The Cornerstone by Nick Spalding (2011)

Smashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

2/5 stars

A great book will transport you to another world… literally, if you’re not careful.

On a gloomy Thursday afternoon, Max Bloom enters his local library in a last ditch attempt to stave off an epic case of teenage boredom. Among the hushed stacks he discovers The Cornerstone – an ancient book tucked away on a dusty, forgotten shelf. Opening the cover, Max is transported to an alternate dimension full of things intent on killing him – thus avoiding boredom with remarkable success.

He meets a beautiful girl called Merelie (brilliant), who tells him he’s the only one that can save both their worlds from the Dwellers – hideous mind sucking creatures from beyond the universe (not so brilliant).

Merelie thinks Max is a Wordsmith, a sorcerer able to craft magic from the written word itself – one powerful enough to stop the Dwellers and their treacherous human allies.

This all sounds completely unbelievable. The kind of thing you’d read in a fantasy novel… but The Cornerstone doesn’t lie – and the danger is very real.

In a world threatened by monsters, where books are worshipped and powerful magic exists, Max Bloom must make a choice: close The Cornerstone and run home – or trust Merelie, become a Wordsmith, and save two worlds from certain destruction…

The Cornerstone is a contemporary fantasy set in suburban Britain. Max is an ordinary Xbox-playing 17-year-old boy, but when he finds a magical book, it transports him to an alternate world threatened by monsters. A beautiful girl is convinced that Max is the fated sorcerer that will save her world, but that’s not likely as her world’s magic comes from books… and Max doesn’t read any. The story follows Max as he discovers books, magic, and if he has what it takes to be a hero.

This novel kicked off to a great start. The lively prose pulled me in quickly, the flippant tone was refreshing, and the humour had personality. I expected to read a lighthearted fantasy adventure that was genre-savvy and would play with some of fantasy’s most common tropes. It turns out to be a story that’s promising in concept, but not quite there in execution.

“Show, don’t tell” is a classic adage for good reason. The Cornerstone lost my interest because it frequently read like a series of summaries rather than a story that was actively unfolding. The first half of the book slowly sets up the conflict, but after that, it decides to skim over the most important developments. As major events are told rather than shown, it removes the dramatic tension that should have taken place, and I did not feel emotionally involved in the rest of the book.

The concept of an alternate world where words have power, wordsmiths are magicians, and God is called the Writer is intriguing. I was eager to see what magic system would be developed, but it doesn’t have any rules beyond “draw power from books, shoot lighting beam”. Not all fantasy books need to get detailed about magic, but if it deals with a lot of magicians and the protagonist has to learn new powers, developing a magic system with rules and limitations is an integral part of world-building. Magic can’t be an unstoppable force or else magicians would be too powerful to care about; in this story, the sources of power (books) aren’t scarce enough to create that sense of vulnerability.

I liked the idea of an uncooperative teenage boy as a hero, and several characters brim with personality. I found Max, the grandpa, and the librarian particularly charming.  The Cornerstone’s strengths are its characterization, wit, and entertaining commentary. Unfortunately, the humour didn’t work for me in the framework of a fantasy adventure.

The pacing is too brisk when there should’ve been more world-building, and it drags in uneventful scenes because much of the prose is dedicated to humourous aside commentary. It tries to go for an anachronistic style of humour similar to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m a fan of humourous SF/F like Douglas Adam’s The Hitchiker’s Guide series and Terry Prachett’s Discworld, but this book often misses the punch line:

Just how many Wordsmiths and Dwellers could be taken defeat before being overwhelmed and taken prisoner?

It turns out the answer was 42.

The humour is supposed to come from The Hitchiker’s reference, but the original 42 joke is about the absurdity of the universe and the futility of grand questions. If 42 could meaningfully quantify something, it defeats the point of the joke.

Great satiric SF/F books play with genre tropes while adding new ideas to the mix. Max belittles the overused fantasy tropes that he encounters, yet The Cornerstone doesn’t act on its genre-awareness. It follows the “boy becomes a wizard to save the world” connect-the-dots with a plodding predictability. Perhaps the story’s inability to breathe new life into old tropes deserves the protagonist’s condescension, but neither endeared itself to this fantasy reader.

There’s nothing wrong with the classic “boy becomes the chosen one” plot if there are other engaging elements, like with the great world-building found in The Tales of Alvin Maker and the Harry Potter series. The relationship between the parallel worlds is original, but most of the fantasy elements feel like placeholders (insert monster here, insert secondary fantasy world here) rather than a world to get to know. Again, this problem is rooted in the book’s tendency to summarize rather than show.

