This book is a straightforward, well executed genre piece with a few clever twists that caught my interest. It follows Blaise, something of a mad scientist and a powerful sorcerer who creates a magical being, Gala, for the purpose of giving magic to the commoners. Complications arise, the first of which is Gala herself, a person instead of an object as originally planned.
Despite a few issues, the book accomplishes what it sets out to. It’s an entertaining, quick read with a clever magic system, and it never gets bogged down. That being said, I felt there were missed opportunities where the author could have slipped in a bit more depth, and the character, Augusta, didn’t sit well with me. This is a rare criticism from me, but I also felt there were certain parts where it would have been appropriate for things to be a bit naughtier than they were.
My first criticism of the book is that the story raised a lot of interesting issues but never explored them in a way that really impacted me. The sorcerers are your typical ruling class and happen to think they’re somewhat godlike, and have the power to back it up, so a good portion of the book focuses on Blaise’s desire to balance things out. I felt the author was trying to communicate just how bad it could be to live under the sorcerers, but each time he raised an issue, it was through the perspective of one of the characters who didn’t have to deal with it directly.
There’s starvation, but only one of the main characters actually needs to eat. Then there’s casual cruelty, like the coliseum, but again, Gala is simply a horrified observer that immediately leaps in and tries to fix things. There is also a great deal of talk of how Blaise’s brother, another powerful sorcerer, was summarily executed simply for trying to let the commoners know what it felt like to do magic. This was interesting, but because it happened in the past, it’s not quite enough to really drive home a sense of oppression.
The one scene that really works is when a young, starving woman steals a piece of bread and gets her hand cut off. I feel like the author began to, but didn’t completely, take off the kid gloves, and let the scene start creeping towards truly horrific, but it’s the only instance I can remember.
The author really needed to do more bad things to the characters we followed, or he needed to write in a few truly horrific scenes involving the commoners and those above them. It’s one thing that works so well in George R.R. Martin’s writing: absolutely awful things happen, and it not only fires up the reader to root for the underdog, it also makes her genuinely afraid of what’s going to happen next.
Although the sorcerers are presented as ignorant, arrogant, and cavalier concerning the lives of their peasants, Mr. Zales never made me feel, on a get level, that they were twisted and cruel, and thus the system they represented HAD to be torn down by Blaise and Gala.
My second issue was Augusta, who for a seemingly brilliant woman didn’t exhibit much in the way of rational thought. I absolutely despised her, true, but it was a bit too easy to do. I don’t believe her character was written to hate, but hate her I did.
On the same note, it bothered me that the instant she had her first confrontation with Blaise she became completely unhinged and never gathered her wits about her. She started with a bit more depth than she ended up with, although, given the ending, I’m optimistic she’ll end up doing more than running around in a continuous and arrogant tantrum.
My final problem was, frankly, the sex. It happened rather frequently in the book, but there was rarely more than a sentence implying that a pair of characters had, or were about to, make love. Now, this normally isn’t a problem, but given how the book starts and how, to an extent, it presents itself; I felt those scenes should have been fleshed out a bit more. Not a lot, mind you, just a few more details, a little bit of physical intimacy.
As it was, the scenes felt a bit forced, a stray sentence chucked in here and there because, well, the characters are expected to have sex and so they shall. It doesn’t need much more, and it doesn’t need to be particularly lewd, but it does need enough to inject some passion into it. It’d make the book a more enjoyable read.
Now, on to what worked: the pacing. Dima Zales nails the speed that a fun fantasy adventure should read at. I never got bogged down and was able to get through the entire thing in one day. I have nothing against longer books, but it’s always a pleasure when an author knows the story he or she wants to tell and just does it. I never felt like I was getting info dumps dropped on me, and the details about the world, although I would have liked a few more, were neatly interspersed with the action so as not to be intrusive.
I also loved the magic system. It’s essentially computer programming, and by essentially, I mean it downright IS. There’s a magic realm, then a physical realm. To get the magical realm to affect the physical realm, sorcerers have to use a complex programming language. A recent invention made this simpler by essentially creating a punch card computer, so instead of writing 1s and 0s, sorcerers can code in visual basic.
It was a brilliantly simple magic system, but the moment I figured out what was going on I couldn’t help but grin. Even better, because it works just like complex computer programming, the reader immediately has an intuitive understanding of how it fits into the world, how pervasive it is, how life changing for the people within it. Really, in many ways Blaise is simply trying to give everyone access to computers and eventually the internet, and it’s that free flow of information that terrifies the other sorcerers. It was clever, and I’d like to see more with it.
All told, this book was a fun, lighthearted read. It could have hit with more impact in places, and been a bit sexier, but on the same note it was a pleasant way to breeze through an afternoon. If you want something fun, with enough clever bits to make you smile and chuckle, I’d recommend it. I give it a 4/5.