Author: Blake Charlton
Publication Date: March 2010
Hardcover: 352 pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: I have seen nothing but praise for this debut novel from Blake Charlton, and I was intrigued by the clever, unique magical system and premise of the book.
Young Nicodemus Weal is an intelligent and talented apprentice in the remote academy of Starhaven – a bastard, but of noble birth, Nicodemus bears a remarkable keloid scar on his back that may or may not signify that he is the Halcyon. That is, the child of the Spellwright prophecy that will save human language and the world by teaching greater magical languages and staving off the demon hoard of chaos and disruption.
Except, there’s one small problem.
Nicodemus is a cacographer. He’s undoubtedly sharp and wants nothing more than to fit in and earn the white hood of a magister spellwright, but as a cacographer, any text Nico touches becomes garbled and potentially dangerous. He is not “illiterate” – as those humans who cannot perceive of magic are – and he can form spells and perform magic, but when it comes to executing these magics, Nicodemus cannot help but misspell. Though he and other cacographers are seen as crippled, retarded, and mentally handicapped, Nicodemus has found a mentor in Agwu Shannon – a powerful, old Magister with a controversial past. So, when there’s a death on the academy’s grounds and Shannon and Nicodemus are the main suspects, both spellwrights must discover who – or what – is behind the mounting deaths. And the implications of this creature’s fixation on discovering Nicodemus holds dire implications for his future – and his role in the Spellwright’s prophecy.
Spellwright is the debut novel from the very sharp Blake Charlton, and I have to say that it is quite an impressive one. Though the general setting and plot direction of the novel is nothing remarkable (suggesting more of the same child of the prophecy fulfills his destiny with Glowy Awesome Magic!), the magical system Mr. Charlton has created is nothing short of spectacular. In this strange new world, magic is literally cast by spelling, and I love all the clever little hints and double entendres throughout. “Spellwrights” themselves are the wizards (and it’s interesting that the suffix “-wright” indicates someone that works with spells, but it’s also not spelled “right”), miscast spells are referred to their most literal iteration as they are “misspells.” Heck, even the “Prolog” and “Epilog” are misspelled – another very clever touch for the engaged reader. As for the magic itself, I loved that the system was divided into a different hierarchy of languages and balanced accordingly. The simplest language, Jujunus, can be wielded even by the most distracted cacographer, but in order to learn the higher languages of Numious and Magnus, a spellwright must metaphysically and actually physically combine their bodily strength with written language. It’s a challenging but very rewarding type of magic to read about, and fantasy readers will doubtless joint me in giving author Blake Charlton mad props for this original, incredibly well-realized system.
So if order, language and spelling are so valuable in Mr. Charlton’s world, what does that mean for poor Nicodemus Weal and his ilk? Cacographers suffer from a type of magical dyslexia, though with consequences a tad more drastic than a dyslexic in our own world. Nico’s status as a cacographer is something that drives and defines his character over the course of Spellwright, for though Nico is intelligent and has good standing as Magister Shannon’s apprentice, he is seen by the rest of the world as having some fundamental defect. Nicodemus himself reflects on this constantly; he believes that a part of him is missing, that his brain has been altered, and that a cacographer inherently has something wrong with him. It’s an interesting – and at times, infuriating – perspective. Nico refers to himself in these denigrating terms and has a consuming mission to get that part of himself back so that he can become the Halcyon…but this is one of those self-discovery journeys that I think will unfold nicely in later books as Nico learns to embrace just who and what he truly is.
The other facets of the book are still solid, if somewhat less impressive. Beyond the magical system Mr. Charlton has created, his world feels reminiscent of many a fantasy novel. There are elements of Harry Potter (a much darker, more mature, Harry Potter) here, particularly in an opening Jujunus spelling duel; there are also elements of Robin Hobb (who has a cover blurb for this book), Raymond E. Feist, with even a little Mercedes Lackey in the mix. The point is, it’s all a bit familiar, magic aside. The characters are solidly drawn and I do feel a genuine desire to see Nicodemus succeed, and I’m certain many other readers will feel similarly endeared to this protagonist. In terms of plotting, however, Spellwright is basic. A creature stalks the campus to find the hidden cacographer for its own twisted purposes and frames Magister Shannon for the murders; an incredibly obtuse Sentinel suspects Shannon of all the wrongdoing, and dismisses his stories of a nefarious creature made of clay too outrageous to be true; and of course, the good ol’ “he’s the child that will save the world!” prophecy plays on in the background. And I’m really not a huge fan of prophecy storylines.
