Fantasy · Science Fiction

Mage Against the Machine – Shaun Barger

4 Stars

Mage Against the Machine is a true Science Fantasy novel. Strong story threads of both science fiction dystopia and utopic fantasy are woven together to create a seamless blend of Science Fantasy.

The year is 2120. The humans are dead.

Cover from Goodreads

The mages have retreated from the world after a madman blew up civilization with weaponized magical technology. Safe within domes that protect them from the nuclear wasteland on the other side, the mages have spent the last century putting their lives back together.

Nikolai is obsessed with artifacts from twentieth-century human life: mage-crafted replica Chuck Taylors on his feet, Schwarzenegger posters on his walls, Beatlemania still alive and well in his head. But he’s also tasked with a higher calling—to maintain the Veils that protect mage-kind from the hazards of the wastes beyond. As a cadet in the Mage King’s army, Nik has finally found what he always wanted—a purpose. But when confronted by one of his former instructors gone rogue, Nik tumbles into a dark secret. The humans weren’t nuked into oblivion—they’re still alive. Not only that, outside the domes a war rages between the last enclaves of free humans and vast machine intelligences.

Outside the dome, unprepared and on the run, Nik finds Jem. Jem is a Runner for the Human Resistance. A ballerina-turned-soldier by the circumstances of war, Jem is more than just a human—her cybernetic enhancement mods make her faster, smarter, and are the only things that give her a fighting chance against the artificial beings bent on humanity’s eradication.

Now Nik faces an impossible decision: side with the mages and let humanity die out? Or stand with Jem and the humans—and risk endangering everything he knows and loves?

The synopsis focuses on Nik but a good half of the book is from Jem’s perspective and I wish she’d have been more represented in the synopsis as she’s a much more compelling narrator to me than Nik. Nik, unfortunately, has a terrible case of the poor-me’s and I found him incredibly unlikeable, which resulted in the loss of the star. He makes terrible decisions, is aware that he’s making terrible decisions and then doubles down on the terrible decisions with more terrible decisions. Half of the Nik’s parts of the book are him throwing tantrums.

Throughout the book Jem also makes bad decisions, but at the end of the day, her motivations made more sense, and wherever she could she made decisions that were the best she thought she could do at the time. She may choose wrong, but she’s choosing from a place I can sympathize with. I largely enjoyed her POV sections.

The overall story, unlikeable Nik aside, was a really enjoyable read. Two very different worlds exist and Barger did an excellent job fleshing the two societies out. I loved the tension he built when describing Jem’s running operations. Nik’s world was so interesting and I could read hours more about Focals and how the mages function. The layers of conspiracy ran deep and I found that plot really emgaging. I also loved the details like Nik’s handmade knockoff Chucks. Barger obviously spent a lot of time working out how his two universes would work and it shows in his prose.

I’m looking forward to the second book, and I desperately hope Nik does some serious character growth in the next installment of the series.

Mage Against the Machine hits shelves October 30.

Thank you to Saga Press for providing me with an eARC of the book in exchange for my honest review. 


Science Fiction

Space Opera – Catherynne M. Valente

4 Stars

Space Opera is the kind of book you’d get if you threw Eurovision, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a book of adjectives in a blender and pulsed it around a bit.


Cover from Goodreads



A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented-something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.

Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix – part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.

This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny – they must sing.

A one-hit-wonder band of human musicians, dancers and roadies from London – Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes – have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.

Let me preface this review. I have never read anything by Cat Valente before, other than a short story here and there when included in an anthology.

That being said, I felt like the writing got in the way of the story. Valente constructs sentences that are 90% adjective and 10% content. A full half of this book is adjectives. Space Opera is an absolute avalanche of adjectives. It was fairly overwhelming and I often found myself having to reread sentences, skipping the endless stream of adjectives, in order to find The Point of the sentence. A friend told me this is how Valente writes. She just loves words. That may be true, but the nonstop barrage of descriptors was overwhelming and distracting and took away from the overall story. The lists of adjectives did add a frantic energy to the story, but after a few pages of this, it was Too Much. Too many descriptions, too much fluff, and not enough actual content. Very often I found myself frustrated because Would She Just Get To The Point Of This Sentence Already.

Additionally, parts of the book were told in a parallel story structure where Valente would start a chapter with a description of something on another planet at another time that had little actual relevance to the plot. The book felt super episodic, but not in a good way.

Those frustrations aside (and if you like that kind of thing) Space Opera was a fun ride. All the glitter and pomp of a Galactic Eurovision and all of the ridiculousness of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy birthed a book as silly, sparkly, absurd and sweet as you’d expect from that kind of combination. Decibel and Oort are lovely, heartfelt characters that are just the kind of introspective you’d expect from former British rockstars. They’re charming, even when they’re not trying to be and I found myself rooting for them, even without the extra pressure of them being responsible for the survival of all of humanity. I loved that the alien species were varied and inventive and were all distinct from one another and from humanity.

I also enjoyed the exploration of what it means to be sentient. It’s something that we as a species wrestle with more and more frequently as we discover just how intelligent dolphins, elephants and other species truly are. At what point is something sentient? Where is the line between intelligence and actual, true sentience?

Space Opera hits shelves April 10, 2018 and you should definitely check it out if you’re looking for something fun to read.

I received an eARC from Saga Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.