fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Blake Charlton SpellboundSpellbound by Blake Charlton

PLOT SUMMARY: In a world where one’s magical prowess is determined by one’s skill with words and ability to spell, Francesca DeVega is a gifted healer in the city of Avel, composing magical sentences that close wounds and disspell curses. Her life is suddenly thrown into chaos when a newly dead patient sits up and tells her that she must flee the infirmary or face a fate worse than death. Now Francesca is in the middle of a game she doesn’t understand — one that ties her to the notorious rogue wizard Nicodemus Weal and brings her face-to-face with demons, demigods, and a man she hoped never to see again.

Meanwhile, it has been ten years since Nicodemus Weal escaped the Starhaven Academy, where he was considered disabled and useless because of a disease that causes him to misspell magical texts. Ten years since he battled the demon Typhon who stole his birthright and murdered his friends. Unable to use the magical languages of his own people, Nico has honed his skills in the dark Chthonic languages, readying himself for his next encounter with the demon. But there are complications: his mentor suffers from an incurable curse, his half-sister’s agents are hunting him, and he’s still not sure what part Francesca DeVega will play. He certainly doesn’t know what to make of Francesca herself.

Now, as Nico tries to thwart the demon’s plan and save his friends, he realizes that if he makes one wrong move, he could end up destroying all mortal life…

CLASSIFICATION: THE SPELLWRIGHT TRILOGY is epic fantasy in the vein of Brandon Sanderson, while also containing elements of Ken ScholesPSALMS OF ISAAK series and Sean McMullen’s THE MOONWORLDS SAGA.

FORMAT/INFO: Spellbound is 416 pages long divided over a Prolog, fifty-two numbered chapters, and an Epilog. Also includes a map of the Six Human Kingdoms and the city of Avel. Narration is in the third-person via Nicodemus Weal, Francesca DeVega, Agwu Shannon’s ghost, Deirdre, Cyrus Alarcon, and Magistra Vivian Niyol. Spellbound is the second volume in THE SPELLWRIGHT TRILOGY after Spellwright. Most of the book’s major plotlines are satisfactorily concluded, while the closing chapters and Epilog set up events for Spellbreaker, the trilogy’s final volume.

September 13, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Spellbound via Tor. Cover art is provided by Todd Lockwood. The UK edition will be published on September 29, 2011 via Harper Voyager.

ANALYSIS: Spellwright, Blake Charlton’s debut novel, was an impressive first offering thanks to a highly inventive magic system, charming accessibility, and the author’s obvious passion for the genre. At the same time, the book suffered from shallow characterization and world-building, a story driven by overly familiar fantasy tropes, and an Epilog that dragged on. In my opinion, the positive elements in Spellwright far outweighed the negative ones, leaving me personally excited about the sequel. That said, I had a few concerns about Spellbound. Specifically, would the sequel retain the elements that worked so well in Spellwright, while improving upon its weaknesses? And, could Spellbound avoid the middle book problems that plague so many trilogies? For the most part, the answer to these questions is yes…

By far, the most compelling aspect of Spellwright was the book’s unique magic system: “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.” Thankfully, this magic system with all of its wonderful rules, properties and prose — “a coruscation of pale sentence fragments”, “hemorrhaging language”, “linguistic concoction”, “a silvery plume of cutting prose” — is also the most compelling part of Spellbound, expanding on the ideas introduced in Spellwright, while introducing a couple of new ones. So in addition to Numinous, Magnus, Language Prime, the cthonic languages which only function in darkness, and Charlton’s unique version of dragons — “Dragons are not giant reptile pyromaniacs, but unbound incarnations of all things dangerous and partially incomprehensible who can alter the way people near them think.” — Spellbound also allows readers to experience the way magical language is used in medicine, in metal, by druids, and, best of all, by hierophants. Hierophants are spellwrights who use their heart muscle to produce language that moves within cloth and becomes wind when cast, introducing a whole new dimension to air travel, aerial combat and the application of cloth.

As fascinating as the magic system is, there’s a lot of information to process in Spellbound. Too much information if you also include cacography, quaternary cognition, aphasia, avatars, synesthesia, godspells, metaspells, ghostwriting, constructs, the Silent Blight, etc. Factor in all of the other details — world-building, characters, subplots — that readers have to process as well, and the inclusion of a glossary would have been tremendously helpful. Even necessary, perhaps.

Compared to the magic system, the world-building once again lacks depth, but there have been noticeable improvements. This is because Spellbound is set almost entirely in the city of Avel in the kingdom of Spires. By focusing on Avel, the author is able to accomplish more with what little world-building is present. Not only that, but Avel is quite different from the familiar academy setting found in Spellwright, and thus, much more interesting. Besides facing constants threats from lycanthropes, earthquakes and grassfires, Avel’s survival relies on its unique wind garden trade and citizens maintaining a devoted relationship with the deity Cala who controls the city’s dam/aquifer.

