This could be the poster-child for a book that needs more editing. Spellwright is equal parts complex yet confounding, intriguing yet boring. It simultaneously stokes that fire for fantasy that first launched me into writing my own stories waaay back when I was a wee pre-teen, reminding me of those halcyon days of lying crosswise in an armchair, reading the Belgariad or chunky 600-page Recluce hardbacks, not a care in the world because there was no school and I didn’t have a job. Ahhhh, youth. For that alone I’m indebted to Blake Charlton. But he really does create a cool world here; it’s just that the characters and the story, for the most part, fail to really live up to that potential.
Spells are literally spelled, using runes of various magical languages, composed by wizards within their bodies and sent forth. Spellwright’s protagonist, Nicodemus Weal, shares with Charlton dyslexia. This trait is particularly problematic for wizards, as you might imagine. Not only does Nicodemus struggle with composing more complex spells, but every complex spell that he touches has the potential of being misspelled by his cacography. As a result, Nicodemus is a marginalized, ostracized figure—oh, and if it weren’t for his condition, he was in the running to be this world’s version of the Chosen One. Them’s the breaks. Then a mysterious murder coincides with a political summit, and it seems like all hell is going to break loose. A monster pursues Nicodemus, though it is unaware of Nicodemus’ exact identity. Nicodemus doesn’t know whom he can trust, and it’s all he can do to keep one step ahead of things.
Normally magic systems aren’t going to do it for me. Don’t get me wrong; I like a good magic system as much as the next person. But I’m here for the story. Still, Spellwright’s use of spelling as magic is really good. Charlton takes the standard trope of using magical runes and turns it into something much more creative and fun, and something that links into the story he wants to tell about navigating the world with dyslexia. I appreciate the little details, like how there is a magical language for affecting the physical world (Magnus) and one for thought and ideas (Numinous). Moreover, Charlton has clearly taken the time to figure out how the magical academy should function. Very little about the rest of this world’s political structure is ever explored (it’s implied that wizardry is a heritable trait, though wizards can’t reproduce with one another, and that Nicodemus is minor nobility, but we don’t hear much about society outside of Starhaven). Within Starhaven, however, we get a clear picture of how a magic school would function. Whereas Hogwarts was very focused, of course, on the intricacies of the teaching side, Starhaven showcases how wizardry research would function. I liked seeing the dynamic between Nicodemus and Shannon, Nico and Smallwood, etc.
We spend a lot of time throwing around the term worldbuilding when discussing fantasy. Worldbuilding is not really what I want to praise here. I don’t think Charlton has done a great job building a “world”, because we see or learn about a very small part of it. Yet Charlton has done a good job of building a tiny sliver of a world, and of making me want to see more of this world. He has that skill some writers have of implying a much bigger world without spending too much time talking about it, like if I could just dive into the pages of the book and walk out of the scene I could go off and follow characters who don’t even show up here, find different stories—visit, in other words, an entirely new place. That’s a great thing for a book to do.
Yet Spellwright didn’t quite keep me hooked. This is only a 350-page book, but it took me several days to read it. I could only read a chapter or two at a time, because the prose is just very dense. Whereas in other books a simple conversation would be short, sweet, and then we would move on, Charlton has this habit of wanting to spell out (no pun intended) every little thing. There is a lot of discussion and dithering and exposition in here. And despite both my summary, above, and the summary on the jacket, there is a significant amount of time between the murder at the start of the book and Nicodemus’ direct involvement in the plot. There is a lot of set-up here, for very little payoff, and it’s disappointing.
When we finally do start to get somewhere, the book ends with the typical set-up for a sequel, our protagonist initiated into the mysteries but the final boss battle delayed in favour of existential angst and dread. I guess I should have been careful what I wished for when I started likening Spellwright to my favourite fantasy of days gone by!
I’m also not sure how I feel about Nicodemus as a protagonist. He is an interesting and complex character, I’ll give him that. Charlton does a good job exploring the toll that it must take to go through life with a disability like dyslexia. Not having experienced it myself, I won’t comment on the specifics of the portrayal. But I like that Nicodemus is flawed, quick to judge, and very intrigued by the idea that he can just “fix” himself, even while the support characters constantly point out that he’s fine the way he is and doesn’t need fixing. I’m less enamoured with the fact that we basically have to wait until the next book to see Nicodemus actually grow and change and maybe learn his lesson about that.
Spellwright is one of those books that I find are more fun to think about than actually read, if you know what I mean. I love pondering the magic here, the politics, the world and even the plot. Actually reading the story, though, and experiencing the events at the ponderous and overly-detailed pace set by Charlton, leaves more to be desired. I kind of want to read the sequel—it seems like there’s a new protagonist, or a second protagonist at least, so that could make things interesting—but I’m not sure I’ll make it a priority.