Thursday, 21 December 2017

Review: The Flaw in All Magic

The Flaw in All Magic The Flaw in All Magic by Ben S. Dobson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I found this by looking through the steampunk category on Amazon. It's more magepunk than steampunk, with magically driven engines and an airship lifted partly by spells; a steampunkish/dieselpunkish feel to the setting, but with lots of magic-as-technology and an assortment of fantasy races (elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, goblins, and so forth).

Because this is pretty close to what I often write myself, I read it with great interest. Because it's extremely well done, I also read it with great enjoyment.

The protagonist is a man without magical ability who was able to fool the magical university authorities for several years using a combination of sleight-of-hand and bluff, culminating in a dissertation which revealed his deception, and argued that only someone without magic could really understand it, because the flaw in all magic is the mage. Mages, being human(oid), are subject to error, and egotistical blindness to their own errors. (I was reminded of the flaws in computer programs introduced by programmers.) He's a rogue, but an ethical one, a little bit obsessive, and courageous when he needs to be.

His sidekick is a half-orc who has come to the island where magic is still freely practiced because she wants to see amazing sights. Her sense of awe and wonder is a beautifully handled part of her character, and asserts itself even when she's in great peril. She's a good-natured character, contrary to orc stereotypes, and despite the fact that she's experienced prejudice her whole life (her orcish relatives see her as too human, and everyone else sees her as too orcish). I enjoyed the fact that she was the muscle in the pair. It's a simple, even a common, trope-switch to make the woman the physically dangerous one, but the main character's easy acceptance of it without any discussion gained the book extra points with me.

Both characters are terrific, with enough backstory to feel real and sympathetic, introduced (like the worldbuilding) just when it's needed, and just as much as it's needed for the reader's understanding. Their collegial relationship is a joy to see, particularly since there's no attraction between them, but there is respect.

The plot is a mystery/thriller, with a locked-room murder (of someone who mattered to the protagonist); politics (including echoes of current real-world politics of the arrogant, regressive far-right sort); fights, pursuits, and edge-of-the-seat physical danger; and roguish cleverness. The pacing, I felt, was a good balance between keeping things constantly moving and not failing to pause for reflection.

On top of excellent editing, this all-around facility with the craft of writing helped push this into 5-star territory for me, and made this one of my favourite books this year. I'm very glad to have discovered another author who I can trust to tell a good story well.

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