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A Review of "Off to Be the Wizard" (Magic 2.0, Book 1)



The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:

Off to Be the Wizard is an engaging and breezy tale that has some uneven pacing and structural issues, but is overall an entertaining read.  The humor is a mixed bag and sometimes falls flat - even so, at worst it is "mildly amusing" and at best it is clever and insightful.  OtBtW subverts many expectations and works best when it settles into a more casual, day-to-day observational style of humor.  It is currently part of the the Kindle Prime Lending Library, so you can try it for (basically) free if you're a member, but even if you aren't, it's definitely worth the small price of admission.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The longer bit for people who like literary discussion:

OtBtW is a story that works best if you learn about its universe in the novel itself rather than having somebody describe it to you, so I'll try to keep it a bit light on plot summary.

Basically, Martin Banks, a computer nerd, discovers a text file on the Internet that seems to be the code for all of existence.  By modifying pieces of the code he can produce powerful, metaphysical effects on the world.  After a money-making scheme goes awry, Martin escapes from modern day into eleventh century England in the hopes that he can play up his coding abilities as actual magic.

What he doesn't know is that dozens of other hackers and coders from modern day have also found the text file and have come back in time to pretend to be wizards.  Shenanigans ensue.

I actually didn't know going into it that Meyer is the creator of a webcomic, but it makes sense.  OtBtW feels like it was built as a sitcom and plays out mostly as a series of small incidents.

Roughly the first two thirds of the novel is a sort of parody / homage to Hogwarts School from the Harry Potter books as Martin goes through a wizard orientation and training program.  During his training he learns about how his fellow computer nerds have dissected the text file and how they produce new effects using it.  There's a lot of detail describing how they manage to use their deep knowledge of the spectacular for the most mundane daily pleasures (like making a burrito).

The final third is where a plot suddenly happens and Martin has to help save the day.

This final act shift is the novel's most significant and glaring flaw.  So much of the major plot threads are only minimally (or not at all) seeded earlier on, so the entire third act feels abrupt and almost unnecessary.  Hell, the principal antagonist doesn't even get introduced until maybe halfway through the story, and even then there's not much in the way of actual conflict.

What is especially odd about this is that Scott Meyer clearly knows how to set up and pay off a story.  He went to the effort of setting up a significant number of minor details that pay off later.  (As one brief example, there is a part early on in the story where Martin learns about a portal that is hidden in an outhouse; the portal is introduced as the punchline to a gag, but it ends up paying off as a critical element in the climax.)  I find it strange that so much of the background flavor could be so tightly structured, and yet the foreground details are virtually ignored.

To be fair, there is a little bit of a tease about a mysterious plot that may or may not be going on, so clearly he thought about this - but it just doesn't go far enough.  The result is that the actual narrative part of the novel is a bit of a disappointment.

The good news is that the first two thirds are still terrific.  I'm not sure if it was Meyer's intention or not, but the novel is basically a Seinfeldian take on fantasy.  It's a bunch of "wizards" sitting around and not really doing anything - just shooting the shit and having a grand time while being self-absorbed people.  You get to learn a bit more here and there about how their magic works and the different approaches they take with their "spells."  These details, which should be banal, end up being the most interesting parts.

Meyer also deserves special praise for writing a novel about nerds and nerd culture that doesn't venture into the realm of assholery that so often plagues these kinds of stories.  At its worst, nerd culture gets entrenched in an unearned sense of sacrifice that leads to entitlement - "We had to go through school being bullied, and now it's our turn to have our opinions heard!"  When you pair this with people who - either through social or emotional ineptitude - have not had healthy relationships, you end up with an atmosphere of arrogance, bigotry, and misogyny that is borderline psychotic.  (I'm talking about shit like Ctrl+Alt+Del or The Knights of Badassdom.)

Meyer doesn't do any of that.  He remembers to keep his nerds as human beings first and foremost.  He approaches his characters with enough humility to keep them grounded in reality.  Martin is a likable protagonist who I actually want to see more of and nobody comes across like an opinionated mouthpiece or a Mary Sue author surrogate or any of the other trappings of bad nerd culture.

Another (basically) good point - there is sadly not much of a female presence in the story, but the one woman who is a major character actually is a character!  As in, she has depth and personality.  And her personality isn't just "angry person who punches people" either.  She's actually proactive and intriguing, and ends up not simply being a love interest.

Kind of sad that such a minor thing should be considered a major achievement, but, hey - it's nerd culture.  You have to celebrate the victories you get.

The sequel to OtBtW will be coming out next week.  I expect that it should be quite a bit better since Meyer has already established his universe and can now spend his time letting the characters just interact and go about their business.  In the meantime, I'd recommend you check out the first book and catch up.