't tell' rule when it comes to writing.
Finally, the book works really well until the last couple of chapters, where there is a lot of story crammed in. Much of this seems to be setting up the next story, but given the scope of what happens, it seems like it could be an entire novel in and of itself, or at least a good chunk of one, giving this book, in essence, a couple of endings, which is less than satisfying overall.
That being said, it doesn't detract from the book that much. Spellwright is a rich book, one that seems to pack in a lot of story into a mere 350 pages - after reading the entire novel, I could have sworn that I had just gone through a book about twice its length. It gripped me from beginning to end, with its characters, story and world. Charlton's already working on a follow up novel - Spellbound - if one believes the interior text in the front of this book, and I have to say, it can't come soon enough!
REVIEW SUMMARY: An excellent fantasy adventure set in a fantastic world.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Wizard Apprentice Nicodemus had thought to be the prophesied Halcyon, but is afflicted with cacography, which stuns his growth as a magician. When a fellow magician is murdered, a series of events are set into motion that pull Nicodemus and his fellow students and teachers into a conflict far outside of their control.
PROS: Set in a wholly unique and fascinating world of magic and politics.
CONS: Bogged down in clichés and repetition at times.
BOTTOM LINE: A rich book that seems to pack in a lot of story into a mere 350 pages.
This article appeared originally on SF Signal and is © 2010 SF Signal