The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews
Most sane people wouldn't pick up a "Book 2" of something before reading "Book 1," so this may go without saying, but... this is really only a recommendation for people who read and really enjoyed Scott Meyer's first book, Off to Be the Wizard. Spell or High Water is not a bad book, but it's a significant step down in both quality and innovation; an okay follow-up for fans, but sadly, not a whole lot to offer for anybody else.
My Rating: 3 / 5
The Longer Bit Where I Review the Book
I kinda hate to write anything negative about another writer who's been making a go of his career via self-publication, but I feel like maybe I should just rip that bandage off now. So let me come out and say it up front: Scott Meyer is not good at writing about women.
Well, maybe that's not fair. It's not so much that he's bad at writing about them as it is he just doesn't have a whole lot to say. This ends up being the biggest problem with Spell or High Water, a book that shifts the focus of its characters from magic-infused England to magic-infused Atlantis.
Quick re-cap: the premise of the first book was that a bunch of hackers independently discovered a text file on the Internet which, when modified, can control physical reality. Naturally they all exploit this in various nerdy ways and eventually wind up in trouble. Many of these folks (after tampering with time-travel related aspects of the file) find their way to medieval England, where they pass themselves off as wizards and use their programming skills to loaf.
The first book mainly focused on how its protagonist, Martin, learned all about a new wizard society and came into conflict with another particularly self-absorbed wizard. In my review of that book, I lauded it for having a great depth of fascinating and entertaining ideas. One of the more interesting conceits (which is played up for laughs) is that women don't really want to hang around with the hackers in England. There are plenty of women who have discovered the file, but they just don't get along terribly well with all the guys, so they tend to leave England for the fabled land of Atlantis.
If Meyer had left it at that, I think it would have come off a lot better.
Y'see, I totally buy that concept. Computer nerds, programmers, gamers, and other stereotypical tech guys have made it pretty clear in the last few decades (especially through bullshit like GamerGate) that they do not understand, like, or respect women. Misogyny is rampant and ugly. It makes sense that if you gave essentially God-like powers to these men, women would run as far as they can.
It was also a good out for Meyer. His books are supposed to be light, breezy fun. If he had to explain - or even worse, confront - the inherent hate toward women, he'd end up with a much darker and possibly more disgusting novel. By addressing it as a punchline, he was able to side-step the topic altogether.
The problem is that High Water is set in Atlantis, the place where all the lady wizards have gathered, so there's no way for him to side-step gender issues. The book is explicitly about the differences between men and women, as well as the ramifications of a society led by women with magical powers. If Meyer really wanted to explore this in realistic detail, he would have written a more caustic satire - but instead we get either hacky "men do this, but women do this!" jokes or overblown romance.
Atlantis is described in interesting detail at first - as with the first book, this is Meyer's forte. When he's getting into the specific whys and whats of his world and explaining exactly how the characters built the city, it's deeply fascinating. There's a lot of ingenuity on display that grips you and draws you forward. But once Meyer is finished with the technical aspects and starts to focus on social structures, it just feels like one big eye-roll. For example, Atlantean women don't want to do anything physical or icky, so they have male slaves who do all the manual labor. I can believe that they'd want to take the easy way out, but by calling attention to a specific gender role like this, it's only reinforcing stereotypes.
Perhaps the most notable example of this is in the second act. A large section of the book is about Philip's burgeoning relationship with a new character, Brit. It's sweet that Meyer wanted to try to capture the feelings of new love, but in the context of Atlantis, it comes off as naive and a little bit condescending. This is supposed to be a revolutionary new society led by women and powered by amazing new technologies. But instead of feeling much awe or insight, it feels like you're reading a preteen soap opera.
All of this is a huge problem for me and that's why I can't really give the book any more than a 3 out of 5. But I don't want to be too harsh - the book still has a wealth of entertaining new ideas.
After setting up some strict rules to ensure that the antagonist of the previous book could never again have access to his magic powers, High Water spends a significant amount of time showing how this character could side-step his limitations with careful planning and patience. Overall I enjoyed these segments and I was engaged to see how he might possibly take his revenge.
There's also a fascinating thought experiment / time travel subplot involving newcomer Brit, who is actually two characters: Brit the Younger, Philip's love interest, and Brit the Elder, a much older version of Brit who co-exists with her and may or may not be contradicting the laws of the universe.
Meyer is releasing Book 3 of the Magic 2.0 series in about a month. I'm hard-pressed to say that I'm looking forward to it the same way that I was Book 2, but I feel like most of my complaints had to do with the story's context rather than it's style or tone. Meyer is at his best when he's nerding out, not when he's trying to write deep characters - and I mean that as a compliment. If Book 3 is true to its premise (that the characters are basically stripped of their powers and trapped in a computer game) and Meyer stays focused, then it should be a brilliant return to form.