The year is 2120. The humans are dead. 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?
This is a book that suffered from not only trying to do too much, but also from having a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Now, I didn’t hate this book by any means, and some parts of it were highly engaging, but I do also think it had the potential to be so much better and it’s a shame it didn’t live up to that.
First off, let’s explore the concept which I think was pretty fascinating. In this version of the world there have always been mages, living in secret. When humanity finally starts to destroy the world and all of each other, the mages retreat to their own magical worlds they’ve created, essentially little pocket dimensions sprinkled throughout the world that were hidden from the rest of humanity. Mages don’t consider themselves humans, even though they are very much like humans. They consider themselves something different, something better. They’ve been told they’re not allowed to leave the protection of their domed cities as the world outside has been destroyed by humans, that all the humans are long since dead, and going outside could kill them almost immediately.
But, that’s not exactly true. Yes, the world outside has gone to downhill in a big way as what’s left of humanity is either subjugated by or fighting against AI’s that want to rule the world. It’s VERY much a classic science fiction scenario outside the domes. And that’s where the concept of the book really takes off, an epic melding of two genres. Except they don’t really meld so much as exist side by side for most of the book. Through alternating chapters were following either Nik’s story in the domes filled with magic and a strange nostalgia for late 20th century humanity (which felt kind of odd and out of place, like it was thrown in there to capture some recent trend–I say that as someone who loves nostalgia) or Jem’s struggle to smuggle people into safe houses where the AI can’t find them. They’re two very different stories running parallel to one another. It was a little jarring to keep jumping back and forth between them at first, but after a while I didn’t mind. I feel like the idea behind this was interesting but I’m not sure if it worked out as well as it could have in execution. It could have felt smoother somehow.
The other issue with having two separate stories going back and forth like that is often you’ll end up enjoying one more than the other and that’s certainly what happened to me. Let’s pause for a minute and talk about Nik’s character. He’s not likable. He’s a self-absorbed jerk who never thinks about other people except what they can do for him. He likes one girl in the beginning, one of his room mates, and it feels like he’s going to moon over her for a while, but then immediately get sucked back into feelings for his old flame upon returning home for a visit/exile. I guess his feelings for the first girl weren’t that deep? So, let’s add shallow to our description as well. Nik, to say the least, is a mess. And you know I don’t have issues with characters starting out a mess so that they can grow throughout the story and redeem themselves later. But I don’t think Nik ever really did that for me. Right up until the very end he was still making bad decisions, the only thing different is that he was slightly less selfish in that he wanted to save his fellow mages. He’s still pretty much a jerk and I’m actually annoyed that some things worked out for him!
So, back to the issue of separate stories going back and forth. Obviously, I did not enjoy Nik’s chapters all that much. I didn’t think they were all that engaging and didn’t like spending time with his character. I did, however, enjoy Jem’s chapters quite a bit. Jem isn’t a perfect character either, and some of her actions not only confused herself but me as well, but at least you wanted to root for her. Not only that, but her chapters were much more engaging and the pacing was better within them. That’s not to say these chapters were without issues–Jem did too much flip flopping about her decisions which became kind of tedious after the first couple of times, but it was easy to empathize with her character for the most part. But the issue comes in when you enjoy one way more than the other, it makes for a very uneven reading experience.
Overall, I thought Mage Against the Machine had the potential to be a great novel fusing different speculative fiction elements, but the ingredients just didn’t come together for me in the end. 2.5/5 stars.