The Story So Far: The Magitech Chronicles by Chris Fox

Space dragons, magic-powered weapons and spaceships, dead and resurrected gods and planet-sized skulls.  That and much more can be found in this blend of science fiction and fantasy.  After five books I must admit I am a fan.  The books are pure, unadulterated fun, easy to read and not forcing any moral lessons on the audience.  They have their flaws, but nothing that would stop me from grabbing the next part as soon as it is released.

(Full disclosure: I received the first four books in audiobook format via an Audible gift code from the author.  At that time, he didn’t expect any reviews; he wasn’t even aware I was reviewing science fiction for this blog.  I’m not bound to provide any benefits to the author or his work in this review, but I may have become somewhat biased out of gratitude.  I will try to keep my bias to a minimum.)

Magitech Chronicles takes place in a far future, as evidenced to numerous allusions to “ancient Terra”.  In this universe, gods have once existed, until a war among them left most of them dead, and the reminder is in hiding.  They left behind magic.  There are eight types of magic, and one may acquire one of the types by visiting the dead body of a god, called a catalyst.  The more catalysts a person visits, the more magic types they can absorb, or strengthen if visiting catalysts of the same type.  Usually, these catalysts are guarded by all kinds of hostile creatures, so visiting them is perilous, and only very few acquire enough magic of sufficient strength to become powerful mages.

The story begins when the main protagonist (Aran) finds himself, with complete amnesia, on route to a particularly dangerous catalyst, placed on a planet that once used to be a god’s head.  He survives all the challenges and acquires the required magic, only to be quickly coopted into the army of the Confederacy, when the ship he was on gets captured.  Through several adventures and coincidences, he regains freedom and some of his memories back, and forms a military unit that would help the Confederacy fight off an army of space dragons, called the Krox.  His little unit consists of his commanding officer, Voria, and a handful of soldiers.  As the books progress, the little crew keeps growing more powerful, with Voria becoming a goddess, and the rest acquiring more magic.  The enemies don’t slack off, though, and match our heroes in personal growth.  The fifth book culminates in two recently arisen gods duking it out over a planet.

I purposely left out most of the story; the reader would have to fill in the gaps himself.  The main storyline is remarkably short and straight-forward anyway; most of the fun lies in the side branches and personal adventures of the characters as they are trying to acquire more magic or better equipment.  What I found of greater interest, though, was the worldbuilding.

The books take place in a part of the universe they call The Sector.  This sector is never defined, but it appears to encompass multiple galaxies.  Apart from the Krox, draconic creatures much older than people, there are several distinct humanoid races.  The Shayans, of whom Voria is a member, bear a striking resemblance to Elves in fantasy literature.  They worship a tree goddess, are beautiful and arrogant.  These are no Tolkienesque elves, though; they remind me more of the elves from the Shannara series by Terry Brooks: they don’t shy away from action and can be brutally efficient when they aren’t too self-absorbed.  Their distant cousins are the Drifters, who strike me as romanticized Irish travelers – big into beer and magical brews, with strong Irish accent, dirt poor and semi-nomadic.  The mutual relationship between them and the Shayans creates some interesting dynamics in the earlier books.  The Shayans formed the Commonwealth with Ternus.  Where Shayans are magic-oriented, Ternus is grounded in technology.  They are largely ineffective in the fight against the Krox, but they serve as cannon fodder until the Shayans are in a position to strike back.

The history and mythology of the books are also very well developed.  The author waits with the description of the magic system for a few books, and lets the readers figure most of the magic out on their own.  The same is true with the gods, their relationships, and ultimately their deaths.  According to the author’s notes, he is in the process of developing a tabletop roleplaying game, and for that he’d need a very detailed background.  He’s not shy about presenting all this background in the books, but in an unobtrusive manner, keeping exposition to manageable levels.

The last thing about the content of the books I’d like to mention is the technology.  People are flying spaceships that are powered by magic, and so are most of the weapons.  Over time, the ships and weapons may acquire sentience and personality.  The system is very well described.  Unfortunately, this description only covers the superficial aspects of technology: what the user interface does.  We don’t know how it works.  For example, interstellar travel takes place in a magical version of the hyperspace, but the reader has no information on how fast a ship can travel there, whether any destination is reachable at any time, or whether there are any constraints other than massive monsters that only very rarely (and conveniently) pop up.  To me, this presented a challenge, as I was unable to follow the concurrent timelines of the protagonists when they split.

Still, the books are a great fun to read.  The prose is without any linguistic gimmicks and flowing very well, and the various adventures are compelling.  Battle sequences are detailed and very exciting.  The entire setting sounds plausible, and the story is seamlessly integrated into this fictional world.  I also really appreciated that the books don’t end on major cliffhangers.  There are still unanswered questions, but nobody should feel forced to pick up the next book; all story arcs are contained within single volumes.

