Book Review: WebMage, by Kelly McCullough

An easy, pithy way to describe a lot of books is “GENRE + THING.” I mean, every author wants their book to stand out, so one easy way to do it is to just mash stuff together. So the Dresden Files gives us “Fantasy + Noir,” Weber’s Honor Harrington series is “Space Opera + 18th  Century British Navy” and Kelly McCullough’s WebMage gives us “Fantasy + Cyberpunk.”

Though honestly that makes it sound cooler than the book actually is.

webmage cover

In the world of WebMage, magic is treated as a programming language. It has to be coded, debugged compiled– and as such it can also be hacked. So far, so good. ‘Magic done by Computers’ can be a pretty interesting foundation for a story. Charles Stross gets a lot of mileage out of it in his Laundry novels, and I’m even reminded of an old Rick Cook book called The Wiz Biz that I read back when I was a kid.

WebMage is presumably named after, well, the titular WebMage, a magic-hacker named Ravirn. Ravirn’s got the standard ‘urban fantasy snark’ thing going on, most often shown through his dialogue with Melchior, his familiar (read: sidekick). Melchior’s a webgoblin: a constructed magical goblin-guy who sometimes transforms into a laptop. Early in the book, Ravirn and Melchior discover that one of the Fates (you know, the Greek goddess ladies with the loom and all– they were the bad guys in S5 of Legends of Tomorrow!) is creating a magic-program to alter reality to eliminate free will. This, of course, is a Bad Thing™, so Ravirn proceeds to get chased all over the multiverse as he blunders around trying to stop it. Oh, and there’s a sexy blonde elf-hacker-girl that Ravirn hooks up with on like page 50, too, so there’s a love interest.

On paper, Webmage works well enough– the problem is, the setting is an absolute mess. For example, the inclusion of the Fates (and later, the Furies) gives WebMage a kind of Greek mythology foundation. Fair enough. Except … Ravirn (and his Fate-blooded cousins) are basically Midsummer Night’s-Dream style fae, complete with pointy ears and fancy Elizabethan ruffles. Because reasons. And then there’s the multiverse angle as well, where the book has a brief interlude in “Saint Turing’s,” a medevial Christian style monastery devoted to monks who chant in binary– which on paper is a fun idea, but it really doesn’t fit into the kitchen-sink of styles and ideas that McCullough tosses in.

The ramshackleness applies to the plot, as well. The book starts with Ravirn and Melchior having to dodge assassins as they try to save the multiverse from Atropos’ free-will-eraser-program. But then the book sort of switches gears, as Ravirn also has to deal with a shitty roommate and missing his finals at the University of Minnesota. Which, again, has lots of story potential; having your protagonist juggle weird adventures with mundane life has been a thing ever since Spider-Man, if not earlier.

It’s just that the book glosses over the finals (and a couple assassination attempts!) in the span of like a chapter and a half, which makes me wonder why it was even there in the first place. Once this tenuous connection to the ‘real’ world is forgotten, the rest of the book is pretty much just Ravirn and Melchior fleeing from one place to another, occasionally with ‘inside magic-cyperspace’ segments. It’s … okay? Though by the end of the book I honestly didn’t care all that much, so it was kind of a chore to finish.  As again, McCullough keeps on throwing in new ideas, which on their own could be pretty fun, but there’s just too much going on without enough depth to make things interesting or even coherent.

Maybe WebMage would be more entertaining if I’d paid attention in the one computer science class I had to take in high school. I’m sure there are a ton of little jokes and gags in there that an actual programmer would laugh at. Alternately, since the book was published back in 2006, maybe a lot of those programming gags are dated by now? Who knows. Still, at least the series was popular enough for McCullough to write a couple more, with titles like Cybermancy and Codespell. But honestly, I probably won’t try tracking them down.

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