The OF Blog: Blake Charlton, Spellwright

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blake Charlton, Spellwright

Nicodemus closed his eyes and realized that they stung from lack of sleep.  Half an hour had already passed since midnight, and he had to wake with the dawn bell.

He looked at the gargoyle.  "If you let me rejuvenate your energetic prose tonight, I'll find you a modification scroll tomorrow.  Then you can change yourself however you like - wings, claws, whatever."

The textual construct began to climb back toward the table.  "Wonderful, wings from a cacographer.  What good would a scroll written by a retard - " (p. 20)
Before discussing Blake Charlton's debut novel, Spellwright, I want to share a personal story.  During my first year of teaching, in 1999-2000, I had a student in my US Government class who made very poor grades on his exams.  However, unlike most students who made D's or F's, he did not slack off.  He worked hard and was usually one of the best debaters and group participation facilitators in my group.  He knew the material, but yet he failed when it came to reading the questions on the exams and for the occasional essays I would assign.  Luckily, the class he was in was one where half the students were "mainstreamed" special education students, with a special education teacher co-teaching the course with me.  She realized what was going on and got in contact with his parents who had him tested.  Turned out that he had severe dyslexia.

After that, the tests were modified to be where he could respond orally and he was given much more time to complete the exams.  His grades improved to around the 90% mark.  I share this because in reading Charlton's novel, the issue of dyslexia and the profound psychological impacts it can have on a person can be a frightening thing for the person who has this disability.  One might wonder, as my former student did before his diagnosis, whether or not s/he is "retarded."  Things that might appear to be easy for one person can be roadblocks to be navigated around for the dyslexic person.  There might be also the sense that one has to work extra hard, to deny the disability even the tiniest of footholds, lest the constructed self-image of overcoming this obstacle come crashing down.

Nicodemus, the protagonist of Spellwright (the title itself being an internal pun on Nicodemus's inability to spell) is a cacographer.  In a magical land where the "literate" can "spell" magic runes on their bodies and pull them out to use, misspellings alter the fabric of spells.  Those "cursed" individuals who create a cacophony in the midst of the harmonic euphony of the semantic-derived spells are appropriately called cacographers; what they draw, they distort, creating a wild clashing together of symbols that often unweave or alter spells disastrously. 

Nicodemus is more than an ordinary cacographer.  He learns that he was once thought to be the Halcyon, prophesied to save the world from the demonic-led War of Disjunction.  But his dyslexia, represented symbolic by the keloid scars that intersect the prophesied marks of the Halcyon, has rendered that hope futile.  This is an interesting twist on the prophecy-laden quest tales where the Hero discovers s/he is predestined to fight Evil.  In fact, the entire novel could be read as a sort of twisted version of 1980s and 1990s-style epic quest fantasies, with Nicodemus's dyslexia serving not just as a plot device, but also as a metaphor for the types of struggles said heroes experience.

Spellwright, when looked at beyond the fascinating concept of using dyslexia to create new plot tensions, is at its heart a simple tale.  There are forces of good, mysterious arcane forces, and nefarious, menacing forces of evil.  Nicodemus and his mentor, the wizard Shannon, find themselves trying to clear their name after another wizard turns up dead from a misspelling similar to what the cacographers create.  Their search nets them not only the true murderer, but also the source of those keloids that Nicodemus bears and the origin of those mysterious dreams that he has been having lately.

The action unfolds at a brisk pace.  Charlton does not embellish his tale with ornate prose.  The focus is very narrow, centering around Nicodemus and his quest to overcome his dyslexic tendencies and to learn how to master the powerful gifts with which he has been imbued.  There is nothing terribly original in this novel with the exception of the protagonist's burden, but Charlton mixes those epic fantasy staples together well, creating a tale that is enjoyable, with a character whose struggles feel all the more real to those of us who have known people who have battled dyslexia.  Spellwright is not a stand-out debut, but it is a solid story that will appeal to several different audiences.


RobB said...

That is an extremely fair review, Larry. I've been on and off the fence on this once since I received two copies from Tor last week.

This sounds like it could fit the bill for dependable epic fantasy?

Larry said...

Pretty much. It wasn't a story that was going to wow me with its twists, but rather a tale that feels familiar and yet is a decent read because it is told well. Inventiveness and storytelling don't always go together, I've noticed.

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