Review: Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe
I got this one out of whatever Audible algorithm knows that I skulk around the results of the latest Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, though not realizing it was in the current running for champion, which is in the nature of algorithms to do. And what a surprise it's been to find this story that could easily be labeled with common tropes but I think its actually an entry into a rare sub-genre that's peaking its way into SF/F.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic starts us off as a Tower Climber. That by itself is something that's not been in the novel side of the SF/F genre. It's been in a few anime, like Magi or Black Clover, featuring a setting where the setting presents a kind of very D&D style dungeon to experience with a clear goal at the top of tower to claim. I feel like its such an easy fit for the genre that I'm really surprised that we haven't seen it's like more often in the genre.
Dropping the main character, Corin, into the puzzle and monster laden setting of Serpent Tower makes for immediately engaging action and introduces the methodology of Corin's mind. That's the real star of SAM. Corin is a problem solver. Not a fighter or a genius or a savior. He's a character that finds interesting problems and then tries to solve them. Sometimes to the detriment of the pace of novel, Corin is a wealth of information on the world and all it's fascets.
As the novel progresses, Corin moves out of the tower and into a world that immediately gives us another trope, magic school. Though this one leans to the militaristic, and so all of the "classes" have a reason that they might erupt into a fight scene. It provides a nice gradient to view the MC through. Being a character that thinks through his problems, giving him situations that he has little time to think gives us opportunities to see him shine and fail rather spectacularly. The nature of this also leads back into Corin's fixation on preparedness. Which also leads nicely into classic fantasy try/fail cycles of magic experimentation.
And that's what's new to SF/F. Not the try/fail itself, but the level of information available around the try/fail. SAM is essentially the fantasy version of the Martian except that we don't know the rules of magic the way that we might know the laws of physics that determine the events of the Martian. Though even the Martian deals with such specificity of science that it takes some more explanation for the common reader. SAM spends its time telling us not just what a character or powers in the world can do, but how they do it, and then how someone else might do the same. This simple description spirals out into a fractal product of worldbuilding that creates something truly breathtaking, but certainly heavy.
I can see why people might get bogged down in that explanation of the how. It's probably a good sign for SAM that so many people liked the Martian, but in the space of fantasy and sci-fi we haven't really seen someone delve deep into this kind of procedural prose. I think the early bits of the Expanse series dealt with this as the characters maneuvered through the deadly realities of space travel and interplanetary rocketry, but definitely not with the specificity of SAM. And not with the detail either. The Expanse series is quick to hand wave some of the more problematic space issues in a way that SAM would spend a chapter explaining it's solution.
That kind of direction is certainly not for everyone, but it was for me. Sufficiently Advanced Magic gets three stars our of five.