Review of Spellwright by Blake Charleton

September 3, 2011

Spellwright is the debut novel from Blake Charleton and is set in a world where words are magic in a literal as well as metaphorical sense.  It deals with the protagonist's cacography (think dyslexia for the magical language) and his struggles to overcome it and take his place in prophecy.  Nico must learn whether he is the Storm Petrel, destined to change and corrupt language and lead to the demon invasion or the Halcyon, the protector of order in language.

This is my second readthrough of the novel and I'd forgotten just how much fun it is.  The characters are likeable and engaging, the world is believable and there are some amusing scenes such as the Jejunus cursing match.

What I liked:

The magic system: The magic system in this book is well thought out and absolutely fascinating.  The author himself describes it thus:

"Imagine a world in which you could peel written words off a page and make them physically real. You might pick your teeth with a sentence fragment, protect yourself with defensive paragraphs, or thrust a sharply-worded sentence at an enemy’s throat."

In our world, words can create, destroy, heal or wound but only in the most metaphorical manner.  In the world of Spellwright words literally become physical weapons, shields or other artifacts.   Each group of magic wielders has its own unique languages, which they guard jealously from others, and each language has its own unique colour signature and characteristics.

As a former student of languages and linguistics I was especially intrigued by Language Prime. In Charleton's world this is the language of Creation, the language from which all other languages derive.   This reminded me of my studies of language families and proto Indo European, for example, the language "parent" of modern European and Indian languages.  It raises the question for me whether our own world had our own War of Disjunction or if the various languages split over centuries.

I'm not sure that either side of the Halcyon representing linguistic order and stasis or the Storm Petrel as the representative of linguistic error and change are in themselves completely good or bad.   Language is a living, developing entity and needs to change and adapt.  A hundred years ago, in English there were no words for "internet", "computer" or "blog".  Several hundred years ago the word "house" was written "hús."  Are these changes bad?  I don't believe so.   For that reason I feel the Starhaven wizards are misguided to wish to lock their language into stasis.  With the threat of a Pandemonium invasion more than ever they need to be adaptable to change, to evolve; with the strong link between language and society that means their language, too, must change.

Of course, if the Storm Petrel is a Bad Thing because he will mutate language to such an extent and so quickly that basic communication becomes impossible, that is a different matter.  It also has to be said that language has a far greater importance in the world of Spellwright than in our own.  More than a means of communication, it is the basis of the magic upon which their society functions.  Perhaps the coming of the Storm Petrel and the changes in language could be likened to an EMP blast in our world, destroying all electronic devices and communication.

As the Halcyon and Storm Petrel are both within Nico, I suspect his character arc will be about finding balance between stasis and change.
I look forward to reading how this is developed in the forthcoming book.

The worldbuilding: It seems clear that Charleton has spent considerable time creating his world.  Several distinct groupings/races of people are mentioned, each with its own unique customs, language and worldview.  They seem so well-drawn that I can imagine the author has much more information to provide on them in due course.

The magical imagery is absloutely breathtaking: magical words are written in the spellcaster's muscles to become beautiful strings of coloured words and letters before being turned to the use intended.  

The narrative and pacing: For me, this was a real pageturner.  It had a good balance of plot movement, character development and narrative description that kept me wanting to read "just one more chapter."

What I didn't like:

Character development: Several of the protagonists experience life changing events.  Nico learns that his life has been manipulated since before his birth by those seeking to destroy all he holds dear.  Simple John must come to terms with his killing of Devin and the loss of his intellect for so many years.  Deirdre is now forced to serve the demon who masqueraded as her beloved goddess.  The reactions shown seemed to barely reach the surface.  I would have welcomed getting inside these characters' heads just a little more to see how they are dealing with their world's being turned upside down.

Infodumps: There were a few occasions when a significant amount of background information had to be provided, often by the antagonist as the hero was in a tricky spot.  That did come across as Fellwroth's gloating over his briliant plan rather than an attempt to win Nico to his side.  

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