Spellbreaker: An imaginative and challengingly complex fantasy

Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton epic fantasy book reviewsSpellbreaker by Blake Charlton

If someone is offering to sell you a spell that predicts one hour into the future, one excellent way to test whether the spell really works is to try to murder the man selling it to you. If you succeed in killing him, clearly it wasn’t a valid prophetic spell. In any case, that’s Leandra Weal’s rationale for poisoning the blackrice liqueur she offers to the smuggler selling her the spell. Luckily for both Leandra and the smuggler, the spell warns the smuggler not to drink the puffer fish liver-infused drink. Unfortunately, once Leandra tries the spell, making a small spelling adjustment to allow her to see twenty-four hours into the future, she sees that she will either have to murder someone she loves or die herself. If she tries to run or avoid the prophecy, everyone she loves will suddenly die.

With this compelling start, Spellbreaker (2016), the final book in Blake Charlton’s SPELLWRIGHT trilogy, launches us into an Indonesian-inspired fantasy world, where local gods and demons are incarnated from the prayers of the faithful, and spells literally need to be spelled in writing, taking physical form and living in your skin and muscles. Misspellings will alter a spell, for good or ill.

Spellbreaker takes place some thirty years after the events of Spellbound, the second book in this series, in which Leandra’s parents, Nicodemus Weal and Francesca DeVega, first met. Leandra, Nicodemus, and Francesca are all Wardens, responsible for converting or destroying neodemons who cause violent disturbances in the League kingdoms. Leandra is estranged from her mother Francesca, who can literally turn into a dragon. Nicodemus is a spellwright (a spell caster) whose dyslexia-like disability results in his misspelling every spell he touches, and his disruptive touch will kill anyone he touches other than his immediate family. His misspelled metaspells, however, also have the mixed benefit of making magic more intuitive, which strengthens the powers of both deities and neodemons in the League of Starfall, and weakens spellwrights. Nicodemus’ half-sister Vivian controls the hostile Neosolar Empire, using metaspells that are the opposite of Nicodemus’: they make magical language more consistent and logical, weakening deities and demons and increasing industrialization, but perilously decreasing the diversity of plant and animal life.

While Leandra is trying to figure out what the best way is to address her deadly prophecy, she is also setting herself at odds with the two competing empires and their opposing magical philosophies. Meanwhile, her father is investigating an appearance by a demon of the ancient continent that portends a potentially devastating supernatural conflict. Her mother Francesca and her aunt, the Empress Vivian, are pursuing their own independent but equally dangerous paths.

After an exciting first chapter, the pace slows down as the story follows Leandra, Nicodemus, and Francesca in turn, each on his or her separate path. The gradual build-up to the main conflict takes about two-thirds of the book, as the characters’ paths weave together and the conflicts between them gradually solidify. Leandra, whose point of view is the predominant one in Spellbreaker, isn’t always a sympathetic protagonist: she takes several ruthless actions in her attempt to pursue the path she thinks is necessary and right.

The SPELLWRIGHT world created by Charlton has intricate and imaginative world building, with a challenging complexity, and strong and diverse characters. The setting of Spellbreaker in an Indonesia-based culture is a breath of fresh air, as is the multifaceted textual-based magical system. Crimson language can wrap around one’s head, be removed, and placed on someone else’s head. Spellwrights do startling things like pull magical text right out of their skin and hurl it at people, as a curse, or use tattooed skinspells to wage war. Having a misspelling disability, like Nicodemus does (an echo of Charlton’s own struggles with dyslexia), is a mixed curse and blessing.

Unfortunately, this detailed and complicated world never became quite real to me. There is quite a bit of info-dumping that was difficult for me to assimilate, although readers who have read the prior two books in this series will probably find it much easier to engage with this world. While it’s possible to read Spellbreaker as a stand-alone novel, after having done that, I can’t personally recommend it. If I’d read Spellwright and Spellbound first, this world would have been familiar and the info-sharing probably would have made more sense and thus been more interesting; but as it was, the detailed background information tended to go in one ear and out the other, leaving me somewhat mystified. Still, it’s a fascinating world in many respects, and I’d like to go back and read the first two books in this series and then give Spellbreaker another try.

Published August 23, 2016. Leandra Weal has a bad habit of getting herself in dangerous situations. While hunting neodemons in her role as Warden of Ixos, Leandra obtains a prophetic spell that provides a glimpse one day into her future. She discovers that she is doomed to murder someone she loves, soon, but not who. That’s a pretty big problem for a woman who has a shark god for a lover, a hostile empress for an aunt, a rogue misspelling wizard for a father, and a mother who–especially when arguing with her daughter–can be a real dragon. Leandra’s quest to unravel the mystery of the murder-she-will-commit becomes more urgent when her chronic disease flares up and the Ixonian Archipelago is plagued by natural disasters, demon worshiping cults, and fierce political infighting. Everywhere she turns, Leandra finds herself amid intrigue and conflict. It seems her bad habit for getting into dangerous situations is turning into a full blown addiction. As chaos spreads across Ixos, Leandra and her troubled family must race to uncover the shocking truth about a prophesied demonic invasion, human language, and their own identities–if they don’t kill each other first. Spellbreaker is the long awaited sequel to Blake Charlton’s Spellbound, which was listed by Kirkus Reviews among the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2011. This final installment of the Spellwright Trilogy stands alone as a complete story; however, fans of the series will find in it answers to the questions raised by the previous books about Leandra’s parents, Nicodemus Weal and Francesca DeVega.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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