I’ve been looking at other reviews and it seems like this review is the most critical. I think it’s because I was looking for a solid fantasy book first and a humourous read second. I felt disappointed with how it handled fantasy tropes and I don’t think it contributes much to the genre. The Cornerstone is a worthwhile read if the humour hits you in all the right places. But if you’re looking for a satisfying fantasy read, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Other reviews of this book: All Metaphor, Malachi; Booked Up

You might like this if you like…
British humour; anachronistic pop culture references; boy becomes wizard and saves world; magical literature (literally)

While I’m not a fan of this book, Spalding is an entertaining writer. His other books, such as Life… With No Breaks, have been receiving great reviews and have sold over 10,000 copies this year. While I’m not sure if I want to read him for fantasy yet, I’m interested in his other books for humour. If you like British humour and wry commentary, I wouldn’t hesitate to check out his other titles.  

About Caroline Cryonic

Formerly known as Frida Fantastic. A speculative fiction book blogger from Vancouver, Canada currently living in Quezon City, Philippines.

Posted on August 14, 2011, in 2 stars, Contemporary and Urban Fantasy, Ebook Reviews, Fantasy, Frida Reviewed, Nick Spalding, The Cornerstone and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hmm, so Harry Potter meets the Fionavar Tapestry meets The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy…*scratches head*

    What a great and detailed review though! I love that you brought up the laws of magic, that is oftena pet-peeve of mine as well. Now I’m not saying I can do a better job, but I think it is important for an author to constantly ask, with each bit of magic added, how would this ability shape and change the world? Sadly, I feel like far too few authors ask those questions.

    • @Derek: Hm, I’ve never read the Fionavar Tapestry, but looking at the description on wikipedia… “It is the story of five University of Toronto senior law and medical students, who are drawn into the ‘first world of the Tapestry’ by the mage Loren Silvercloak. Once there, each discovers his or her own role and destiny in the framework of an epic conflict”… that could either be really good or really bad. I might have to check it out at some point because well, I’m Canadian, and senior law and medical UoT students going into a secondary fantasy world to fight epic wars? Intriguing and potentially hilarious.

      This is Spalding’s first (e)published fantasy book. He’s a young guy in his mid 20s (correct me if I’m wrong) which makes him only a bit older than me. It’s quite possible that this is his first attempt at the genre. He seems to have found some success with his memoirs and those have getting positive reviews. From the prose, I could see that he could be an engaging writer, but the story elements just didn’t fit together well with this book.

      The fantasy elements were either danced around (world-building for the secondary world relegated to summaries through dialogue whilst the characters stand around in stuffy rooms), or “shoot lighting beams” devoid of a magic system. Elements of a magic system are implied a few times but never developed to the extent that a fantasy reader would be satisfied with. No matter if the setting is contemporary or historical, or low vs. high fantasy, a fantasy author must be willing to go elbow-deep into the fantasy elements and make sure that that it’s solid and convincing.

      I couldn’t appreciate it as a parody either because while Max called attention to the basic fantasy tropes, it doesn’t subvert anything or comment on the tropes beyond “oh boy, magical book, this is silly stuff! This can’t be happening!” That happens too many times. That point can’t be milked with me. I’ve been reading fantasy and sci-fi since I was a kid. I grew up with Harry Potter, the magical school books people thought Rowling ripped off from (don’t know and don’t care), Hickman & Weis’ Dragonlance series, Orson Scott Card… whatever, you name it. 90% of the fiction I read is speculative fiction, so understandably, if I want a book to make fun of genre tropes, I want it to be at a sophisticated level. Not that genre satire can’t be for a general audience. Using a film example, Galaxy Quest is a hilarious parody of Star Trek that general audiences and sci-fi fans can appreciate, and it doesn’t make you feel bad for liking the genre. It loves the genre as much as you do. The Cornerstone doesn’t do that.

      Fantasy is hard to write, and satire/parody is probably the hardest kind of book to write. I’m not sure if The Cornerstone is going for satire/parody. Anyway, there are some good stuff in this book (which my review mentioned), and other reviewers have given it more stars, so other people are liking it. Your enjoyment will depend on whether the humour clicks with you and what your expectations are for a fantasy book. I wish Mr. Spalding all the best.

      Okay, Frida needs to stop writing long comments.

  2. Oh, I forgot to mention, I love the cover!

  3. Very detailed and thorough review. Will be interesting to see how Nick responds in his next fantasy offering. I can definitely see how going from memoirs to novels can cause way more telling than showing to come into play. I came from academia to novels, and it was a similar rough transition.

  4. The world definitely has promise, the characters are lively, and the fantasy concepts themselves are interesting. In that regard, the sequel could be really good. It’s the execution of the fantasy segments is what I’m not thrilled about. It has been receiving good reviews from other bloggers, so I’m definitely interested to see what other reviewers have to say about this book and what Nick’s next fantasy would be. I’ve been reading the reviews, and people are asking for the sequel.

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