Review: Spellwright

Spellwright by Blake Charlton

I’ve been wanting to read Spellwright for quite some time because I found the premise—dyslexic wizard—to be fresh and unique. I eyed it in the new fiction shelf at my library for quite some time, until I had a free slot for a fantasy book in my reading schedule. After Zombie Spaceship Wasteland gave me such mixed feelings, I really wanted Spellwright to be something special… but, alas, it was not to be.

Spellwright takes place in a fantasy world where words are literally magic—different classes of magicians use different magical languages to cast spells to change the world around them. Nicodemus is the young apprentice of the famed spellwright Agwu Shannon, and practically doomed to be so forever—once believed to be the savior of prophecy known as the Halycon, Nicodemus’ dyslexia as manifested in his cacography has ruined any chance of him becoming anything more than a lesser wizard. But when a grammarian turns up dead and different factions descend on Starhaven for a treaty, Nicodemus discovers that he will play a much larger role in coming events than he thought.

Spellwright’s main attraction is its unique magic system. It’s fun to see how words can be used magically—I was especially taken with how magical constructs are essentially coded into being. It allows Charlton to explore both the poetry and functionality of language. And Nicodemus’ conflict with the world around him is a refreshingly organic one; he cannot spell properly, which makes him both useless and dangerous. In fact, I was delighted to find that most of the main cast is disabled in some way; Nicodemus is dyslexic, Shannon is blind, and Deirdre, a mysterious druid, is epileptic. These are people who have to find alternate ways of negotiating with the world around them. I’m always looking for interesting new angles in fantasy; much as I do love settling into a standard fantasy story, I always want more, and Spellwright had great promise… that it didn’t fulfill.

You see, there’s a lot of work that has to go into such a complex magic system—I can only imagine how much time it takes Brandon Sanderson, the undisputed modern king of unique magic systems, to design one. But where Sanderson and Charlton differ is that Sanderson works in the necessary exposition to explain his magic system organically. For instance, in the first installment of Mistborn, Vin is completely ignorant of how allomancy works and must be taught it. But Charlton doesn’t have this excuse; Nicodemus is in his twenties and, for the most part, knows what he’s doing. This leads to a lot of characters telling each things that should be obvious to them. This unnecessary exposition comes at the cost of the characters; forced to perform like this, they suffer. Nicodemus was a fine enough hero, although his motivation seemed poorly developed, and I enjoyed Shannon, but otherwise, the cast seemed more like puppets and less like characters.

But I can get through poor exposition if there’s a good story—and there is one, in Spellwright, about politics and prophecy. Unfortunately, the pacing of the novel prevent it from ever surfacing properly. The inciting incident that gets Nicodemus finally out of Starhaven and into the world occurs halfway into the book, leaving me to wonder why we spent so much time there. (Upon further review, I’ve concluded it was the magic system.) The pace then speeds up, whipping us through a (to be totally fair) interesting and thrilling climax that sets up the series. But then it takes an unexpected turn—after a scene ripe for the book to end, Charlton takes us into a compressed training section that illustrates why “show, don’t tell” is a maxim for fiction. Plenty of interesting things happen over a long period of time in this section, including what appears to be the kobold Olympics, but Charlton breezes over it in about fifteen pages with barely any dialogue. It’s just bizarre, and feels more like it should fit into the next book in its entirety, not here in its Cliff Notes form.

Ultimately, I’m just disappointed with Spellwright. I’d heard such good things about it and to find out it was a prime example of what not to do with the first installment of a fantasy series was saddening, especially given the promise it had. Sigh.

Bottom line: Spellwright undercuts its interesting premise—dyslexic wizard in a world where words are literally magic—with mounds of unnecessary and out-of-character exposition and severe pacing problems. Ultimately disappointing.

I rented this book from the public library.

3 thoughts on “Review: Spellwright

  1. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Dragon*Con 2011 — “TOR Upfront” « The Literary Omnivore

  2. Finally! Feels like I have been searching all night for a less than stellar review for this book. Had the author taken the book in a different direction, going for a sparse writing style that eschewed excessive detail, explaining everything to death, and relying on an absurd amount of infodumps, the book could have been such a strange, interesting, and imaginative novel. Instead we get a book stripped of mystery that hearkens back to the simplistic, archetypal fantasy of the eighties and nineties, but fails to tap into the vein of nostalgia that makes even the worst things seem better.

    A shame, really.

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