In a world where words can come to life, an inability to spell can be a dangerous thing. And no one knows this better than apprentice wizard Nicodemus Weal.
Nicodemus Weal is a cacographer, unable to reproduce even simple magical texts without ‘misspelling’ – a mistake which can have deadly consequences. He was supposed to be the Halcyon, a magic-user of unsurpassed power, destined to save the world; instead he is restricted to menial tasks, and mocked for his failure to live up to the prophecy.
But not everyone interprets prophecy in the same way. There are some factions who believe a cacographer such as Nicodemus could hold great power – power that might be used as easily for evil as for good. And when two of the wizards closest to Nicodemus are found dead, it becomes clear that some of those factions will stop at nothing to find the apprentice and bend him to their will…
As I’m sure most regular readers know, I’m not really a fantasy kinda guy as science fiction is my preferred reading genre, but every now and then I do like to dip my toes and see what I find. This depends a lot on what I hear about – with everyone always on the lookout for the next big fantasy debut it’s always nice to find one that appeals to me. Spellwright by Blake Charlton fits perfectly into this category and it was the US artwork that originally made me take a closer look. What I found within the pages was a great character driven story with a superbly realised magic system. This delivered in a big way and has set the bar for fantasy books I read this year…
The story follows Nicodemus, a young wizard who is also a cacographer – someone who instantly misspells magical text when he touches them. Living in Starhaven, an old city originally inhabited by the Chthonic people a long time ago but now a magical university for wizards young and old, Nicodemus must struggle through life with the distrust many wizards have of cacographers. When a senior member of Starhaven is murdered, events start to unfold that relate to a prophecy – that of the Halcyon, a wizard of immense power – and Nicodemus’ history relating to this. With evil rising and secrets from the past coming to the fore, Spellwright is much more than you’re average tale of swords and sorcery.
I guess the first place to start with is the magic system. Charlton has created an intricate and masterful system here, with all magic taking the form of written text that can only be written in the muscles (usually the arms) of wizards and then transferred to anything needed. This ranges from gargoyles magically bought to life to spellbooks with vast and powerful spells ready for a wizard to peel off and use when the moment calls. While this system is hugely inventive and allows for so much diversity, it does take a little while to get used to. The intricacies of spellwriting are immense, and with many magical languages in the world – each with different uses – there is so much to get a grasp of, especially in the latter half of the novel.
When you add Nicodemus and his misspelling disability to the mix, Spellwright becomes a very character orientated story. Nicodemus is a nice character to read and is one that lives with his disability and learns to control his cacography as much as possible, but not always to great success, as we discover early in the novel. Despite this he is exceptionally skilled in magical languages and his link to the prophecy is an area many debate about. Nicodemus’ master, Shannon, is the experienced wizard and mentor of the cast and his guidance and council help no end in some of the situation that arise. There are also plenty of other characters that join the story, both for good and bad reasons, but Spellwright is the story of Nicodemus and it hits the right notes because of it.
With a world and magic system as deep and varied as it is in Spellwright there was bound to be some worldbuilding going on. Most of this takes place through descriptive expositions and conversations with characters and is mostly done in a subtle and non-intrusive way. However, the spellwriting explanations do suffer from some info dumping and sometimes feel clunky early on in the story while this system is described. One of the best ways that Charlton does this is when Nicodemus takes a class of new students in his masters absence – this was a joy to read and explained much of the system and history behind the magical languages.
Blake Charlton has written a hugely enjoyable novel in Spellwright – the good guys are good and interesting, the bad guys motivated and mysterious, the magic system is unique and impressive, and most importantly, the characters are relatable and a joy to read. There isn’t much wrong here and Spellwright should be a must read for any genre fan. Highly recommended!