A Family Affair: Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton

Although it was a small novel, both in size and in scope, Spellwright made a sizeable splash in the speculative fiction scene when it was released six years or so ago. First-time author Blake Charlton brought his own experiences as “a proud dyslexic” to bear brilliantly by exploring the place of a young man who misspells everything in a world in which magic is literally written.

Spellbound was bigger than Spellwright in the same several senses. It expanded the overarching narrative from the magical academy where Nicodemus Weal came of age and learned of something called the Disjunction to take in a distant city and a second central character. Again like the author, a medical school student by day and a writer by night at the time, Francesca DeVega was a physician poised to use her powers to heal the needy, but when she too became aware of the coming catastrophe, she had to put her pursuits on the back-burner to help Nico defeat the demons—demons that meant to destroy the lifeblood of the living: language.

But the demons were not defeated by our heroes… only delayed. And now, in Spellbreaker—not the longest volume of Charlton’s inventive trilogy but unequivocally the most ambitious—the Disjunction is at last at hand.

To say it’s been a long time coming would be something of an understatement. Quite aside from the five years that have elapsed between the publication of book two and this supposedly standalone conclusion, the canon of this saga has advanced dramatically. It’s been three decades and change since the events of Spellbound. Its paired protagonists have married and had a child. Leandra is “half-human and half-textual, the daughter of a dragon, too damn clever by half, fond of getting into trouble, and continuously fighting a disease that will—everyone agrees—kill her far too soon.”

She’s also the Warden of Ixos, an island under the auspices of the League which Lea’s parents have helped to lead for the larger part of her life. Against them, at the very head of the Empire, sits Nico’s half-sister Vivian. Both factions intend to defend against the Disjunction, whenever it actually happens, but that’s just about all they have in common. Indeed, they’ve become so divided by their ideological differences that they’re on the brink of open conflict:

Both Empire and League claimed that their champion was the Halcyon and that of the other was the Storm Petrel. [Nico] had anguished for so long about what he might truly be. But now he began to wonder if perhaps neither he nor his half-sister were inherently saviour or destroyer. [..] Yes, bloody times were coming, chaos was coming, a test of character and prophecy. But within all that was coming would be the most important struggle: the fight to protect the best of human potentials.

Lea, for her part, is as interested in this last as her father, but because of the life she’s led on Ixos—away from it all, as it were—she takes a more pessimistic view of the potential of people than Nico:

“We’ve built a civilisation in which the strong prey on the weak. We created divinities to answer our prayers even though many of those prayers are malicious. Our neodemons abuse and kill the weak. And why do we do it? So we can keep up with the empire. And what’s the empire do? Cannibalise their deities so they can keep up with us. There’s no point to trying to survive the Disjunction if we are no better than the demons.”

In the course of looking for a third way through the imminent conflict, one that doesn’t require her to ally with either the Empire or the League, Lea meets with a smuggler who sells her a godspell derived from a deconstructed divinity. This allows her to see who she might be twenty four hours into the future, and the first time she uses it, she learns that by then, she’ll either have killed someone she loves, or be dead herself.

Spellbreaker-by-Blake-Charlton-UKThat timetable dictates the remainder of Spellbreaker, insofar as almost everything Charlton has been building towards in his trilogy comes to a head in that brief period. Before the mystery of just who Lea is to slaughter is resolved, Nico and Francesca’s respective destinies are determined, the League squares off against the Empire, Vivian and her half-brother have at it, and, last but certainly not least, the Disjunction comes… if not necessarily in the sense you’d expect.

A ridiculously busy day, I dare say, and although the tight timing of it all stretches credibility a bit, that readers must run the gamut of these momentous events makes most of Spellbreaker tremendously compelling. Most, but not all; not the beginning, in particular. For all that Spellbound began the embiggening of Charlton’s trilogy, overall, it felt rather rushed and somewhat muddled—as do the early stages of Spellbreaker.

Why? Because this final installment wants to have it all. It wants to be an ending and a new beginning. It wants to address questions left over from Nico and Francesca’s last adventures, but because it wants to be accessible to newcomers too, everything of significance that’s been said before has to be said again, in layman’s terms—only then can returning readers have their answers. I can’t speak to how complete Spellbreaker will feel to the folks it wants to welcome to the fold for the first time, but I will say that there’s so much for them to take on board that they’re apt to be absolutely baffled at the start.

All of which makes for an awkward reintroduction to a wonderful, albeit increasingly unwieldy world—one that’s grown in complexity with every successive text, and has, as such, gotten harder and harder to get your head around. That said, Spellbreaker‘s matured milieu is much improved from book two’s, and once the narrative catch-up is complete, Charlton brings the magic back.

Much of that magic comes from the fact that the story, split as it is between Nico, Francesca and Lea, relates what is fundamentally a family affair, and having seen these characters come together from nothing, there’s a real emotional weight to a tale that threatens to tear our protagonists—new and old—apart.

It’s a real pleasure to see Nico so sure of himself after so much uncertainty, and Francesca is as refreshingly direct and intelligent as ever. I struggled a little with Lea, in that she exhibits “the limitless potentials—grand and grotesque—of a soul,” making her markedly harder to root for than either her mother or father, but the darker things she does help to bring into focus the larger themes of this series: language as a tool both beautiful and a terrible; humanity’s need for healing; and in particular difference as debilitating, but also positively transformative.

Spellbreaker may be a conclusion compromised by its seeming need to appeal to new readers, but beyond the awkwardness it’s a suitably sensitive and sometimes spectacular send-off to a trilogy that’s come into its own over the course of the years it took to complete, just as Blake Charlton himself has.

Spellbreaker is available from Tor Books in the US and Harper Voyager in the UK.
Read an excerpt here on Tor.com

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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