Thursday, August 16, 2012
Spellwright, by Blake Charlton
The story follows a series of events centered around Nicodemus Weal, an apprentice wizard at Starhaven, one of the academies of magic in Charlton's world. Magic is divided into a series of languages that only a select number of people see, and even then these spellwrights have to be taught the language's vocabulary and grammar to be able to see the language. Basically a spell consists of paragraphs of text of the magical language it's written in and if, for example, you wanted to make a magical wall you'd craft the wall out of paragraphs of the magical text. However people who didn't know the language you were using would run into the magical wall but wouldn't be able to see the text it's made of. Overall I thought it was an interesting idea and a novel take on magic.
The reason I explained how magic works in Spellwright is because Nicodemus is a cacographer, someone whose touch can gradually corrupt and misspell magical text. Now this may not seem a big deal but when a misspell can potentially explode in your face it can be downright dangerous to be a cacographer. In addition to their more fantastic abilities, cacographers are what we'd call dyslexic and very often don't even realize when they're misspelling words, even mundane ones. The author himself is dyslexic and it offered an interesting view into how hard it can be for someone with dyslexia in our text-driven world. Unfortunately this is where my problems also began with the book. (Sorry, spoilers.)
Basically when Nicodemus was a child his parents "gave" him his cacography through a magical artifact. If Nicodemus is holding the artifact then he can cast spells with absolute precision, but without it he has a very good chance of misspelling by accident or his touch corrupting the spell he's casting. The major problem I have with this is that Nicodemus becomes obsessed with retrieving the artifact and "completing" himself, even though there are plenty of cacographers who were just born that way and have no convenient artifact to "cure" them. Nicodemus himself, among other characters, state that there's nothing wrong with being a cacographer and they should use their disability to become stronger rather than be discouraged. Nicodemus even calls himself a hypocrite for telling other cacographers to accept who they are while searching for his own magic cure and it becomes very hard to sympathize with him. By the end of the book I seriously want to punch him a couple of times.
Another problem I had with the book, and this kind of extends to other fantasy novels as well, is how generic it was in some respects. Yeah, Charlton added his own elements, but the story's still about a chosen one who was in a couple of vague prophecies and will be instrumental in saving the world from a demon apocalypse. It's a fantasy trope that's been used time and time again and is just as worn out as the team of heroes going on a quest related to a magical artifact. In many respects Spellwright does not bring anything new to the table and suffers as a result.
Overall, I'd say it's an okay book, just somewhat poorly executed. Considering that this is Charlton's first book it definitely shows room for improvement and I hope that Charlton's later books get better as he continues to hone his skill. My final big issue, though, is that Spellwright is the first of a series of books that Charlton is planning on writing, although I have no idea where the series will end. And this is where Kalpar gives his unsolicited advice for aspiring authors.
"But Kalpar!" my readers are probably saying, "You yourself couldn't write a book to save your life! What gives you the right to give advice on something you yourself cannot and have not done?" Well, listen, I've read several books that were the first book by the author and were also the first of a series and here's what I noticed. Some of those books were bad, some were okay, but none of them were great. Your first book is going to be rough around the edges because you're still developing as an author and finding your voice. Even with my favorite author ever, Terry Pratchett, his first Discworld book The Colour of Magic is kind of rough in places. If the first book of your epic fantasy series still has that sort of unfinished character, then some readers may not be interested in finding out what happens with the rest of the series. So my advice is this: for your first book, just have some fun. Find an idea you like and run with it, don't worry about making a huge series. Develop your voice as a writer and then write your epic fantasy series. Maybe I'm just full of hot air but I definitely feel that it might help a few authors.
For a first book, Spellwright is fairly good, although I really hope Charlton addresses Nicodemus's hypocrisy in future books. If any of the concepts sounded interesting or you like mysteries then feel free to peruse it but be aware of its heavy use of tropes.