Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe
Posted Winter 2019
Full disclosure on this one: I was initially attracted to this book because the author and I share the same first and last name. When I launched my own author website, I did a Google search to see what might pop up for people looking for me. I had previously made the decision to use the name my momma gave me, Andrew Marc Rowe, as a pen name, but I searched “andrew rowe writer” nonetheless. The algorithm just happened to turn up Sufficiently Advanced Magic. So, I had a look.
What took me by surprise as I read the details of the story was something along the lines of, “this guy is my people!” As in, a fantasy / video game aficionado. I understand from the biographical information posted online that Andrew /u/salaris/ is a game designer. I have been a huge gamer my whole life (though mostly just a monthly D&D game these days). What's more, my preferred genre is the role-playing game! When I was a lad, it was an early dream to become a game designer (though before that my dream was becoming an author – guess which stuck). I even went so far as to plan to attend the video game design course at the University of Alberta, though when it came time to shit or get off the pot, I chose the latter.
But, I digress. Reading about Andrew, I realized that we shared a love of video games and fantasy. His book, Sufficiently Advanced Magic, promised to be an interesting chimera of the two! So, I picked it up, messaged him on reddit, told him I appreciated the coincidence, and got down to reading.
Apologies to Andrew: I told him I would review this back in October 2018 and I am a few months overdue.
The story: 5/5
The first thing to say about this book is that it is a LitRPG. I had never even heard of the sub-genre until encountering this book, but it does embody the idea completely. Role-playing games (RPGs) are usually a blend of story-telling and statistics building. For the uninitiated, here is a sample progression: the villager that becomes the hero starts off barely able to swing a shovel at a mole rat, and ends up equipped with armor that can withstand a nuclear weapon and a sword that can cut a hole in the fabric of reality itself. Literary RPGs are essentially an alchemical transfer of the spirit of character growth both in power and otherwise that is the raison d'etre of role-playing games to the written page.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic opens with a bang. Our hero, Corin Cadence, is stepping foot into the Serpent Spire, a tower full of monsters, in an effort to complete his Judgment, a potentially deadly coming-of-age ritual that he has to complete in order to enter into the ranks of society. The tower is set up in a way that reminded me of dungeons in The Legend of Zelda, complete with puzzles in each room.
I don’t love spoiling things, so I will try to avoid doing so as much as possible, but what I really enjoyed in this book was how I thought things were going to go a certain way and then the entire plot gets flipped. Suffice it to say that Corin encounters things that he “shouldn’t have,” including seeming criminals and a god. And Corin decides to disobey the god at his own peril. This is all within the first fifty or so pages of the book. And that is just the first of many plot twists.
I want to be clear: this book isn’t just a mish mash of cool fight scenes and loot. Corin has a troubled relationship with his father, is searching for his disappeared brother, and has to contend with a friend and former servant of Corin’s suddenly being adopted by said antagonistic father (Corin’s a member of the nobility).
The majority of the book takes place at a wizarding academy in the vein of Harry Potter, complete with teachers with strong personalities and rivalry between the pupils. An even greater twist: Corin’s command of magic is over a school that you simply would not expect (hint: it’s not making shit blow up). Corin uses his wits to overcome the adversity that threatens to overtake him at every turn.
Another couple of nods I have to give to Andrew on this is regarding two topics. The first is regarding Corin’s personality. Although it’s not explicit, based on a few things that occur, Corin hints that he is not the most adept socially and misses cues to some extent. As someone who has been accused from time to time of having “a touch of the Asperger’s” (usually lovingly by my wife), I really appreciated this aspect of Corin’s personality and thought it made him quite human.
The second is the way that sexuality is dealt with. Connected with the previous point, when Corin is asked by a male friend to a school dance, he takes a while to think about it. He is not certain about his sexuality and has a moment of self-reflection before deciding yes, he would like to go to the dance with him. I am a big fan of the humane notion that everyone has the right to self-identification and expression, and that the way we handle sexuality, gender, and other points of identity at large in society still needs quite a bit of work (that might be a bit of editorializing on my part, but still feels resonant with the story). It is very subtle and handled masterfully.
Really, Andrew is a tremendous writer and I thought that the poise he showed in writing about these two relatively sensitive topics (and I apologize if I was insensitive in any way in my own discussion – definitely not my intention) showed his skill with the craft. And these are just two points in a myriad I could talk about.
The worldbuilding, for one. The Serpent Spire and Lorian Heights Academy are both incredible locales, as is the political divisions of the world into somewhat rival kingdoms simmering with peace. All of these countries seem to want to make their mages into military folk, while the mages themselves dream of ascending the towers and becoming gods. What a setting!
Getting back to my first point, there is a ton of loot. Corin’s magical skill, enchantment, allows him to create items to aid him and his friends in their trials and tribulations. There are considerations, like his skill level and the reagents he uses (just like an RPG!)
Speaking of magic, the system is brilliantly contained and explained within the confines of the world. Stuff that spectacularly goes boom? Check! Summoned monsters with personalities? Check!
As I said, I did not want to get too much into spoiler territory, but have already failed terribly at that. Nonetheless, if you are at all a fan of role-playing games or fantasy novels, there is something to love here. I decimated the book in a very short period – within a week or so – much faster than what is normal for me, especially given its length (over 600 or so pages, I think?). I immediately bought a copy of “On The Shoulders of Titans,” its sequel, though I am not through it yet.
As a man who has not really had time to play a video game for way too long (between day job, daughter, wife, social life, writing of my own, etc., etc., etc.), I really appreciated what Andrew did here. It was a unique experience and definitely one of my literary highlights of 2018.
Hats off to you, brother.