Title: Mage Against the Machine
Author: Shaun Barger
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: October 31st, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Science Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Artificial Intelligence
Page Count: 512 (hardback)
Rating: DNF (@ 50%)
The year is 2120. The humans are dead. The mages have retreated from the world after a madman blew up civilization with weaponized magical technology. Safe within domes that protect them from the nuclear wasteland on the other side, the mages have spent the last century putting their lives back together.
Nikolai is obsessed with artifacts from twentieth-century human life: mage-crafted replica Chuck Taylors on his feet, Schwarzenegger posters on his walls, Beatlemania still alive and well in his head. But he’s also tasked with a higher calling—to maintain the Veils that protect mage-kind from the hazards of the wastes beyond. As a cadet in the Mage King’s army, Nik has finally found what he always wanted—a purpose. But when confronted by one of his former instructors gone rogue, Nik tumbles into a dark secret. The humans weren’t nuked into oblivion—they’re still alive. Not only that, outside the domes a war rages between the last enclaves of free humans and vast machine intelligences.
Outside the dome, unprepared and on the run, Nik finds Jem. Jem is a Runner for the Human Resistance. A ballerina-turned-soldier by the circumstances of war, Jem is more than just a human—her cybernetic enhancement mods make her faster, smarter, and are the only things that give her a fighting chance against the artificial beings bent on humanity’s eradication.
Now Nik faces an impossible decision: side with the mages and let humanity die out? Or stand with Jem and the humans—and risk endangering everything he knows and loves?
I tried with this one.
I really, really did.
But between me and the book, something’s gotta give and the book is, well, a book. It doesn’t have emotions. It doesn’t have a network of neurons all simultaneously screaming “Abort! Abort!” The book will remain cool and unbothered and utterly pristine.
I can’t say the same for my tablet which has suffered from verbal abuse and my fantasies of hurling it against the wall.
Or the future of my tenancy in this apartment. Because I can’t count the number of times I yelled “What???” and “UGH” as I was reading through this, and I’m sure my neighbours were all privy to my 1 AM musings.
I actually considered DNF at about 1/4 of the way in, and the only excuse I can give for continuing is that I was overcome by an especially strong bout of masochism.
Here’s the thing. Nothing about the premise or the cover or the marketing screamed “DNF.” Harry Potter meets Terminator? Sign me up! And if you look at it from a wide angle, you can see that it’s got some really interesting material to work with: an Earth that’s been taken over by machines, a human Resistance group created to combat them, a mage world that occupies the same space as the human world, and some snappy action scenes sprinkled throughout.
All of that is negated by the characters.
One character in particular.
Nikolai Strauss gets the honour of being the most irritating, rage-inducing protagonist I’ve come across this year, his glowing list of qualities including arrogance, entitlement, pettiness, and fits of jealous rage. I have zero good things to say about him.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Nik is a mage and a member of the Edge Guard which the book unceremoniously tells you right from the start is “a powerful government order charged with the defense and maintenance of magical domed Veils that hid the magi from the human world, which had been reduced to lifeless, magically radioactive wastelands a century prior, in 2020.”
Clunky worldbuilding info isn’t all that the story throws at you from the first page. There are also reveals of long-buried family secrets, confession of betrayals, blooming of romance and then unblooming of it, and all within the first 50-ish pages.
Naturally the next half of the book would be dedicated to untangling some of these mysterious and exploring more of the world, right?
The next half of the book is dedicated to Nik trying to get with a girl he likes but getting the “I’m not one for relationships” treatment, brooding about it for some bit, meeting his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, and then brooding about that in the most childish ways imaginable.
At one point, after hearing about the boyfriend’s promotion, he stomps to his bedroom, slams the door and thinks, “okay, that was kind of immature,” and then proceeds to rip away all the posters on his walls in a fit of rage. Which is, of course, the far more mature option.
And the biggest kicker is that these childish fits come with dollops of self-awareness. Comments like “He knew he was being immature” and “What was he doing?” doesn’t make him any more likeable or complex, it just makes his actions all the more baffling.
The side characters fare no better, with some verging on caricature-levels of ridiculous. I mean, just what am I supposed to do with dialogue like this?
“I have a girlfriend now. And you know what that means? “
“Sex!” he interrupted. “And I don’t have to tell you, but this sex thing? It is some seriously good shit.”
The other protagonist, Jem, is much more likeable, if a little bland. Through her PoV chapters we get glimpses of the Resistance group’s conflict with the Synths, and Terminator vibes are most definitely present here in a good way.
But then halfway through the book I came across this one nonsensical sequence of events involving Jem and her love interest and I just had to call it quits. While a non-irritating protagonist is a big plus, I generally like my characters to come with credible motivations and actions that make sense.
If you can ignore cringey romance and unlikable characters, the story might be entertaining in a messy kind of way. It wasn’t to be for me, unfortunately.
Review copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss