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The nature of the magic system makes it very easy to dramatize the main character's primary conflict, which is that if he does nothing, then he'll experience no bad luck, but he'll also be at the mercy of the universe, whereas if he acts, then he can get his way, but he also risks disaster. It's a very human story: the same story that we all face every single day. But in real life it plays out in subtle and far-reaching way that are maybe hard to understand, whereas in this book, the story plays out with explosions. Still, at its core, this story is very personal and relatable and human. It's about a guy who maybe wants to do good, but who mostly wants to patch his family together and live peacefully and ensure a happy & safe life for his daughter. And that's something I've seen rarely enough in fantasy novels that I thought it was really refreshing.
Also, the book is dense and complex. Ferrett is a good student of humanity, and many of the characters, institutions, and situations in the book are startlingly complex. For instance, the main character's employer, Samaritan Mutual, is an evil corporation, but, unlike most evil corporations in fiction, it's a startlingly amorphous and petty evil. There's no evil CEO who forces it to be evil: instead, selfishness and thoughtlessness is bred right down into its bones. The corporation is evil not because of any one person, but because at every level people are rewarded for ignoring people who need help. Anyway, I could go on, but I won't. This one is one of the better fantasy novels I've read in the last five years, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it blew up and became a best-seller or an award-winner.
It starts out amazing in the prologue (that's also where the only really graphic sex scene is to be found). And the rules for magic use/backlash and someone's talent are great (Bureaucracy Wizard??? Brilliant). Add the discrimination/bigotry/witch hunting against magic users and addiction angles. The bit where his daughter would hate him if she knew he was a wizard. This story has legs.
The problem is that you have this setup where the magic users are severely constrained by the eventual lashback from the Flux. Awesome idea. But this is presented as a well known problem and all the magic users have to make do with it. In comes the reluctant hero, Mr. Johnny Come Lately and he magically figures out elegant ways around it throughout. Yeah, like none of the previous wizards would have figured them out before. So, basically, the hero more or less bypasses most of the magic use constraints set up in the world building.
He's not perfect (something I hate with main protagonists), but comes close. But he certainly somewhat invalidates a lot of the "magic use is so hard and dangerous" setup that is the main point of the story. So there is a bit of inconsistency going on here although it doesn't really spoil the enjoyment. I hope that with this success under his belt, the author can write up sequels correcting some of my perceived flaws, because there are lots of potential.
Last, this is light reading. Don't expect anything hugely significant besides a novel take on Urban Fantasy.
It's a fun take on magic. The world is richly imagined with culture and history peaking out from behind the staging. The story moves and builds well.
I gave it 4 of 5 because some of the supporting characters are shadows. There are 'mancers supposedly defined by their incredible obsession to one thing, but they're fleshed out and given more depth than cliched tropes from central casting (sleazy politician, macho cop, thug, pretty boy, etc).
As someone who's read the Ferrett's blog for years, I can see parallels between what he's written about in his personal life, and what he's written about in his fiction. They're there. Ironically, I think I'd have enjoyed the book more without knowing them; because I found the connections I'd see would pull me out of the fictional story and back to thinking about real events or posts. If you're not a reader of the blog, don't let that stop you from enjoying the book. If you are a reader of the blog, it's probably gonna tug at some memories. (But you've probably already read the book, I'm pretty late to the actual book party.)
I personally found it overly optimistic; but it stands in fine speculative fiction company there.
I enjoyed this book a lot and I plan on reading more as they are published. But there's a criticism I have, and a warning.
The character work is really well done, barring the main character. Everyone else felt alive to me but I didn't feel like he was more than a list of traits until the book was 3/4ths done. Normally that's the sort of thing I don't mind, but with all the other characters feeling so alive and vital, it threw me off.
The warning is this: this is a Very fast paced book. To the point that it feels almost a little rushed in spots. It's a little like Jim Butcher's first Dresden book that way - so intent on slamming through the story that it feels like stuff is being glossed over. I'm hoping that future Steinmetz books find a balance the way that the ongoing Dresden books did.
That said, this is a good read. I recommended it to my other picky reading friends, and that's saying something.
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