Title: Sufficiently Advanced Magic (Arcane Ascension 1)
Author: Andrew Rowe
Release Date: April 23rd, 2017
Genre(s): Fantasy, LitRPG
Page Count: 623 pages
Have you ever crafted runes or enchanted your gear in an RPG and wondered how the process might be described, step by step, in writing? Ever stayed up late in your bed questioning how mana potions are made? (…No? No one?) Well, throw those worries away, because this might be a book for you.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe is my first foray into the LitRPG genre, which I didn’t even know was a thing, and I was surprised by how entertaining I found it. The book is basically a dungeon crawler in written form. For those unfamiliar with the term, a dungeon crawler is a type of video game where you descend into levels filled with monsters that drop various weapons and gear when killed. You explore each level, do away with any threats, and loot unique treasures. Rinse and repeat
. The book offers the same concept, except, well, inverted. There are five kingdoms in Rowe’s world and each houses what is called a Shifting Spire. They are said to have been created by the goddess Selys, also known as the “The Mistress of Trials”, as a way of testing and challenging humans. Each Spire hosts a series of rooms featuring traps, puzzles, and various monsters. Intrepid adventurers (aptly named “Climbers”) ascend a tower, level by level, gaining attunements (magical specializations), until they reach the top, where the goddess is rumoured to grant one boon to the lucky champion.
Seventeen year-old Corin Cadence is on a quest to find his brother who disappeared five years ago during a venture through one of these Spires. After getting his first attunement, Corin enrolls in the Lorian Heights Academy of Arcane Arts, where he hopes to become skilled enough to reach the top of the tower. I quite enjoyed Corin as a main character–his narration is easy and fun. He acts like how a teenager who’s been sent to a magical university would act (or really, any first-years in any universities): winging his way through with a combination of optimism, terror, and snark. He’s not a natural fighter or a leader; he has an analytical mind that’s suited for puzzles, not so much for dueling hulking monsters. On top of that, he’s stuck with an attunement that’s largely thought of as useless in battle and has major fears he needs to surmount.
I love fantasy protagonists who show fear. The ones who would rather sprint away than towards an enemy. In a genre filled with chest-thumping, testosterone-spewing heroes, it’s always a breath of fresh air seeing a character who’s a closer representation of what you and I would be like in a world of deadly monsters and magic. And fear doesn’t always have to be presented as a weakness. It can be debilitating, yes, but it can also be a strength. For example, Corin is deathly afraid of using up his internal mana and burning out his mind, so he decides to invent a wearable device that would help keep track of the user’s mana at any given time. So his fear becomes a channel to something positive and productive. It’s a fantastic bit of character work.
Also, HELLO, ACE REP. This is the first non-YA fantasy I’ve read where a character comes right out and says, “I don’t find people sexually attractive,” with no one making a big deal out of it. So, big kudos to the author for that.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find any of the secondary characters as interesting or well-developed as the MC. The problem is that we don’t really see Corin interacting with anyone in-depth, aside from his sister, Sera. Like, at one point, Corin gets asked out to a dance by one of his classmates, but it’s hardly ever mentioned again and it doesn’t facilitates any changes to their relationship. I would have loved a bit less dialogue on magic systems and more on personal affairs.
I also had issues with the plot and the worldbuilding. There’s an artificial sense to the setting that I couldn’t dispense with, like all of this was happening in a virtual reality. The world feels sparse; there’s no clear picture of what the university looks like, nevermind the rest of the country. The main conflict remains rather hazy until nearly the end of the book. Most of that’s due to the choppy structure of the book. Like, there’s a good chunk in the middle dedicated to magic exploration, then we move onto few character interactions, then school exams, and then the main plot.
Despite the problems, I will definitely be picking up the sequel when it comes out. You can tell the author had fun writing it and I had quite a bit of fun reading it. While it projects an obvious appeal to readers who are already familiar with the RPG genre, I think the detailed explanations on the Spires and the magic system is enough to keep newcomers interested.