That said, Mr. Charlton manages to pull this less-than-scintillating plot together by virtue of his own “spellwrighting” – with his fantastic magical system, and with his strong characters and imaginative voice. Despite my dissatisfaction with a simplistic and at times ill-paced plot, Spellwright is still a damn solid read from beginning to end, and I’ll definitely be around for the sequel.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the “Prolog”:
The grammarian was choking to death on her own words.
And they were long sharp words, written in a magical language and crushed into a small, spiny ball. Her legs faltered. She fell onto her knees.
Cold autumn wind surged across the tower bridge.
The creature standing beside her covered his face with a voluminous white hood. “Censored already?” he rasped. “Disappointing.”
The grammarian fought for breath. Her head felt as light as silk; her vision burned with gaudy color. The familiar world became foreign.
She was kneeling on a stone bridge, seven hundred feet above Starhaven’s walls. Behind her, the academy’s towers stretched into the cold evening sky like a copse of giant trees. At various heights, ribbon- thin bridges spanned the airy gaps between neighboring spires. Before her loomed the dark Pinnacle Mountains.
Dimly, she realized that her confused flight had brought her to the Spindle Bridge.
Her heart began to kick. From here the Spindle Bridge arched a lofty half- mile away from Starhaven to terminate in a mountain’s sheer rock face. It led not to a path or a cave, but to blank stone. It was a bridge to nowhere, offering no chance of rescue or escape.
She tried to scream, but gagged on the words caught in her throat.
To the west, above the coastal plain, the setting sun was staining the sky a molten shade of incarnadine.
The creature robed in white sniffed with disgust. “Pitiful what passes for imaginative prose in this age.” He lifted a pale arm. Two golden sentences glowed within his wrist.
“You are Magistra Nora Finn, Dean of the Drum Tower,” he said. “Do not deny it again, and do not refuse my offer again.” He flicked the glowing sentences into Nora’s chest.
She could do nothing but choke.
“What’s this?” he asked with cold amusement. “Seems my attack stopped that curse in your mouth.” He paused before laughing, low and breathy. “I could make you eat your words.”
Pain ripped down her throat. She tried to gasp.
The creature cocked his head to one side. “But perhaps you’ve changed your mind?”
With five small cracks, the sentences in her throat deconstructed and spilled into her mouth. She fell onto her hands and spat out the silver words. They shattered on the cobblestones. Cold air flooded into her greedy lungs.
You can read the full excerpt online, HERE.
Additional Thoughts: In addition to being a debut fantasy novelist, Blake Charlton is also a med student (at Stanford). While he’s not making the rest of us look like inept slackers, you can catch Blake at his website HERE, and peruse his blog HERE. He also has a free short story up (unrelated to Spellwright) called “Endosymbiont” that’s worth checking out.
Though Mr. Charlton does not have a synopsis or cover art up for the second book in the Spellwright trilogy, he does have two quotations up that hopefully will be epigraphs for this novel:
As for the poem, one dragon, however hot, does not make a summer, or a host; and a man might well exchange for one good dragon what he would not sell for a wilderness. And dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics
Once he is wakened, there is something glorious in the way he manifests himself, a Fourth of July effulgence fire-working its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him. He is at once a stratum of the earth and a streamer in the air, no painted dragon but a figure of real oneiric power, one that can easily survive the prejudices which arise at the very mention of the word “dragon”.
-Seamus Heaney, Introduction to his translation of Beowulf
Verdict: A truly unique and fully-realized magical system sets Spellwright apart from the rabble and distinguishes Blake Charlton as a strong new voice in the fantasy genre. I’ll definitely be back for Spellbound.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: The World Inside by Robert Silverberg
RenayApril 26, 2010 at 2:09 pm
Ha ha, I just mentioned this on a covet post. Now I know I’m not going to be able to resist buying it. I swear I can pin at least a quarter of all my purchases in the last six months squarely on this blog’s shoulders. 😀
KMontApril 26, 2010 at 6:50 pm
This is kind of reminding me of my thoughts on Warbreaker by Sanderson. I didn’t feel the plot or characters were particularly unique, but the way that breathtaking magical system of his saved the day was great. I dunno, it’s a hard choice to make: very cool worldbuilding and/or magic versus characters and/or plot. We all know the ideal, but I’m kind of tempted to check this one out in spite of being a big character-driven reader.
Mamydziecko.ComMarch 10, 2020 at 4:46 pm
What if magic demands absolute accuracy in how your spell out the spells? What if the wizard is dyslexic? An absolutely brilliant debut novel!