Book Review: Mage Against the Machine by Shaun Barger
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Book 1/Stand Alone
Publisher: Saga Press (October 30, 2018)
Length: 512 pages
“Harry Potter meets The Terminator”—what could go wrong? Well, as we all know, even good ideas can fail if the execution is not that great. And this was my overall impression with Mage Against the Machine, which had the advantage of a solid concept behind its premise. The only problem was that the story took way too long to gain momentum and generate interest.
To its credit though, the book doesn’t waste time throwing the reader into the thick of things. The story opens in 2120, and our world has become a very different place. Humans are gone, dead, destroyed by a nuclear holocaust years ago—or that’s what Nikolai Strauss has been led to believe. A young wizard living in a sealed and magical dome, Nik has been completely oblivious to the realities happening on the other side of the Veils that conceal and protect mage-kind from the dangers of the wasteland. He’s entirely wrapped up in his own aspirations to become a full-fledged soldier in the Mage King’s army. Living in the shadow of his mother’s disreputable history, he feels he has to do more to prove himself, but when the massive chip on his shoulder gets him in trouble and causes him to go on the run, he is confronted with the truth which changes his outlook on everything.
Outside the dome, Nik meets Jem, a cybernetically enhanced ballerina-turned-soldier for the human resistance. As it turns out, humanity has not died out. Survivors like Jem have been living under the tyrannical rule of artificial intelligences called Synths, fighting for their lives and freedom. Now Nik has a decision to make. With the resistance barely hanging on, should he return to the safety of magic behind the Veils, or help Jem with her last-ditch—and long-shot—efforts to try to save the human race from extinction?
At times, it was really hard to determine what kind of book Mage Against the Machine wanted to be. The tone of the narrative did not feel too YA, though the juvenile behaviors and attitudes of the characters—Nikolai especially—sometimes made me think otherwise. It was extremely difficult to sympathize with Nik, for whom “belligerent and sulky” seemed to be a default setting. Since the publisher seems keen on the Harry Potter comparison, I’m going to draw parallels between Nik and Harry from Order of the Phoenix, in which the latter was a hot-headed, boiling cauldron of hormones severely in need of some anger management classes. This was essentially Nik, who was bitter and resentful to the point of irrationality, whose rage often got the better of him and was the cause of his own misfortunes and misery. This made it nearly impossible to feel sorry for him, let alone root for him.
Jem fared a little better, though for the first half of the book, her chapters were shockingly uneventful and tedious, considering she was the one living in the wasteland terrorized by murderous machines. In essence, this unbalanced pacing was the book’s main undoing; nothing of genuine importance happens until past the halfway mark, when our two characters finally encounter each other. After that, the story picks up—becoming quite enjoyable, in fact—though by this point, a lot of the damage has already been done and I could not justify giving this book more than a middling rating.
I will, however, give the author props for a few things I felt were done really well. Like I said, the second half of this book really shines, infusing the plot with genre-mashing goodness and the kind of thrilling action that keeps you turning the pages. It almost makes up for the lackluster beginning. I also liked the dynamic between Nik and Jem. No romance arc here, thankfully. Their relationship is actually a complicated one, full of nuances and conflict. They’re both looking out for the interests of their own people which causes no small amount of friction in their burgeoning friendship, leading to some tense moments later on when we get closer to the end of the novel.
Mage Against the Machine being a debut, I knew there was a real chance of running into a few hitches, especially with pacing. But boy, the first half could have really used another round of structural edits to shorten it by paring down some of the unnecessary drama. For me, the real story didn’t begin until Nikolai and Jem’s worlds finally collided, and I felt that this crucial turning point should have occurred much sooner than it did in this 500+ page novel. This flaw aside though, I do have to applaud Shaun Barger for attempting something truly original; the post-apocalyptic genre needs more ideas like this to keep things fun and fresh. It’ll be interesting to see what else he’ll bring to the table in the future with more time and experience.