Any genre story that turns expectations on their ear is worth a closer look, and Blake Charlton’s Spellwright trilogy falls into that realm, with a unique magic system, and a protagonist who has to overcome a disability that specifically affects his ability to achieve using the magic system of his world.
Blake takes time to chat about the concluding story of his trilogy, Spellbreaker, and about another fantasy expectation he’s turned upside down: having each book in a series continue immediately after the preceding story.
Summer: My guest now is Blake Charlton, a fantasy author who’s come up with a very unique magic system. In his series, the first of which was Spellwright, we have a magic system based on writing and science, but our protagonist has a reading disability — which is a way to say “extreme challenges in a unique world.” Welcome to the show, Blake!
Blake Charlton: Thank you very much for having me!
Summer: Now, people may not have heard of this series, so let’s back up a little bit and talk about the trilogy as a whole.
Blake Charlton: So, I like to think of these books as kind of a neo-classical epic fantasy; a world in which there is an organization of society that’s built around magic, and a whole world that’s grown up around that, and we explore that through the various characters.
The first book is the story of, the thread that ties all three books together, the character of Nicodemus Weal, who starts out in a magical academy where he’s trying to learn how to use a magical language, but he has a unique disability. In this world, if you write down magical language in such a way that you get the runes in the correct order, they’ll literally come off the page and you can cast them off the page and literally cast a spell. But if you write them down incorrectly they might blow up or wrap around your neck, and that would be literally a “misspell”.
So, Nicodemus was once thought to be someone quite special, related to prophecy, because he was so good at making individual runes. But when his disability becomes apparent, his connection to prophecy is discarded, and of course things are not as they seem, as the first story unfolds. So in a way it’s the classic magical academy story, but hopefully it brings a fresh perspective because it brings a lot of issues about ability and disability hopefully to the forefront in a interesting way, and I draw heavily on my own experience as a dyslexic.
One fan told me, when the first book came out in 2010, that it was her favorite book because it was more or less Harry Potter in the special ed classroom, which I thought was a fairly accurate assessment at the time. I enjoyed it and it allowed me to explore a lot things i was interested in because when i was a boy and more or less functionally illiterate and in special ed, the only thing that got me interested in books and writing were the fantasy and science fiction lit that my parents would read to me. So the first book was almost my love letter to epic fantasy as it were.
Summer: So what challenges did you face not only in writing the book but coming up with a such a magic system that could be both visceral, believable, but also provide a specific challenge to the main character, Nicodemus?
Blake Charlton: In one level, my own fascination with language and how exact and yet how fallible it can be at the same time… it was fascinating for me, and i was at the time a medical student studying another very exact and fallible language, that is programmed into our genetics with nucleotides and polypeptides. My own fascination and my own issues with language made me spend a lot of time coming up with very hard rules and intricate details of this magic system; I think readers of fantasy, we can geek out an really get into certain aspects of the world that we’re into, but at the end of the day we all still want to hear a story and connect to characters and hear an interesting voice.
As I look back at that first book, I think you can get carried away and shoot yourself in the foot by getting overly involved in your magic system and a little too technical and get lost in the weeds. There are people who are fantastic at this… Brandon Sanderson is the hard fantasy par excellence author who’s able to come up with these varied, detailed intricate magic systems and not trip over them. I certainly struggled with that, and like many authors when you look back at a book sometimes you flinch a little, when you realize you could do something better now, and in writing that first book I think I kind of tripped over myself a few times.
Summer: The intricacy of magic systems has always fascinated me, because we have so many magic systems where the activation of the spell is through reciting the pronunciation of the words more so than writing out a glyph or a rune or the words of the spell and having the writing be the conduit for the magic. Having that little variation in the magic systems we’re all used to from so many many decades of fantasy novels was fascinating to me, but depicting someone who would have a disadvantage, a serious challenge in mastering this to fit in with the rest of society, that appealed to me also.
We’ve had so many heroes that have had physical disabilities, they’ve lost a hand, an arm, they’ve been blinded, they’re deaf, but having a learning disability or a speech disability, that was very different and I appreciated that skew off the to side and hopefully it’ll inspire people more to say “hey, even though people have these different abilities or disabilities or other challenges, they can be heroes too.”
Blake Charlton: That was everything I very much hoped… I don’t know if I could put it better than you just did, so thank you for saying it so eloquently.
