I happened upon Spellwright by chance: usually I choose my own reads, drawn to them like a magpie (though they don’t have to be shiny), but this time my brother presented Spellwright to me, saying I’d ‘probably like it’ and that it ‘looked good on Amazon’. That, and the cover was ‘cool’. A fellow fantasy reader, and knowing he usually chooses good reads (when he doesn’t simply follow my recommendations), I knew I’d not be disappointed.
And I wasn’t.
I’ll start by saying it is an stunning début.
Whilst Spellwright isn’t a recent read for me (I read it when it was released) it is very fresh in my mind because of its sheer excellence. Spellwright marries pure originality with familiar fantasy in a way that revives the old cliches and remakes them, elevating the story to something actually unusual and intriguing in its concept. Reading it feels like going home after a long year at university: the house is the same and your friends are there to greet you—there’s a magic school, mages, dark prophecies and conflicting factions—but your parents have emptied your room and installed a sauna—there are ‘disabled’ mages, the proverbial pen is literally mightier than the sword, and the hero is anything but strong, brave and able; on the contrary, Nicodemus is disabled.
A cacographer, Nicodemus is essentially magically dyslexic in that he misspells magical texts, sometimes with great consequences. As such he’s considered dumb, and is prevented from continuing his study in the usual way. He’s even dumped in special quarters with other such cacographers. This is a fantastic autobiographical trait that at once allows Blake Charlton to offer a view of dyslexia on his own terms, whilst casting an interesting protagonist who is deemed little more than stupid by most, dangerous by some.
But there’s more to Nicodemus. Once considered to be part of a great prophecy, Nicodemus was expected to be the Halcyon, and he even bears a mark on his back that would label him as this thing of prophecy. However, when his disability surfaced, the grand notion of his destiny was shattered and a darker destiny became suspected. There are two prophecies: one paints the image of the Halycon; a great and powerful mage whose appearance would be a blessed thing. The other speaks of the Storm Petrel; the anti-Halycon who will bring about destruction and devastation throughout the magical world.
It is inevitable that Nicodemus will be fought over by followers of both prophecies.
But in the meantime he remains at the magic school. Tutored by Agwu Shannon—whose fondness for Nicodemus sees past his cacography—his studies do progress and he indeed learns. Nicodemus is by no means thick-headed; he merely cannot spell. However, when forced to leave the magic school after things turn sour and happening upon a magical text he seems able to touch with no consequence, he begins to wonder if it isn’t simply the illogically structured languages he’s forced to attempt to spellwright in that he doesn’t understand.
Though there’s little time for Nicodemus to explore this: change is coming and the whole world around him at the school believes he is at the heart of it. For good or ill.
Hope remains in the notion that his cacography is not innate, rather, inflicted. Terrified of being the Storm Petrel, he clings to the idea that if his disability was inflicted, he might still become the Halycon.
A lot happens in Spellwright and much of it transpires at the magic school. In fact, if this were a movie, there would be few locations of note. That in part adds a close familiarity to the story; you feel immersed in Nicodemus’ world just as he is. The pacing is excellent and whilst there is never a dull moment, there is not so much action in one small corner of the world that it feels rushed, contrived or staged.
Blake Charlton’s writing is superb. He weaves a magically compelling tale that clearly sits close to his heart—and subsequently close to the hearts of those who merely allow themselves to step into his and Nicodemus’ world. Original, intriguing and absolutely riveting, Spellwright offers old fantasy dressed in the latest clothes and taken out for dinner.
Anyone who enjoys fantasy should read this book because there’s literally nothing to dislike. The characters are well-written and despite the age-old setting there are no clichés lurking in the eaves. Spellwright left me wanting more, and I eagerly await the release of the sequel Spellbound later this year (August 4th 2011).
At the heart of Spellwright is a message: classic fantasy will never die, so long as it’s not buried, and merely resurrected instead.