RogerBW's Blog

Starship's Mage Omnibus, Glynn Stewart 08 August 2021

2014 SF, first in a series. Interstellar travel is possible only because of Jump Mages, the magicians who were the byproduct of the Eugenics Wars centuries ago. Damien Montgomery has the talent, and has just finished training, but without the backing of a powerful family, he doesn't have much chance of getting a ship posting soon. Unless he meets a truly desperate captain…

(Which you'd think wouldn't happen, really. I mean, mages who can do the jump thing are a limited resource that constrains a large part of the economy; there ought to be enough berths that they'd never go long without employment. Still.)

This is space opera with a brain. I mean, there's a mention early on of "the pirate, just less than two million kilometers distant — and the missile salvo it had fired several minutes ago, accelerating towards them at over two thousand gravities" and that's a thing you can check and see that that comes out to about seven and a half minutes' flight time and yes, thank you, it works. OK, not giving the numbers would also have worked, but if you're going to go for the technothrillery spurious detail it's nice to have, and Stewart has gone to the trouple of getting them right.

Slightly oddly, what I got out of this was also praise for government; Montgomery has a particular knack of working magical power flows and makes some changes to the ship's jump grid, sorry, runic network as an emergency measure; this turns out to be a really major crime, and the captain stands by his crew, so they gradually move further and further out of law-abiding space, to a mage-refusenik world (there's a minimum amount of basic law that every world has to obey, but they can choose to keep mages off their surface), to a libertarian world, ultimately to a pirate haven, pursued both by the criminals who'd like the secret of those changes and a senior troubleshooter for the Mage-King of Mars… who's one of the grown-ups here and mostly wants Montgomery inside the tent facing out. Pity some local officials aren't as enlightened.

OK, you had me at "Mage-King of Mars".

But all of these places have people, good and bad and mostly just wanting to get on with their lives, and the only thing that is consistently able to suppress the predators (since there's little communication faster than ships outside the first-settled worlds) is the central government and its navy. The further you get from places the navy goes to, the more trouble you're in.

And while this is volume one of a series, the rest of the series clearly isn't going to be spent in the same place as this one. Which is another welcome rarity.

There are plenty of problems in the writing; the book could really have used an editing pass, with rather too many words repeated in paragraphs and occasional complete errors of vocabulary. The language plods rather than ever singing. Characterisation tends to be superficial, and the bildungsroman plot skeleton is pretty obvious. On another level, while people's sexes are quite evenly distributed and mostly not correlated with their jobs, the vast majority of the times someone's skin colour is mentioned it's "dark" or "near-black" or "black". Which is one of those errors, trying to be diverse but failing to realise that your default skin tone assumption is set to pinkish-grey, that I thought people knew about by 2014; if Stewart hadn't mentioned people's skins at all, it would have been less glaring.

But all in all I really enjoyed this. It's not going to be the next SF work that everyone raves about and analyses to death, and it's not trying to be; but it's both fun and thoughtful, and definitely worth a look.

(The odd title is because this is a quick fixup of several shorter works, and this shows every so often as a key bit of exposition is repeated. Again, an editorial pass would have fixed that.)

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Series: Starship's Mage | Next in series: Interstellar Mage

  1. Posted by David Pulver at 11:21pm on 31 March 2023

    I read the book based on your recommendation and enjoyed it.

    I did wonder what drive would power a missile at thousands of G. (The ships are mostly 10-15G; I guess the missiles are some sort of burn-out version, fair enough). The numbers at least give faster-paced space combat than the more sedate Traveller.

    I was surprised at the exceedingly high level of personal power the mages also have when outside of their ship amplifier, with Damien able to (with effort) blow up an AFV even before he gets some extra power-ups later on.

    This would be a tricky thing to handle in a point-based RPG in which PCs are "balanced" though you could probably cover it in GURPS if you assumed the two "player characters" were the two viewpoint characters (one mage with huge magical power but not that much experience; one starship captain with very great amounts of wealth, experience, influence) rather than the supporting cast of ship's crew.

    Did you ever read Matsamune Shirow's manga ORION? It's probably the earliest "jump mage" story I recall reading. While the story kind of goes weirdly off the rails into super powered mystic gods after a while, the hints of the future society of magical-powered jump ships in the first issue were cool.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:45pm on 01 April 2023

    I think the main thing that restricts Damien from being omnipotent is perception: if he knows about a threat, he can squash it, but he needs to know about it, and he can't be hyper-alert to everything, fully shielded, all the time. So e.g. a sniper can have a pot at him just as they'd take on any other soft target.

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