Summer: Thank you! Have you gotten any feedback from students and educators about how this has changed how they look at their own disabilities and maybe look forward to reading and writing themselves?
Blake Charlton: One of the things that was just a real gift to me was when the first two books came out, I got some invitations to go speak for classrooms and the American Library Association, and one or two schools that specialized in teaching kids with learning disabilities, and it was just a real treat to be able to go back to those schools and those libraries where I had once been a student and had struggled with the written word and thought of it as something that I would never get mastery of, and it was a real treat to go back to talk to a lot of the staff and teachers that, bless them, they’ve taken it upon themselves to help people with disabilities.
The nicest thing that someone said to me was they had a lot of fun exploring these issues and thinking about them by reading the book, and that it didn’t have to be daunting to explore the issues of disability, but that it was a could be done in the form of an adventure, and it could be a fun story.
Summer: Well, that sounds… inspirational, because you’re giving a little bit of hope to people who’ve previously have only been frustrated in trying to get things done when it looks like everybody else has an easy time doing the same thing.
Blake Charlton: It is! There was a book I read around the time I was writing this novel, that I found very useful, called On the Short Bus, written by another author who’s dyslexic (The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney), and he talks a lot about the idea of the fantasy of normality, or what’s normal. The idea that if you put everyone together and came up with the norm, that that’s something that is real, when in fact it’s statistical phenomenon, and that no one is exactly conforming to the norm, that no one is “normal”. I think that can be really helpful when you find yourself in a situation where your future seems divorced from what you perceived as normal, to have people who have been there.
I feel very grateful that dyslexia was a recognized phenomenon when I was younger, because I run into people who, and I have a great admiration for them, their dyslexia was never recognized and they were always thought to just be lazy or unintelligent or willful. There are dyslexic doing amazing things these days, which is very admirable, but some of the people I find most admirable who didn’t have any recognition or accommodation when they were dealing with their disability — you know, Octavia Butler; I am always amazed that she was able to overcome her dyslexia or use her dyslexia to help become such an amazing author.
Those folks who, I almost think of my generation, I’m in my mid-30s, as generation zero, we were the first ones who from a very early age were caught and diagnosed or identified early on and given the advantage of being told “the way you acquire language is going to be different”. ANd in the best circumstances we were told “it’s not worse, it’s just different”, and that was a tremendous advantage… and something that I think as we become e aware of this term “neuro-diversity” which is growing in some communities, and should be used more often, that there are many ways of thinking, that there isn’t just one way of learning to be a good writer or a good mathematician, or what have you, and I think we’re, as a society, my hope is that we’re becoming more aware of how diverse the mind can be.
Summer: That’s really amazing… when you’re talking about how earlier generations of people, that wasn’t even a recognized condition; it reminded me of something I had seen when I was in grade school. I went to a Catholic school, my first 6 years of school, and I remember seeing the nuns force kids who were left-handed to write right-handed, and I remember finding out in college that sometimes people who had had that done to them developed certain neurological differences in learning, and I remember wondering “wait, how is that connected?”
Now you make me want to go find out if that were true, or what that led to, because I remember all of these nuns were forcing these left-handed kids to be right-handed. And at time I just thought “that’s weird”, but now when you think about it, it’s horrible.
Blake Charlton: It’s really amazing. As a doctor, one of the things we talk about is “Do No Harm”. You don’t want to take someone to the operating room or give them a medication that’s going to make them worse, and the same could be said for education, you want to do no harm, and as we all know now, there’s absolutely zero harm, outside of frustrations with scissors or the mouse pad being on the wrong side, of being left-handed (I am not left-handed). People develop neurologically and there’s nothing sinister, if you’ll forgive the Latin pun, about being left-handed and it took us forever as a society to realize that. It’s really kind of astonishing if you think about it, what it says about the human being’s need to try to assume that normalcy is necessary and should be enforced. Enforcing normalcy can have a sinister side.
Summer: Yeah, who defined what “normal” is, and who’s to say that it has to stay that way for millennia? Humanity is all about change… at least I hope so!
Blake Charlton: Yeah, for good or for worse, it seems to be programmed into us. It’s really how we deal with change as individuals and as a generation that’s important.
Summer: So, the third book in the Spellwright series is called Spellbreaker, and even though it concludes the trilogy, it’s being called a standalone novel. How did that come about?
