Pretty much any piece of fantasy I read that has magic in it, I wind up trying to figure out the rules of the magic. Because, sure, it’s magic, but it has to have a system underlying it—otherwise nobody would be able to actually use it for stuff! A lot of the time, for the sake of the story, the rules basically boil down to “magic does whatever the plot needs it to do,” which admittedly isn’t not the case in “Scarlet Odyssey,” but there’s also very clearly a set of rules for how it works.1
But what I really loved about this set of rules, what really captivated me, is that it isn’t magic. It’s a sufficiently advanced technology. And it’s masterfully done. Ra featured a magic system that just is programming, including very clear connections to how *nix works. “Scarlet Odyssey” has hints of how it works that make it feel distantly related—more of the “this is how the abstract concept of computation works” than “this is how most computers on Earth work.” That makes it a lot easier to buy this as not a completely alternate-world history, but actually a far, far distant-future bit of science fiction. (Personally, my theory is that the reason they all worship the moon and regard it as the source of the magic is that it is—a moon is a handy place to put some machinery a couple ticks up the Kardeshev scale that you’re gonna use to customize the laws of physics for a planet.)
So, a couple hundred words in to this review, I’m clearly enamored of the world building. And, wow, I’ve barely scratched the surface; there’s a whole rich history, multiple civilizations, the actual details of how the system of magic works… it feels big and storied. Historic.
Worldbuilding aside, I also really enjoyed the story.2 Salo makes for an interesting protagonist, and the jumping between different characters’ perspectives is well-done, providing their different views of how the journey is going, as well as their own stories. Frankly, by the end of the book, it feels a bit like a D&D campaign group—each of the characters is totally unique, and a fight between them and a big group of Generic Evil Minions Plus One Big Bad feels like it fell right out of the Dungeon Master’s Guidebook. They’ve each got their own story, and while Salo is clearly the main protagonist, the story they’re writing together isn’t just about him.
We’ve also got a really great villain in The Handmaid, though I’ll admit I did spend a bit of time being very confused because I hadn’t realized that The Handmaid and The Enchantress were two different characters. Pay attention to the chapter titles, kids, they’re meaningful!
Overall, I absolutely loved this book. I feel as if, here at the end, I should be doing some kind of caveat, but it really directly hit everything I want from a book! It’s not even failing the Russo Test!3 I recommend the heck out of “Scarlet Odyssey,” give it a read.4
- Said rules aren’t particularly clear, as there’s at least six kinds of magic, but also maybe a seventh, and also that’s only the ones practiced on this continent, and there’s a whole other family of magic in the other continents? There’s a lot going on. ↩
- I could’ve done with more than around 1/2 of a plot thread being tied up by the end of the book, but they’ve gotta get me hooked for the remainder of the trilogy somehow. And, to be fair, if things had been cut down enough to fit the whole trilogy’s plot into one book, it would’ve either been a terrifyingly large book, or lost a lot of the detail that I enjoyed. ↩
- In point of fact, it passes it with flying colors. Identifiably gay characters? Salo’s subtle, but his uncle and uncle’s husband, less so. Not defined by that character trait? The uncle is a fierce warrior, and Salo’s own queerness is honestly easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention to how he interacts with the guy he’s trying to hide his crush on/from. Integral to the story? Yeah, I’d say the main character is pretty integral to the story! ↩
- This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores. ↩