December 9, 2018

Review: Mage Against the Machine

Mage Against the Machine Mage Against the Machine by Shaun Barger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is trying to be too many things at once, and not succeeding particularly well at any of them.

If this was being pitched to Hollywood (and it may have been--certainly the last quarter of the story, which is a madcap running battle, reads as something just waiting to be CGI'd into a third act) it would take up exactly five words (as noted in the synopsis): Harry Potter versus the Terminator. Magic versus science, mages versus battle robots. Some people could do a lot with this idea. Shaun Barger, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be one of them.

The first thing wrong is the characterization: one of our two protagonists, Nikolai Strauss, is, to be frank, a whiny-ass, bad-tempered, entitled prick. Yes, his mother magically beat him to toughen him up, and his father did nothing to stop it. This kind of forced family dysfunction, with the dead mother being the bad person, is a maddening, unnecessary cliche. Nik is only twenty years old and an overpowered danger to himself and others throughout, and he needed to be sat down and given a great deal of therapy before the story even started. The one saving grace, character-wise, is the other protagonist (the two alternate POV chapters), Jemma Burton. Jemma's storyline is the SF one; her post-apocalyptic society has virtual reality, wetware mods in people's brains, artificial intelligence, robots (here called Synths), and a fertility plague that has doomed the human race, and is just more interesting. In fact, Jemma should have been the protagonist throughout.

The second thing is the worldbuilding, which is almost as clunky as the characterization. The SF world is, again, superior. The mages have a history that reads very Erich von Daniken "Chariots of the Gods" to me, and I wouldn't be surprised if their "discs," which power their pocket dimensions, turn out to be alien artifacts. (If I even pick up the second book, which right now I'm not going to do.) Of course, the mages' meddling is what brought on the humans' nuclear apocalypse in the first place, and they sealed themselves away from humankind because they're Too Powerful To Mix, instead of owning up to what they did and trying to fix it. (Naturally, if they had, the artificial intelligences would likely never have arisen, at least in the form postulated here, and we wouldn't have a story.)

(But hey, if I can suggest a more interesting story in just two sentences...well, your book is just not up to snuff.)

The pacing is also off, as the book (with the partial exception of the Jemma chapters) doesn't really get going until Nik and Jemma meet up. After that it's a frantic over-the-top race to the ending. Which, by the way, is another problem, because the ending is written from the POV of one of the AI Overminds, Armitage, whose head we have never been in until now. This is simply a poor choice, as Armitage is referring to stuff the reader knows nothing about, and as a result the book sputters to a sudden, confusing halt.

The whole thing badly needs tightening up and another draft. The bones of what could be a good story are here, and it's sad and frustrating that the author apparently can't do anything with it.

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