Despite all my praise, however, I do have a few gripes.  First of all, the character development and character dynamics don’t work for me.  Everyone is strictly one-dimensional, with almost no development.  The only significant changes that happen are in the amount of magical power they absorb.  So, Aran is the same natural born battle leader in the first and the last book, only now he can not only feed magic into his sword, but can also turn insubstantial and perform other advanced tricks.  The author tried more complex characters twice.  Voria is the military leader, and she is at once a strict officer, a maverick and a self-conscious academy dropout.  This doesn’t work well, and I felt she was muddled and bland, lacking any reason why she should be respected by others.  The other attempt at character development was Nara.  She starts the books as evil, a slaver who captured and mind-wiped Aran.  Upon her own forced amnesia she turns highly capable, but also strictly benevolent.  Once she starts getting her memories back, Aran is afraid she’d turn evil again, but there’s no hint of an inner conflict as she remains good throughout the books.

My second problem was that I could not decide whether this was a fantasy adventure or a military fiction.  The setting, the war and the battles all hinted at the latter.  However, our merry band of protagonists lack any semblance of internal discipline (another or Voria’s weak points.  If anything, they resemble the token fantasy band, with a variety of races, classes and skills.  Personally, I’d prefer a much stricter military setting, akin to Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series.

Finally, I felt that there were far too many convenient coincidences and omissions.  The magic system, worldbuilding and mythology are very tight in this series, compared to other fantasy works.  As a result, the jumps in the story or sudden, unexplained changes in direction are very jarring.  Voria has the tendency to always show up at the very last moment and save the day (something other characters actually touch on).  However, other protagonists all seem to be always in the right place at a right time, sometimes having traveled half across the fictional universe, only to arrive within minutes or hours of the event that requires their presence.  With the poorly defined travel system, this feels haphazard and self-serving at the same time.  I understand that being at the right place at the right time is a staple of fantasy literature.  However, most epic fantasy books are very careful in documenting the characters’ timetables, and perhaps throwing in severe time constraints the protagonists must overcome in order to reach their destination in time.  Nothing of that sort can be found here.

The issues I’ve had with the books are based purely on my personal preference.  Objectively speaking, Magitech Chronicles has been a lot of fun so far.  It mixes adventure, space fantasy and humor better than many other works I’ve read.  The books are more consistent in their mythology and internal logic than such well-known space fantasy works as Star Wars.  I also appreciated the lack of outside agenda or political allusions that plague other series with similar writing style, such as John Scalzi’s work.  I highly recommend this series to anyone who’s looking for simple fun.

 

Addendum: Thus ends my review.  The following are just a few thoughts I’ve had when I was listening to the series.  I’ve been an avid consumer of fantasy, and since Magitech Chronicles crosses over to that genre, I often compared the work to other titles, mainly in the literary and computer gaming area.

The races are developed in a very ingenious way.  They are easily recognizable by fantasy fans, but still buck the standard and overplayed fantasy races.  The Shayans and the Drifters are not the standard fantasy elves, aloof and isolationist.  They are far more ready for action, and their differences and interplay strongly reminded me of the High and Wood elves in the PC game Daggerfall.  Where High elves are tall, beautiful and arrogant, Wood elves are small, nimble and mischievous, all the while the High elves look down at their closely related cousins.

The Krox are the most prominent non-humanoid race.  They look more demonic and grow up to become dragons.  Over the course of the books I felt an incredibly strong resemblance to the Kreegans in the Might and Magic PC game series.  The Kreegans are spacefaring demonic beings, often supported by dragons, who invade planets and convert them to their own.  They have limited offensive magic and can use weapons.  Usually, a planet infested by Kreegans has to be destroyed, in order to stop their spread.  My feeling that the Krox and Kreegans were the same was so strong that I mentally placed the Magitech universe inside the Might and Magic universe.

In case you were missing another common fantasy race, the dwarves, they are here, but a little better hidden.  The Inurans are humans, for all sense and purposes.  However, they focus exclusively on building stuff and selling it.  This makes them a combination of dwarves and gnomes.  With one rare exception, they don’t engage in combat, which places them more towards the gnome side.

Apart from the races, I also found a remarkable coincidence.  The first book was published two days before the first book of another military sci-fi series, Expeditionary Force.  Both series feature an omnipotent, wise-cracking and borderline insane artificial intelligence: a magic staff in Magitech Chronicles and a quantum computer in Expeditionary Force.  The similarities between these two objects are truly striking and had there been a significant time gap between the publication of the two titles, I would have accused one of the authors of copying the concept.  There is also one important difference, though: Expeditionary Force is much grittier and darker, and set in a much closer, more familiar future.  The quantum computer in these books is such a jarring addition, so completely unbalancing the entire mood of the story, that I had to stop reading after the first book.  The staff in Magitech Chronicles is much better integrated into its more otherworldly environment, and while I didn’t like it as a character, I was able to live with it.

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