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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Spellwright - Blake Charlton

US cover for Spellwright
Sometimes a book's title says it all. Spellwright. Spell means to write in order the letters constituting a word. It also means a verbal formula considered as having magical force. Spell in these two cases is considered a homonym because they share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. Wright or write or right or rite all mean something different but sound the same. They're called homophones. A wright is a person that constructs or repairs something. Write means to form (letters, words, or symbols) on a surface. Right means to be correct. And a rite is a religious ceremony. What am I driving at? I'll come back to that.

Blake Charlton's novel is about a young man named Nicodemus. He's an apprentice to the Grand Wizard Agwu Shannon, an aged and blind, but still powerful member of Starhaven's faculty. At this out of the way haven young men and women are tutored in the language of magic. They learn how to compose elegant prose and cast it into the world to effect change. Unfortunately, Nicodemus is a cacographer - any magical prose he touches immediately misspells. There was a time when Shannon, and others, thought Nicodemus was to be the halycon - the savior of magic - who was prophesied to defeat the Pandemonium. But such a powerful being could not be cacographic for the prophecy also speaks of another who will bring chaos and destroy the halycon.

So back to my opening paragraph, what was that all about? I'm sure it's obvious that cacogaphy in Charlton's world is a parallel to what we call dyslexia. To a dyslexic Charlton's title is something of a mean joke. What the hell does he mean? One who creates spells? One who spells correctly? One who writes down spells? Or is it about spelling as a rite which I think adequately describes the burden the written language can be to someone suffering from dyslexia. In this regard the novel's title is nothing short of genius. To a fantasy fan reading through the shelves the first definition is perfect. Oh, this book is about someone who puts spells together (read: Wizard). Cool. It is, but not really. It's about a lot more than that and after reading the book I realized the title says it all.

See, Nicodemus speaks every magical language he's ever been taught fluently. He should be, for all intents and purposes, one of the most powerful wizards in Starhaven except for the little fact that he has a hard time spelling things correctly. He's ridiculed by his peers and looked on as someone who should never be allowed near magic. Were it not for Shannon and his desire to help cacographers, Nicodemus and his fellow misspellers would have magical language censored from their minds and be sent on their way. In the eyes of the wizarding community at large, they are defective and beyond recovery. To a more radical sect, they are a threat to stability and shouldn't even be allowed to live.

Is it a perfect novel? No, although it is very good. There are some first time author hiccups here and there. The magic system is a bit esoteric and the ending is both overly simplified and a bit confusing. Still, reading Spellwright, I couldn't help but be touched. My wife is dyslexic. She was diagnosed when she was 13. This is late in life so far as these things go. When she was in 8th grade she told her teacher that she wanted to attend Ursuline Academy for high school, one of the more prestigious private schools in Dallas, Texas. Her teacher told her, "you'll never get in there, and even if you did, you'd never be able to keep up."
UK Cover for Spellwright

She got in and worked her ass off. She did well and went to college where she listened to text books on tape, following along with the written words (to give you an idea how much dedication that takes a 350 page novel takes around 12 hours to listen to). It was never easy. She graduated on time with a degree in International Relations. My wife is very smart, but reading and writing will always be, to some degree, difficult for her. She's very aware of the fact and a little bit self conscious about it. I find it all rather inspiring and it makes me proud to be her husband.

Not surprisingly, given the treatment he gives it, Spellwright's author Blake Charlton is also dyslexic. His bio on his website reads:
"I was saved from a severe disability by two things: an early clinical diagnosis of dyslexia, and fantasy and science fiction novels. It took most of my twenties to discover it, but my life’s goal is to give back to the two art forms that saved me."
My wife didn't have that same luck. She still made it. A lot of kids don't. Dyslexia, as a disability isn't something we can cure. There's no pill that makes the connection between eye and brain work better. But, by identifying it early and providing specialized education to young people we can make sure that kids don't have to suffer thinking they're stupid.

George R. R. Martin wrote in his most recent novel A Dance with Dragons:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies," said Jojen. "The man who never reads lives only one.”
Reading is the greatest gift I've ever been given. I believe that Charlton's novel is helping spread that gift. From me, from my wife, from my daughter, and from every child and parent out there struggling to make sense of dyslexia - thank you Blake. You should be proud to have written Spellwright. I know I was proud to read it.

The sequel to Spellwright was released two weeks ago from Tor Books. Titled Spellbound, it continues the story of Nicodemus as he comes to grips with his disability and how it will or will not define him. I look forward to reading and reviewing it soon.

Sidenote:
I would strongly suggest that anyone who has read this review or Charlton's novels visit http://www.learningally.org/. Formerly Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, Learning Ally serves more than 300,000 learners – all of whom cannot read standard print due to visual impairment, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. More than 6,000 volunteers across the U.S. help to record and process the 65,000 digitally recorded textbooks and literature titles in their collection. I can't thank them enough for the work they do.

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