The Cornerstone by Nick Spalding (2011)
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.
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.
Posted on August 14, 2011, in 2 stars, Contemporary and Urban Fantasy, Ebook Reviews, Fantasy, Frida Reviewed, Nick Spalding, The Cornerstone and tagged court intrigue, planes of existence. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.