Sufficiently Advanced Magic (2017) took 2nd place in SPFBO 3, which wrapped up last week. The book is a strong addition to the highly popularized LitRPG subgenre, though Rowe avows it is not strictly LitRPG. I am not a follower of the subgenre, but this book has enjoyed such runaway popularity over the past year, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Introducing Corin Cadence, resident of a world where people can earn magical enchantments by progressing through magic towers where they encounter tests of strength, judgment and combat skill. If all goes well, the goddess grants the challenger an attunement, including a magical skill, and safe exit of the tower. If all goes poorly, challengers die … get lost … imprisoned … or some other unpleasantness.
Corin’s primary motive in life is to enter The Serpent Spire, achieve an attunement (or two) and find his brother Tristan, who previously challenged the tower and was never seen or heard of again. Unfortunately, things go a bit sideways and Colin witnesses a series of events he perhaps shouldn’t have, but he does achieve the attunement and safely … sort of … exit the tower to advance to a university for the magically attuned.
This is the set up for Sufficiently Advanced Magic. And it’s really engaging. Corin’s character is intriguing, cerebral, and cautiously judicious … almost to the point of paranoia … but it really works. His understated humor is interesting and he’s pretty easy to connect with. Andrew Rowe’s world building is extraordinary and it comes as no surprise that he is a video game designer by trade. The book is extremely visual, but not immersive in every sensory aspect. It’s like a video game. This visual world building is what the author does really well, but I’m sorry to say, he lets the world-building hijack the plot of the story.
Much of the plot circles around the events Corin witnessed in the tower, but almost all of the tension of the piece follows Corin’s training and attunement challenges. You can invest interest in the characters and the world, but you can’t invest in the plot as it unfolds because Rowe fails, or chooses not to, plant signals for the reader to follow.
In fact, he goes quite the other direction, misdirecting with every single piece of evidence provided. I’m a plot person, and my interest flagged midway through Sufficiently Advanced Magic. In a long story, this is really a big flaw. I might not have finished it but for the obligation of producing a review. The flaw isn’t fatal, however, because so many fans of LitRPG will read and adore this book for the world as much as for the story.
By the end of the novel, there’s absolutely no way for the reader to guess the outcome. So Rowe resorts to the inevitable “AHA I GOT YOU” big villain speech wherein the antagonist explains everything. There is another, more satisfying, big reveal at the very end. It is intriguing enough that the novel ends on a fairly strong and well-planted cliffhanger.
I will look forward to watching Rowe’s literary career.