Unfortunately, while Blake Charlton’s world-building shows improvement in Spellbound, characterization remains a major weakness. Shallow character depth is part of the problem, but the bigger issues lie elsewhere. For one, Spellbound only features two POVs from Spellwright — Nicodemus and Deirdre — with the author failing to take full advantage of their thought-provoking situations. Namely, Deirdre forced to serve a demon that she hates with all her being while suffering the loss of her goddess Boann, and Nicodemus being unable to touch another human because of his cacography and ability to read Language Prime. Speaking of Nicodemus, the cacographic spellwright is not even the main attraction in Spellbound. Instead, Nico plays second fiddle to Francesca DeVega, a cleric/physician of Avel’s infirmary. Fortunately, Francesca is an interesting and engaging character because of her medical profession and playfully sarcastic personality — “Imagine having a brain so primitive that the image of something attractive could drive you to hurl yourself at that image. Oh, but I forget, you are male. You can sympathize.” — but I wish the author had focused more on Nicodemus.

Of the other new POVs — a textual copy of Agwu Shannon; Cyrus Alarcon, Air Warden of Avel; and Vivian Niyol, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Astrophell — Shannon’s ghost is the most fascinating despite little face time, while Cyrus is largely forgettable as he is the novel’s least interesting character. Vivian’s role in Spellbound is minor apart from a major revelation, but she will no doubt play a much larger role in the trilogy’s conclusion. Overall, Spellbound’s characters may be likable and charming, but they’re not much more than that, making it difficult to become emotionally attached to anyone. A shame considering Blake Charlton is unafraid of killing off his characters, which is evidenced by a few more deaths in Spellbound.

Story-wise, Spellbound is hit and miss. For almost the first one hundred pages, the sequel is nearly nonstop excitement and engrossing mystery. Sadly, the book is unable to maintain this exhilarating pace, becoming bogged down by world-building, overwhelming subplots — Deirdre’s scheming; the mystery behind Shannon’s ghost, Vivian’s hidden power and Francesca’s role; Spirish politics; the League of Starfall; the Savanna Walker; aphasia; the War of Disjunction; agents of the Halycon; et cetera — and tedious flirtation between Francesca, Cyrus and Nicodemus. Fortunately, Spellbound makes up for all of this with the last one hundred pages of the novel, which features wonderful twists and revelations, a thrilling showdown with the demon Typhon, and an Epilog that is much more satisfying than the one found in Spellwright. Between the Epilog, providing answers & closure to many of the novel’s most pressing questions, and a story set ten years after the major events of Spellwright, it’s obvious that Spellbound is not your typical middle volume… which is a good thing. Meanwhile, fantasy tropes are still present in Spellbound, but not nearly the hindrance they were in Spellwright.

CONCLUSION: Apart from characterization, Blake Charlton’s Spellbound is a better novel than its predecessor, building on Spellwright’s charm and unique magic system, while demonstrating noticeable improvement in world-building, the usage of fantasy tropes, and starting/ending a book in style. At the same time, Spellbound manages to avoid many of the problems suffered by middle books of trilogies, delivering a middle volume that progresses THE SPELLWRIGHT TRILOGY into new territory, leaving readers satisfied with the book itself but also invested in the trilogy’s conclusion. In short, Spellbound is highly recommended to fans of Spellwright and anyone who enjoys epic fantasy that is charming, imaginative and entertaining.

Spellwright — (2010-2016) Publisher: 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. Such a world is home to Nicodemus Weal, an apprentice at the wizardly academy of Starhaven. Because of how fast he can forge the magical runes that create spells, Nicodemus was thought to be the Halcyon, a powerful spellwright prophesied to prevent an event called the War of Disjunction, which would destroy all human language. There was only one problem: Nicodemus couldn’t spell. Runes must be placed in the correct order tocreate a spell. Deviation results in a “misspell” — a flawed text that behaves in an erratic, sometimes lethal, manner. And Nicodemus has a disability that causes him to misspell texts simply by touching them. Now twenty-five, Nicodemus lives in the aftermath of failing to fulfill prophecy. He finds solace only in reading knightly romances and in the teachings of Magister Shannon, an old blind wizard who’s left academic politics tocare for Starhaven’s disabled students. But when a powerful wizard is murdered with a misspell, Shannon and Nicodemus becomes the primary suspects. Proving their innocence becomes harder when the murderer begins killing male cacographers one by one… and all evidence suggests that Nicodemus will be next. Hunted by bothinvestigators and a hidden killer, Shannon and Nicodemus must race to discover the truth about the murders, the nature of magic, and themselves.

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  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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