Blake Charlton: Well, the second novel also stands alone. In epic fantasy there’s this trend or this tradition that each book in a series will start immediately after the previous book, and sometimes they might actually overlap by a little bit of time. And each book becomes incrementally longer and covers an incrementally shorter amount of time — I’m sure we can all think of very long fantasy series that do this — it’s like a novel asymptotically approaching infinitely small interval of time with an infinitely large number of words!
It’s always bothered me that each book has to get bigger and cover less time. For better or for worse, I said I’m not going to do that; when I write this series, I’m going to jump by decades, and each book will pivot to a different character in what ultimately will be a family. So the second book, which takes place more than a decade after the first, focuses not on Nicodemus but on a character named Francesca, a young physician in a different city who also has an interesting relationship with language, who ends up getting bound up with Nicodemus and the story of their relationship is the second book.
Then, between the second and third books more than 30 years have elapsed, and we see a very different society, a different world that was shaped predominantly by the things that were discovered in the first and second books. It’s the society that was created by these epic momentous discoveries and the child of Nicodemus and Francesca is the character in the third book.
So if you have read the first two books, you’re up on the family history as it were, and you know the backstory of the family affair. But if you haven’t, there’s no reason you can’t pick it up from the get-go since it’s 30 years since the last book, and refer both people returning to the series and people picking up the book for the first time. I’m obliged to give you the update on everything that’s going on.
I think it works, and certainly it was a lot more fun for me to write because I got to, in a way, start fresh and imagine new back stories, and kind of maybe a selfish thing to do, to allow myself to continue a series but write a fresh book each time, but fingers crossed, so far people seem to have gone along with the idea so far.
I am trying to have my cake and eat it too, I am trying to write a series but have each one stand alone, and here’s to people agreeing that it’s a halfway reasonable option to pursue.
Summer: It’s entirely reasonable because a world can change a lot in 10 years, in 30 years, and wanting to explore how that world changed, how the world’s changes affected your characters, how your characters may have brought about some of those changes… that is something you don’t see a lot in epic fantasy. You want to see more changes because you want to see how those characters handle the new world that either is shaping them or that they helped shape.
Blake Charlton: That is certainly my hope that I’m able to convey that. I can also say I’ve fallen in love with the series, and I understand the instinct to just want more. If you really just love this world and these characters, you never want it to end, on some level. I think we all understand that influence.
It’s one of those decisions that I don’t think there’s a right or wrong, but… in fantasy, we got used to doing it a certain way, and we really haven’t questioned that too much if we should do it some other way. Although I’m sure there are counterexamples that I’m misremembering and I’m sure someone on the internet will pop up with these people that I’m not remembering right now. (laughs)
Summer: That’s no problem (laughs) Are you taking a break and enjoying concluding this chapter of this world, or have you jumped in on a new project already?
Blake Charlton: The answer is yes! I’m really enjoying concluding this, I feel it’s been a long time coming, that I’ve been just working on this series, and I’m really really enjoying the next project I’m fiddling around with. It’s something different again, a whole new take on things, and a whole another set of challenges, for that reason I am really enjoying it.
As folks who have befriended me on the internet will know, I have the world’s cutest niece who has something of a morbid imagination, which is a wonderful thing for an uncle who writes fantasy to have. When she was 7 years old (she’s 10 now), she told me to write a ghost story about the hospital in which I work. I’m something of a history nerd, and I currently live in San Francisco and I grew up around the Sierras, and the history of this city is filled with ghost stories and interesting things, and I’ve seen a lot of things as a younger physician who’s still in training, I’ve seen a lot of life and death and been haunted by a lot of things — well, that’s a long winded way of saying that I’m trying to write Neil Gaiman’s American Gods if it went to medical school. That’s the elevator pitch for my current project.
Summer: Nice… I like that pitch a lot! I’m a fan of ghost stories and myth and folklore and horror stories that are well done… by my extremely exacting standards
Blake Charlton: It’s good to have exacting standards!
Summer: So I’m looking forward to your new project, whenever it comes to fruition
Blake Charlton: Fingers crossed that it comes sooner rather than later!
Summer: Thank you so much for your time to day Blake!
Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton
Series: The Spellwright Trilogy (Book 3)
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Tor Books (August 23, 2016)