This is a difficult review to do. Spellwright is an excellent book. I absolutely loved the first two thirds of the novel. Unfortunately, I thought the ending didn't hold up to the rest of the book. To properly explain my views there will be a spoiler section.
Pros: interesting characters, detailed worldbuilding, intricate plot, original magic system
Cons: lots of exposition in an info dump style, antagonists explain their plans too freely, necessary details of magic use left unexplained, the denoument is too long (the last three are from the final third of the book)
The premise: magic is the physical manifestation of written words. Nicodemus Weal is extraordinarily gifted when it comes to magic use. Unfortunately he can't spell, which makes his quick absorption of new languages useless as any complex spell he tries to cast misspells. When a magician is found dead of a misspell, Nicodemus and his magister, Shannon, find themselves under investigation by the sentinal Amadi.
But more than a simple murder is at play. There are druids who believe Nicodemus is the prophesied Halcyon, the one who will win the fight against the demons, and there is a demon creation nearby who wants Nicodemus to be their champion, the one Amadi's counter-prophecy compatriots call the Storm Petrel.
My only complaint with the first two thirds of the book is that Nicodemus seems overly trusting of people he just meets, and then unaccountably wary of those same people, and a lot of knowledge is given in info dumps. To be fair, there's a lot of new content here. His use of magic is completely original, leaving all of it needing to be explained. The world and its politics are delightfully complex, even though they're only touched on briefly in this book. There's a lot of room for expansion in future books.
In the third part the writing gets harder to believe. Characters start acting in what I thought were bizarre ways given their attitudes earlier in the book. I'll detail this more below for those willing to read spoilers. I also found that instead of ending the book quickly after the climax, the denoument goes on for about 15 pages. It allowed me to forget the excitement of the climactic battle and get bored.
The book is definitely worth reading. What Charlton does with the world and magic is exceptional. But be prepared for an ending that doesn't blow you away.
*** SPOILERS ***
With regards to the ending, everything after they left the city seemed more like prologue material for the next book rather than epilogue material for this book. I understand he's setting up for a multi-year gap between books, but ending on training was a bad move. It left me bored and wondering when the book would end. Not a good feeling.
Back to a previous point, the magician's magical languages are well explained. Nicodemus's use of Language Prime towards the end of the book is not. I was given the impression that everything in the world is made of magic, and his ability to see Language Prime allows him to change everything. I expected him to be killing the grass as he walked and anyone he touched due to his cacography. Apparently (like the other languages), it only works when touched by skin. But all skin or only hands? If he were barefoot would he kill grass by walking on it or only if he bend down and touched the grass with his hands?
But my major complaint with the end of the book comes from the antagonists sudden desires to explain their plans. Fellwroth wants Nicodemus to come to him. So how does he try to convince the man to do so? By telling Nicodemus everything about his genesis. Nicodemus wants to know more about his parentage. He wants to know why he's a cacographer. Instead of hinting that he knows something, which might well entice Nicodemus to search him out, he tells Nicodemus everything he knows, even the information that he wants Nicodemus to be the Storm Petrel. Nicodemus does not want to be the Storm Petrel, so that's not exactly a reason for Nicodemus to put himself under Fellwroth's power.
And Fellwroth's master is no different, explaining the ins and outs of his plan when he's got Nicodemus cornered. It made me wonder why he didn't try to indoctrinate Nicodemus more when growing up. Allowing Nicodemus to grow up hating demons was hardly conducive to the demon's ultimate plans for him. Instead he decides to find him as an adult and hope he'll join because the demon arranged for his parents to meet and have him.
I was also surprised by the amount of information Tulki tells him. If Tulki hadn't mentioned the bestiary Nicodemus wouldn't have known about it. And considering the fact Tulki didn't want him to look at it, I wondered why he would mention it.
These points jarred me from the text, making the ending seem less cohesive and causing me to question more things about the plot. A disappointing end to an otherwise excellent debut.