When you pick up a book billed as Harry Potter meets The Terminator, you’d best be prepared to embark on quite a narrative ride. Fittingly, Shaun Barger’s debut, Mage Against the Machine, holds very little back, blending not only science fiction and fantasy, but a goodly number of their subgenres into expansive, dual-world adventure.
As far as what that adventure entails, the book doesn’t ease you into things, scarcely giving you a chance to orient yourself with tropes and narrative cues. Or, rather, it gives you all of the cues, right off the bat—which works, considering the setting: an intentionally disorienting post-apocalyptic landscape.
Picture it: Earth, 2120. Meet Nikolai, your average brooding young man, if your average brooding young man is a wizard in the army of the Mage King whose job is to maintain the Veils (think magically sealed bubbles) that protect mage civilization from the ravaged, desolate wastes that once comprised the human world we know.
When long-buried familial trauma rears its ugly head, Nikolai is shaken rather violently from his world of magical privilege and must face some dark truths about the Veils, about his role in “protecting” them, and the true state of the supposedly long-lost world of humans.
Enter Jem, a ballerina-turned-cybersoldier in the Human Resistance. Jem is human, but with cybernetic “mods” that allow her to be just smart enough and just fast enough to evade the artifically intelligent minds that have gained control of the planet (this would be where The Terminator comes in). By this point in the world outside the Veils, the Resistance is largely threadbare, but Jem’s mission may be humanity’s last real hope to turn the tides of war and avoid outright extinction.
When Nikolai and Jem encounter each other, worlds and genres—urban fantasy and doomsday science fiction—collide, setting up both the battle alluded to in the title and a complicated choice for Nikolai: will he retreat behind the Veils and give up the humans as a lost cause, or help the Resistance and risk losing his link to the hermetically sealed oases of the magi—and his home—altogether. Either way, it’s the end of the world as he knows it.
Does this sound like a lot of book? I won’t kid you: it is a lot of book. Mage Against the Machine packs a lot of plot into its 500-plus pages, but Barger’s evident glee at mashing together genres and constructing new worlds out of the coolest parts of his favorite genre stories buoys the narrative and infuses it with a sustaining sort of popcorn-munching joie de vivre (and recall, if you will, that this is a story that takes place after a nuclear holocaust). The plot treads little new ground, but Barger makes this into a feature rather than a bug, loading the familiar framework with such a seemingly incongruent assortment of genre flourishes, you can’t help but be charmed by his ambition—or his ability to keep you reading, if only to see what kind of crazy stunt he’ll pull next.
The past few years of reality have made post-apocalyptic stories old hat. Shaun Barger’s debut makes them fun again. It doesn’t take a machine intelligence to tell you that’s just the kind of book we need right now.
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