RogerBW's Blog

The Initiate, James L. Cambias 15 August 2021

2020 modern fantasy. If magicians are powerful, why don't they rule the world? Well, they do, but secretly. Two years ago a monster slaughtered Sam's wife and son, and he's quietly been drinking himself to death ever since; but now he meets someone else who knows what's going on, and is willing to help him get his revenge.

It's not a terrible conceit: the world can clearly support a few parasites, and with a lack of ethics (why should we care about how the beetles feel?) comes a willingness to use mind control very freely. Sam's new friend Lucas introduces him to the apkallu, the secret masters of humanity, who are really far more interested in playing their own power games and extending their lives than in interfering with individual humans. Not that that helps if you get in their way.

So yeah, it's all very GURPS Cabal. (Acknowledgements include "Kenneth Hite pointed me at some useful research material.") That's a good book, and I'd be interested in running a campaign in that setting; indeed, this could be the template for a campaign in that setting. There's also an occasional sense of humour to leaven the grim story of murderous revenge.

The ground underfoot was soggy, with lank weeds growing knee-high. The air reeked of sulfur and decay. Here and there he could make out vast ugly structures rising from the swamp, along with skeletal towers of rusty metal and piles of slag and garbage. It looked… familiar.

"We're in New Jersey?" he asked Lucas.

"The Otherworld is highly subjective. Your mind needed a template for the dreary land of the dead, and this is what popped out."

But there are also problems. These magicians are hundreds of years old, with the skill to build up impressive magical defences, and the paranoia that comes with having fought off attacks by their peers… and yet our man Sam casually knocks off one after another, with a bit of help but mostly using his own plans and basic magical knowledge, never even appearing to be in much danger. (One instance of "you think like a magician, so you haven't prepared for a mere non-magical garotte" is fair enough, except that we've already been told that because magicians can casually deflect bullets or blades it's entirely normal for them to train in martial arts to use on and defend against each other.) So why was the situation stable before Sam turned up? Any other magician could have thought of and done the same things he does, purely to knock off their rivals and take a higher status.

Also when you're trying to live under a new identity (so that other magicians can't use your true name against you) you don't start a relationship with your high school sweetheart. Even if she is really hawt. While there are some female characters, they're all either background or hostile.

There is one key revelation which Cambias allows Sam to work out in chapter 25 (of 26), which I thought was obvious from a blatant hint in chapter 13 (and not even the one that gets mentioned during the explanation). Another thing that Sam doesn't spot until 18 is clearly hinted at in 14. Perhaps I am just appropriately paranoid, but I feel that anyone who doesn't pick up on this stuff at least a bit earlier than the author allows probably also believes politicians on a regular basis.

Nyfb: vg orpbzrf nccnerag gung Bhe Ureb vf n onfgneq fba bs Yhpnf, naq Yhpnf betnavfrq gur xvyyvat gb zbgvingr uvz gb zheqre nyy gur ncxnyyh jub ner va gur cngu bs Yhpnf'f evfr gb cbjre. Svar. Ohg gurer pbzrf n cbvag jurer Yhpnf jnagf gb xvyy Fnz… naq fheryl Yhpnf, vs abobql ryfr, jbhyq unir orra va n cbfvgvba gb xabj uvf gehr anzr? Cnegvphyneyl fvapr guvf jnf cneg bs uvf cyna nyy nybat! Ohg ab, vg gheaf bhg ur'f whfg nf vapbzcrgrag nf nyy gur bguref jura tbvat hc ntnvafg fbzrbar jvgu Cybg Nezbhe.

But it's also a careless book. When you are told to "cross the Hudson by ferry at the turning of the tide" you don't take the George Washington Bridge across it in the next paragraph, unless there's a point to your getting that wrong… and there isn't; it's never mentioned again, so it's probably sloppy editing. (It reminded me a little of Wizard's Bane by Rick Cook: nearly the first thing our hero is told when he arrives in fantasyland is that keeping your word matters here. Nearly the first thing he does is break his word. And this has consequences… that are very minor and forgotten by the end of the chapter.)

There are many loose ends left dangling; I think the idea is that this is meant to lead into a series. Maybe it will. The magic (mostly involving summoning and controlling spirits) is very flavoursome; but the people and plot didn't grab me at all.

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