Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore
My low rating of 2022’s Battle of the Linguist Mages comes from the distance between my anticipation of this book based on its excellent title, and the reality of reading it. I think people who like watching other people play video games will enjoy this book. I don’t, and so I didn’t. Your mileage, as we say, may vary.
Battle of the Linguist Mages is filled with awesome ideas. Here are a few:
- a “battle language” that changes reality
- extraterrestrials who live in human consciousness as punctuation marks
- a powerful, high-tech cult
- a dictatorial governor of California with a plan of conquest
- 1980s tropes and dance-offs
Moore’s book is filled with cool visuals and snappy dialogue, with villains who know they’re villains, and snark back with great glee at our first-person narrator MC, Isobel Bailie, aka Queen of the Sparkle Dungeon, the augmented reality game she is addicted to. For me, this was a case where the whole did not add up to the sum of its parts. There were lots of ideas here that were dangled but not explored, and shallow characterization stopped me from engaging with the story. When I realized I was going to have to watch Isobel basically play all the levels of the game, my interest died.
Isobel starts off with real promise. She is an addict, a fact that is ignored after the first couple of chapters. She is a brilliant player with other skills, and she is recruited by the marketing firm that represents Sparkle Dungeon, ostensibly to beta-test Sparkle Dungeon 5. She soon discovers that the powerful battle-language in the game works in the physical world. Then she meets a person who has had first contact with extra-terrestrials—and then another person, Madison, who’s with a different faction of the ET. Madison, or Maddy, is a Black anarchist linguist who was also hired by the marketing firm but quit when she found out what they were doing and threw in with the anarchist ETs. Starting as an adversary of Isobel’s, Maddy almost immediately becomes a love interest, and of course, Isobel changes sides.
Jordan is an icon of the Church of Gorvod and a pop star. In her new “day job” Isobel is assigned to market Jordan’s new video, and soon discovers that she knows Jordan from the game. Jordan is a fount of information about the Church, which is a power player in the diabolical three-way plot—game developer/marketer, governor, and Church—to take over California and do something bad. Oh, and there’s a Really Big Bad that seems to be in the game but can expand beyond the borders of the game and overwrite reality. Got all that? Don’t worry, this won’t be on the midterm.
Isobel is a one-note narrator; Maddy’s politics vanish once she and Isobel get close. Periodically, Maddy will raise an issue of philosophy, like “power should be decentralized” but she drops it as soon as Isobel puts herself at risk to do something, which is about every third chapter. Jordan is the Church of Gorvod-wiki when needed, and then morphs into a bridge office from Star Trek, driving a space ship, and nothing else. Isobel plateaus early-on, never progressing beyond “I’m only alive when I play Sparkle Dungeon.” About halfway through the book, Moore gives us an internal monologue of Isobel’s where she reflects that she never felt right in the world until she found the game. Interesting, but it doesn’t substitute for an actual, rounded character.
As characters make and break alliances, have successes that lead to bigger obstacles, improvise weapons and have long discussions about game strategy, the visuals become more elaborate and the plot more convoluted. I think the book itself would make a popular game. Ultimately, though, Isobel’s demotion from a rounded character (which she starts off being, at least, in the early chapters) to a bland Chosen One left the story—and me–with no momentum. I finished the book out of stubbornness.
I wanted to like this book because of its great title, and it hurts a little bit to give it such a low rating. It simply did not work for me.