Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

January 17, 2011

Blake Charlton – Spellwright

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:27 pm

Spellwright cover imageThis came hotly hyped and urgently recommended, and it did indeed sound perfect for me—a fantasy story about a wizard, in a world where magic is text and a sentence written in the language of magic can become a weapon, a tool, or a way to change someone’s mind. Cover quotes from Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, and Daniel Abraham (we’ll skate lightly over the one from Terry Brooks) testify to the kind of demographic this is pitched at. It’s a pity about the cover artwork, consisting as it does of the worst kind of hooded-white-bloke-with-boring-glowing-stuff tedium, but a look around the internet reassures me that the one I have is the worst of its many covers, and that most of them (in particular, the US cover by Todd Lockwood) are a great deal better.

Annoyingly, Voyager haven’t given any indication on the cover that Spellwright is the first part of a trilogy. If you’re the kind of reader who wants everything wrapped up, then I’d suggest waiting for the others to come out—the next, Spellbound, is due in the autumn. On the other hand, the basic plot arc here is finished off neatly, though there are plenty of hooks for the next one, and I didn’t feel unsatisfied with it as a book in itself.

The book’s central conceit is fascinating, and well explored. Nicodemus Weal is a wizard (a “spellwright”) who can’t spell right[1], and who may or may not be either the saviour of humanity (the Halcyon); the protector of the Druids, the Peregrine; or the Storm Petrel, the champion of chaos. Explaining how order & chaos link in with the languages of magic would constitute a spoiler, but it’s an interesting episode when it does, and I look forward to seeing the grand themes played out.

Starhaven, the spellwrights’ university, is a distinctive setting with its pre-human buildings and a long arched bridge leading into a sheer cliff face. Like most other wizardly academies it’s an old, complex place, baroquely detailed and full of odd traditions. Normally, these schools are characterful enough in their own right to qualify as edifice fantasy, but I see a bit less of that here. Starhaven feels rather static—more of a backdrop than a participant. Unlike some of the more venerable literary universities—for example, Pratchett’s Unseen University, LeGuin’s Great House on Roke, and Barbara Hambly’s Citadel of Wizards—it’s hard to read Starhaven as contingent or mysterious, hard to imagine that a hallway might abruptly change its mind about its destination or debouch into a summer garden that was yesterday’s hand-numbingly cold lecture theatre.

Most of the text is similarly functional & static; instead of metaphor or description, Charlton usually gives us narrative and statement. Partly, I suspect, that’s because of the sheer amount of setting & magic-system detail he wants to give us; I’m not convinced that all of it is necessary though, and I’d have preferred to have seen more left for the reader to deduce from context. On the other hand, it does fit with the mechanistic, structural nature of the magic, and it’s entirely appropriate for the book’s structure to echo the magic’s mechanics, given that the magic can quite literally (and literarily) rewrite reality.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed with Spellwright, but I think that’s down to the amount of hype as much as anything. The plotting is solid and the high-concept magic system well realized; the only thing that didn’t lift it into the top-fantasy-author tier was the prose, and given that this is Charlton’s first novel I’m sure that will improve.

[1] That’s a rather facile way to put it—Nicodemus’s affliction is based on Charlton’s own experiences with dyslexia, which can be incredibly disabling when not recognized or allowed for. One consequence of that is that it’s better and more believably written than most magical afflictions.

October 11, 2010

Fiona McIntosh – Royal Exile

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:05 pm

Book 1 of the Valisar Trilogy. Voyager, 2008, 450ish pp paperback.

This is one of the most compelling pieces of extruded fantasy fluff I’ve read for a long time. I kept snatching moments for a few pages through the day, and then finished it on a long bus ride home. But that said, it’s still extruded fantasy fluff. It’s about royalty, it has a set of bog-standard fantasy kingdoms, it has barbarian invaders (complete with a warlord who’s smarter than he seems), it has legendary magic, it has swords with names, and it has Lost Heirs.

On the other hand, it also reads like a Greek tragedy, rather than the feudal-fetish wankery so many fantasy novelists succumb to. The royalty are uniformly barking mad: King Brennus is as arrogant and as self-important as Denethor, and with very similar consequences. Prince Leonel is clearly going the same way, and the family charisma (which may well be the mysterious genetic magic) draws otherwise sensible people into taking them seriously and going along with their stupid plans.

It’s clearly set in the far future (eight generations or so down the line) of a foreign despot’s conquest, and here comes another one with his horde of tattooed barbarian tribesmen. In the meantime, though, there are rivers of blood, and the number of dead bodies is destroying the economy and the farmland… not that that’s given more than a passing mention in the text, of course.

McIntosh can write teenage boys pretty well, but that’s more or less where “good writing” stops in this book. It’s full of people telling each other things they already know, in unnecessarily formal ways, and quaffy upon quaffy for pointless fantasy flavour. “Anni” means a year, and “tatua” are tattoos, according to the glossary at the back.

Unfortunately, the book also fails the Bechdel test – and not just that, but only one sympathetic female character survives the book. She’s only introduced very late on, at that. The others all meet some grisly and avoidable death at a man’s hands, for the sake of a man.

It’s extremely grisly throughout, in fact, and most of the characters are rather ruthless… in that they’re always eager to sacrifice others, whether a newborn baby or a half-dozen countries. We never see anyone sacrificing themselves.

Part of the reason it was compelling, I think, was that I wanted to keep reading and see if the plot points turned out as I expected. I had to keep waiting and waiting for some of them, but they were all there, and all just as expected. One thing did surprise me, but only because I’d forgotten that in extruded fantasy product women are disposable.

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