In 2010, Blake Charlton released an original debut titled Spellwright, a throwback book reminiscent of epic fantasy and sword & sorcery novels from the 80s. In a day and age in which genre authors attempt to subvert traditional fantasy tropes and clichés, Charlton embraced them, making Spellwright some kind of homage to a different era.
Although the author elevates his game in basically every aspect of his craft in this sequel, Spellbound remains the same in style and tone.
Here's the blurb:
In a world where one’s magical prowess is determined by one’s skill with words and ability to spell, Nicodemus is a wizardly apprentice afflicted by a curse that causes him to misspell magical texts. Now, the demon who cursed him has hatched a conspiracy to force Nicodemus to change language and ultimately use it to destroy all human life. As Nico tries to thwart the demon’s plan, he faces challenges from all sides. But his biggest challenge is his own disability, which causes him to create chaos wherever he goes. And the chaos surrounding Nico is affecting the world so profoundly that the kingdom to which he has fled to gather strength is on the brink of civil war, and he suspects that his closest allies—even Francesca, whom he loves more than life itself—may be subject to the demon’s vast powers. As Nico tries to forestall the apocalypse, he realizes that he doesn’t know if he can fully trust anyone, not even the woman he loves. And if he makes one wrong move, not only will his life be forfeit, he may end up destroying all mortal life as well.
Charlton is a world away from the "New Grit" movement spearheaded by authors such as George R. R. Martin, Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, etc. In Spellwright, pretty much everything was black and white. The heroes were good, the villains were evil. The forces of good always beat the odds and somehow managed to come out on top, with secret knowledge or power falling into their lap in the nick of time. The good guys were all handsome and beautiful, while the bad guys weren't. In a nutshell, it was the whole good vs evil shebang. Even though it's more or less the same with Spellbound, the author added a few shades of gray to the plot. Yet in the end, the novel remains a work that will appeal more to fans of more traditional fantasy series written by the all-stars of the 80s and early 90s such as David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and Raymond E. Feist.
One facet in which Blake Charlton managed to up his game significantly is the worldbuilding. The structure of a debut is such that Charlton couldn't offer readers more than a glimpse of his universe in Spellwright. I was pleased to learn more about Language Prime, the Chthonic race, the Disjunction, the dragons, and so much more. Readers will also discover more about the world at large, as the action occurs in a variety of localities. Overall, the worldbuilding added quite a few layers to this work.
Once again, the imaginative magical system that Charlton created is a highlight of Spellbound. As was the case in the first book, it can take a while for you to understand how it works. But it remains fascinating and unique.
One aspect which leaves a lot to be desired, I felt, was the characterization. Ten years have passed since the events chronicled in Spellwright, a decade that hardened Nicodemus. The young dyslexic spellwright suffering from cacography wasn't always the sharpest tool in the shed, but the man he became commands respect. What nearly killed the book for me was Francesca DeVega, the novel's main protagonist. Oh my God. . . Where to begin? Think of a strange hybrid between Polgara the Sorceress and Dr. House with a dose of Faile. She is insufferable and I wanted to open my veins every time she appeared in the book. Another thing that readers will either love or despise, with all the bantering and back-and-forth between the characters (most of which often getting in the way of the plot), with Spellbound Blake Charlton firmly established himself as the David Eddings of the 21st century. The supporting cast doesn't play such an important role in the bigger scheme of things, which means that there is an uneven balance between Francesca and Nico's POVs.
You may or may not know that Black Charlton attends the Stanford University School of Medicine. Which explains why there are a few bits of medical porn here and there throughout the book. It's not off-putting in any way, not even the unexpected brain surgery, but it doesn't always have much to do with the storylines. There is also a love story that you can see coming from a mile away. . .
The pace can be a problem in certain portions of the book. Spellbound begins with a bang and the rhythm is fluid for about half of the novel. Then it becomes extremely sluggish at times, before resuming again for the finale. Charlton brings this one to a satisfying close, setting the stage for what should be an interesting final volume.
Spellwright seemed too have a lot of potential and Spellbound demonstrates that there is a lot more to Charlton's creation than meets the eye. If not for the intolerable Francesca, this book would get a much better score. As I mentioned, she nearly killed this one for me. Because in every aspect but the characterization, Spellbound is a much superior tale than Spellwright turned out to be. Which means that if you can put up with Francesca, you might love it.