If there’s one thing you’ll need while reading Battle of the Linguist Mages, it is a healthy, hefty imagination. Scotto Moore’s novel spans a dizzying array of concepts, characters, settings, and plot points, and in order to follow along this wild ride, you’ll need to keep an agile, open mind. The creative force of the story is highly enjoyable, but at times, that array is a bit too dizzying, and the power of the plot is lost to magical linguist mage mania. Personally, I found this whirlwind of events to be enjoyable, but they were also limiting to the structure, plot, and clarity of the novel overall.
The story follows Isobel Bailie, a master player of a well-known fictional video game series Sparkle Dungeon, as she embarks on a quest that begins as a way to play the newest iteration of the game, Sparkle Dungeon 5: Engines of Electro, and ends in an epic fight to save the galaxy. Along the way, Isobel encounters an evil-genius computational linguist, a massively powerful church that worships a lizard-god named Gorvod, video game characters that spring to life, multiple dimensions, space travel, alien punctuation marks that inhabit human bodies, the secession of California by its ruling Empress, a genocidal thunderstorm, and of course, the namesake linguist mages. And that’s just the beginning.
Any one of its many plot points might be the jumping-off point for another brilliant story despite its already-engaging premise, which is that somehow, by using video games, computer science, and linguistics, certain people have discovered how to do magic by vocalizing “power morphemes.” These are units of language (the smallest units, to be precise) that, when spoken in varying sequences, produce spell-like effects that include shattering glass, mind control, and teleportation. In addition to this, a multitude of other mind-bending events occur throughout the story (like the secession of California or a human-soul-powered battery that is meant to combat the impending apocalypse) that at times it is difficult to keep track of who is doing what and why.
But Battle of the Linguist Mages is not a book that concerns itself too deeply with semantics, timing, or logicality. It’s clearly meant to be fun, which it achieves through its use of Sparkle Dungeon, the video game that draws our protagonist Isobel into this mess in the first place. The Sparkle Dungeon games are quest-based, involving travel through the Sparkle Realm which necessitates solving mini-quests on a bigger journey to defeat a villain who, for some reason, is ruining music for his own nefarious purposes. As Isobel puts it, “You think I’d be tired of dodging armor-piercing Bedazzler rays and slashing my way through corrupted glam rockers who thought adding electronic beats to their back catalogue would gain them relevance with the EDM festival crowd. But I want those stolen Chicago house records”. The entire game is infused with references to disco, house, and EDM music, and every lethal attack is executed by singing spells and dance moves. It’s an odd balance, but this is the approach that Moore takes throughout Battle of the Linguist Mages: things are both very serious and very funny. At times, the language can feel fake and forced, the writing bent to seem youthful and amusing but landing awkwardly and imprecisely. Isobel at one point notes that she is “fucking primed as all fuck” to learn power morphemes—an intriguingly meaningless observation. Moore’s language attempts to mimic a younger tone but often comes off as an approximation of what he imagines this might sound like.
More frequently, however, Moore’s writing is highly entertaining. Why shouldn’t the apocalypse (or the “Sparklepocalypse” as Isobel terms it) be glitter-drenched and driven by a linguist-turned-god? Isobel narrates the mind-bending events with snarky comments and a healthy amount of self-esteem, never missing a chance to express her hatred for dubstep. We are also introduced to an array of fascinating “real-world” concepts in the fields of linguistics and computer science as well as details from the video gaming world. Sometimes Moore takes a moment to explain these ideas, as he does with phonemes and morphemes; other times, however, I was left scratching my head while trying to Google what deep neural networks and checksum algorithms are. What I did gather from these forays was that I understand technology about as much as I understand magic. Perhaps that is Moore’s point.
Conceptually, Battle of the Linguist Mages asks a lot from its readers, which I found to be both a weakness and a strength. You need a lot of faith in the story and its characters to follow Isobel as she zig-zags from video game tester to marketing executive to linguist prodigy to anarchist rebel to an actual goddess, and sometimes that faith is not easy to sustain. But the holes in the tapestry also allow for fun speculation that gives the novel a life outside of its own pages, encouraging you to develop your own theories and ideas.
Some questions Moore leaves to us: What exactly is the logosphere? Moore is vague in his descriptions beyond the fact that it is where all human ideas and creativity have accumulated, and in the looseness of his descriptions you can outfit your own epic space battles and highways to 2001: A Space Odyssey-type monoliths. Why does Violet Parker, Empress of California, choose to overthrow the US government? She is painted as a merciless supervillain with surprisingly understandable motives as she implements socialized medicine and redistributes profits from Apple, Google, and Facebook to create a universal basic income for her citizens. Why is Alexander Reece so hell-bent on becoming a god? Why is there a mega-church with thousands of followers that believes in Gorvod the lizard god? Who is the Auditor, and how was this entity able to trigger the apocalypse? I could list many more questions. My point is that the answers are probably whatever you want them to be, because that’s pretty much how Moore writes this story, and that’s all a part of the fun.
Battle of the Linguist Mages, like the roller coaster it is, has its ups and downs. But chief among its strengths is its amazing creativity, which knits together a sparkling, glittering quilt of insane events and mind-bending concepts, making this read quite the epic journey. There are, however, quite a few major events, concepts, and characters that remain tragically unexplained or underdeveloped, but these also speak to the enormous potential of the novel’s ideas: quirky and extravagant, Battle of the Linguist Mages leaves you wanting more.