If you are an aspiring author, we can guarantee you have heard this advice: write what you know. Now granted, for the most part you can come to know most anything via study and research. When it comes to disabilities, however, you simply can’t know unless you’ve experienced it. We use this as a preface to Blake Charlton‘s SPELLWRIGHT (Amazon), because Charlton took that bit of advice and ran with it.
Charlton grew up battling dyslexia and the stereotypes and difficulties that come with that disorder. He channeled that experience into his debut novel, SPELLWRIGHT, and created a magic based on language. Spells need to literally be spelled. His PoV, Nicodemus Weal, has the spark for magic, but is dyslexic (both magically and literally, which in this novel amount to the same thing). The ideas here are absolutely incredible. In most cases, when authors give their PoVs a disability, that disability is just a gimmick. Not so with the characters in SPELLWRIGHT (well, at least for Nicodemus, more on the other characters in a bit). Nicodemus’ inability to “spell” is addressed as cacography, and it is vital to the plot. He may either be a herald of salvation or doom, the majority of the plot revolving around his (and others) attempts to figure out which. Again, the ideas here are great, and the magic system is creative and fitting.
There are a ton of problems with this debut. For many people they may be deal-breakers (especially those of you who would claim to be literary elitists).
The over-arching problem is clarity. From characters, to setting, dream sequences (ESPECIALLY bad and unclear), transitions, to visualizing the magic (at times)… it just lacks the needed clarity that would have pushed this novel into excellence. The characters didn’t grab us at all beyond the main PoV, and not even he was all that gripping (he whines A LOT). His disability was handled well, and made important. But there is also a blind guy. And a seizure girl. And another girl who shouts out “obscenities” (they are lame) almost in parody of Tourette syndrome. Another can only say three phrases. It’s over-kill, and other than the main characters dyslexia, the rest all feel like gimmicks or parodies, and are all basically pointless. There ARE reasons for the disabilities, though the explanations tend to make them even more frustrating and gimmicky.
The setting is mostly in a magic school/academy. Yup, seriously. And there is a prophecy about demons coming to destroy the world. Our main PoV, who is unsure as to his lineage, might be the savior or destroyer. But see, he is conflicted. He just wants to be a normal boy… Get the idea? Yeah, the actual story is pretty cliché. Luckily the magic system isn’t, and really is the saving grace of this novel.
Another issue has to do with how information is presented to the reader. 90% of the time, it comes across in info-dumps layered in page upon page of exposition. 9% of the time we get it via class/teacher lectures (We don’t need anymore school, thank you. We already suffered through the horridly inconsistent Harry Potter novels, and have forked over tens of thousands of dollars for REAL school. Less school, more imagination. kthxbai). What does this do? Well for one, it kills all pacing. There are moments where things start to move along beautifully… only to be undermined by fifteen pages of blatant info-dump. There is one section, approximately half-way through the novel, where we get a long-winded, repetitive conversation (see the numbered list below) mixed with flashes to an action sequence. The action sequence is ruined because if this obvious attempt to break up an extremely boring student/teacher discussion. Yawn. It happens like this.
1) Here is 1 page of plot progression.
2) PoV says, “I don’t understand.”
3) 10 page info-dump explanation.
4) PoV says, “I don’t understand.”
5) Another 10 page info-dump explanation.
6) 1 page plot progression.
You can see where the frustration comes in. Mostly because the actual plot stuff seems like it could be entertaining.
Show vs. Tell. You all know the phrase. SPELLWRIGHT is 1% show and 99% tell. And the telling persists up until the last freaking page. No joke. Perhaps you heard a random scream the other night. That was Steve screaming, “STOP TELLING ME THIS CRAP AND SHOW IT TO ME!!!! FRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKKKKK!” That may or may not be a direct quote.
Nevertheless, there was a lot to enjoy here in spite of the many frustrations. The ideas behind language magic, and the evolution of it throughout the novel are fascinating. SPELLWRIGHT is a confusing novel in terms of “what the heck do we think of it.” The more and more we digested it, we began to think of it in the same vein as the simpler fantasy novels. You know, like from our Fantasy 101 post. Had there not been such a nifty premise with the magic here, we may have put the novel down. However the magic itself, though unclear visually at times, really pushes this novel up several notches. We were very strongly ambivalent towards it. Will we read the follow-ups? Yes. With all the back-story, history and info having been dumped in this first novel, the following novels could be great (if simple) fantasy.
The question is, will you like it? Should you go out and spend the hardcover price on it? We are gonna say that you should borrow it, and decide for yourself. If you are in to the older feeling, simpler written fantasy, then give Blake Charlton’s novel a shot.
- Recommended Age: 12+. Honestly, this could almost have been YA.
- Language: Not really. The made-up "swearing" in the novel feels very forced and mild. Like us saying, "crud." The actual swearing we are used to only happens maybe twice in the novel.
- Violence: Not much. Extremely tame where it actually happens, and pretty random and unclear.
- Sex: No. Some childish discussions. Again, kinda YA.