Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore

In modern day Los Angeles, a shadowy faction led by the Governor of California develops the arcane art of combat linguistics, planting the seeds of a future totalitarian empire in Scotto Moore’s Battle of the Linguist Mages.

Isobel is the Queen of the medieval rave-themed VR game Sparkle Dungeon. Her prowess in the game makes her an ideal candidate to learn the secrets of “power morphemes”—unnaturally dense units of meaning that warp perception when skilfully pronounced.

But Isobel’s reputation makes her the target of a strange resistance movement led by spellcasting anarchists, who may be the only thing stopping the cabal from toppling California over the edge of a terrible transformation, with forty million lives at stake.

Time is short for Isobel to level up and choose a side—because the cabal has attracted much bigger and weirder enemies than the anarchist resistance, emerging from dark and vicious dimensions of reality and heading straight for planet Earth!

*****

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.

Review:

I lost five hours of my life reading this book.

A quick disclaimer that this will be a very negative review. Most people on GR seemed to have a slightly better experience than me. There will also be light spoilers later, which will be marked.

With negative reviews, I like to start with something positive. Reader, I’ve pondered for days to come up with something I liked about this book. And I couldn’t think of a single goddamn thing. I suppose, if I’m being charitable, I could say I found the plot summary interesting. But really I picked this book up because a member of my blogging group chat is a linguist and I was in the mood to be a sadist. Oh how the tables turned.

For the first couple chapters, I did find myself liking our main character, Isobel. She had a strong, very distinct (if annoyingly snarky) voice and all the signs of strong characterization. This is perhaps the first time I’ve read a book where a character loses characterization over time. What started out as a strong personality quickly turned to, ‘I say whatever the author thinks will push the plot forward, but with attitude. Also I might shit on capitalism’. Her character’s not even consistent, regularly waxing about how terrible rich people, this one politician, and capitalism are but being totally chill with working for said politician until the plot demands otherwise. The side characters were hardly better, likewise seeming to exist to fill the required roles to push a plot forward. It got to a point halfway through the book where I couldn’t differentiate between villain A, villain B, etc, with no effect on my grasp of the story.

Writing-wise, this book reads like the 80s info-dumping gush of Ready Player One but it’s sparkly EDM, clubbing crossed with all the bad US-Centric leftist takes on Twitter. Moore seems to have taken personal offense to the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’. Like Ready Player One, if you removed every reference to the Sparkleland of the Sparkle Dungeon video game and the EDM club scene, you’d probably have less than half a book remaining. And while I don’t mind the occasional infodump, especially when it contributes to the worldbuilding, the infodumps here ultimately contribute no substance or relevance to the world at large. Isobel goes off on a multi-page tangent about how the GamerGate equivalent was soundly trumped by good mods, then later on how the Empress of California had all the ICE rounded up and shot and Apple/Google/FB nationalized for UBI and it means jack shit to the plot or characters.

There’s an underlying vibe of performative fake-wokeness throughout the book (see above). If Twitter leftists wrote a book, this felt like that book. Every terrible hot take, every trending political or social topic in the last two years tries to make itself known in this book through Isobel’s inner monologue. Which is why the fact that Isobel takes 40% of the book to realize she’s not working for the “good guys” all the more confounding. Moore makes an interesting choice to have Isobel introduce each side character by explicitly listing their race and pronouns like a weird extended Twitter bio, instead of just…simply using those pronouns. To me, it reads uncomfortably tokenizing. Strong ‘men writing women’ but its ‘conservatives writing leftists’ energy. I should clarify that my goal here isn’t to make any claims about the author’s political leanings, but to simply point out my discomforts and annoyances.

There’s also the following quote (mandatory disclaimer that I read an advanced copy and that the final copy is due to change):

They don’t have full names. […] they have aliases. They didn’t have jobs, because they were busy trying to undermine capitalism.

Battle of the Linguist Mages, Scotto Moore

I am, by no means, a linguist. However, I suspect linguistics as a field requires more than shouting out alien, unpronounceable ‘morphemes’ that correlate to some otherworldly occurrence (a power morpheme, if you will). Linguistics as a conduit for magic has so much potential in a fantasy novel. The development of language through various cultures has such a rich evolution over time and I was curious to see how Moore would tap into that. The ‘linguistics’ in Battle Mage, however, felt like the author really wanted to write a book about a coding-esque combat system and dressed it over with poorly-researched linguistic terminology. By halfway through, the cast isn’t even learning words/spells anymore, they quite literally just download them into their brains. For the linguists curious, no we don’t get any further than morphemes.

Light spoilers will begin here

Well Katie, you’ve written so much about the failings of this book, but what about the plot? You know, that’s a fantastic question. And one that’s surprisingly difficult to answer. I’ll start easy. Isobel is the top of the leaderboard of a virtual reality (VR) video game called Sparkle Dungeon. She’s so good she gets recruited to become a beta tester for the next sparkle dungeon game, which quickly turns to a full-time position at an advertising firm where they have her say weird syllables. These syllables turn out to be power morphenes, that can manipulate how people think, which this advertising firm, the current governor of California, and a definitely-not-Scientology leader are going to use to manipulate people. (Isobel works for these people). Seems reasonable so far.

These power morphemes are actually the language of punctuation marks, who are aliens. The punctuation marks ….possessed humanity a long long time ago? Also they live in a place called the logosphere, which is a higher dimension housing all creative human thought. But the logosphere is being encroached upon by the punctuation marks’ alien enemy and threatening to destroy humanity. Someone’s trying to become god, video game characters are popping up in real life, power morpheme aria powered inter…galactic? dimensional? spaceships are apparently a thing, and having power morpheme induced heart-to-hearts with your enemies is also a thing and…. look at some point the what the fuck novelty factor wears off and you’re left with a book so riddled with plot holes it may as well be a plot cave system.

Isobel solves every problem she faces with a deus ex machine-fueled Sparkle Dungeon spell that just conveniently happens to perfectly solve the current dilemma (did I mention at some point the video game spells also work in real life?). If a Sparkle Dungeon spell doesn’t do the trick, that’s okay because Isobel’s ‘really good at improvising’, which lets the author get away with absolutely zero setup or any semblance of foreshadowing. I’ve read back on some of the live-blogging comments I made to my friends as I read and they’re practically incomprehensible.

Overall, I rate this book a 1/5. I enjoy complex books, I enjoy books where the author deliberately makes the worldbuilding complex or confusing, because eventually I’ll figure it out. Here, there was nothing to figure out, just a psychedelic-induced mess. This was hot garbage, but I’m 100% willing to change the rating to 5 stars if the author can hook me up with whatever he was on when writing this.


r/Fantasy 2021-22 Bingo Squares:

  • 1st Person POV
  • Published in 2021

Publication Date: 11 January 2021
Publisher: Tor.com
Format: eBook, ARC
Pages: 448
Word Count: ~148,000
ISBN: 1250767725
Buy It Here: Amazon | Google Books | Barnes and Nobles | Goodreads

3 thoughts on “Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore

  1. I… I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the character loses characterization through the couse of the book. I’ve definitely been annoyed by characters acting like completely different people in sequels without the growth or development to justify it. Like they are a pod person. But not in the same book. That’s… yikes.

    This book sounds like it would infuriate me based on the kinds of things you talk about, so thank you for your service and I hope you next read is better!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it was… not great. I do attribute it partially to the book getting progressively more and more nonsensical as the story went on, but man the MC made some Choices.

      haha thank you thank you. glad to be of service ^^ My next reads have certainly been much better

      Like

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