Disclaimer: spoilers ahead. Also, this is a long post.
Normally, I avoid putting too many spoilers in my reviews, especially when linking to them on Goodreads, but I tried to articulate my criticism without them and it just didn’t make sense. I’ll be spoiling major plot points and “twists” so you may want to skip this one if you’re interested in reading the book. Also, the post is stupid long. With a 600-page problematic book, I couldn’t help but ramble.
Before we get started, I wanted to address the genre of this book. Sufficiently Advanced Magic is typically shelved as a “LitRPG” book, which I (surprisingly) hadn’t heard of before starting the book. From the Wiki entry, “LitRPG, short for Literary Role Playing Game, is a literary genre combining the conventions of RPGs with science-fiction and fantasy novels.” Links have been left in in case you’d like to look into it more. The most popular book in this genre is Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), though I’m not sure I agree with the label for RPO. Otherland by Tad Williams is also hailed as a popular LitRPG novel – I haven’t read it myself, but it has a 3.9 on Goodreads so it’s probably pretty decent. The hallmarks of LitRPG as a genre are “stats” that get assigned to main characters, some kind of virtual reality element, MMORPG terminology (mobs, loot, stats, set amount of mana, etc.), and visible improvements on character skills, usually signaled by an increase in stats. A book doesn’t need to have all of these to be considered LitRPG, but the major presence of a few is enough to earn the classification. Sufficiently Advanced Magic has mana stats, an “alternate reality” in the form of towers with malleable, individual realities, and loot/mobs within those towers. There’s also extensive discourse about the mana/magic system and different magic “classes” in the world, delineated based on location/country.
Originally bought in December 2017 during a sale, this book has been languishing on my Kindle for a looonnnng time. I dove in head-first after finishing Tainted Love (see my review here), but honestly, Sufficiently Advanced Magic was a slog to get through. Clocking in at a staggering 621 pages, this book is just two hundred pages shorter than Game of Thrones. Now, the page count in itself is not an issue, and actually lines up with my typical reading style, but this book did not need to be this long. I’ve decided to break down my thoughts on this book based on different characteristics.
Worldbuilding & Storyline
For a book with so much dialogue and classroom-type discourse, the worldbuilding left much to be desired. The book starts out with Corin Cadence in line to attempt his first trial in the Serpent Spire. His end goal is to become a “climber,” someone who dedicates their life to reaching the top of the tower. He spends most of his time in line anxiously hoping he doesn’t have to confront anything living or, if he does, that it will let him pass without a violent combat. Strange, considering he wants to reach the top floor someday. We get some character information through his internal dialogue here – he’s always been in his brother’s shadow, his parents split up after his brother’s disappearance, and he hates fighting. His parents are, of course, professional duelists, so this is another thing that sets him apart from the rest of his family. Typical outcast.
Inside the tower, we get a good look at Corin’s combat abilities (strangely excellent, despite his eschewing violence of any kind) and some more details about how the spires function. Some mobs are introduced here as well along with puzzle rooms. We also find out that the main source of currency for this world comes from “loot” that monsters drop, which may or may not be their souls. Corin acknowledges this later in the book when he realizes this is used as a “climber currency,” but he never really explores the topic more. I guess we’re just supposed to accept it and move on. On the towers themselves, I have a few issues with them other than the loot system: first, you can basically pick which room/test you go in by opening a door, looking in, then quickly closing it before the other door(s) in your current room disappear; secondly, and more importantly, the difficulty scale is ridiculous. Yes, the tower trials are supposed to be optional when you turn 17 (where your only other choice is to skip any schooling and go straight into the military at a disadvantage), but it still seems ridiculous that the first room you enter might kill you. Perhaps this was intentional so that the book met the LitRPG requirements of having a game-like reality, but the execution was definitely lacking.
Corin finishes his test in the tower with hardly a scratch, of course, and somehow manages to unearth a worldwide conspiracy along the way. One thing that I found particularly unbelievable was the book he immediately discovered that allowed him to talk to a mysterious entity called “The Voice of the Tower.” The Voice used the book to conveniently provide guidance in each room of the tower as Corin was progressing through it, which severely undercut the suspense of Corin’s success. It also made it hard to believe when he supposedly “accidentally” circumvented the normal test route and ended up in a room with high-security prisoners: a mysterious man named Keras, a woman named Vera, and a silent child who looks near to death. Given the chance to leave the room or release the prisoners, bleeding-heart Corin uses his “random” extra keys to open their cells. This incurs the wrath of Katashi, a powerful visage who serves the goddess. Keras manages to hold off the visage while Vera, the child, and Corin escape the tower. Before being forced out of the tower, Corin manages to snag an attunement from a fountain along a bottle of the mysterious attunement water. The “escaped prisoners” plot-line plays out slowly through the rest of the book. It also connects him with Orden, one of the professors at the University, at the behest of the mysterious Voice.
Once Corin leaves the tower with his new enchanting attunement, the worldbuilding and action pretty much stop there. He immediately enters the university and starts his lessons in learning more about his attunement and how to utilize his mana properly. The majority of the rest of the book is classroom lectures, internal monologues, and study sessions with his friends. There is one “trial test” towards the middle of the book, which he and his friend group fail miserably, then we get more talking and lectures and little to no exhibition. We also get one randomly aside where Corin and his half-sister Sera agree to let her fight in a combat tournament with a man named Derek, who Corin met in a “tower shop” while buying enchanting supplies. As a first-year student, Sera nearly gets herself killed facing a demigod, but Derek manages to save the day with his ridiculously powerful weapons. Then, we’re immediately thrown back in the classrooms and study groups.
This book is the epitome of “tell, don’t show” and based on my research, that tends to be a hallmark of LitRPGs. If you like reading class lectures and professor ramblings that have no relevance to real life and no discernible lessons to teach you, as the reader, then you might enjoy this book. The lectures center around mana control, attunements and how to use them, and the towers. It would have been nice to have a history-type class that would give the author an excuse to tell us about the rest of the world, but instead, we get probably 450 pages of information about the magic system with some minor combat filtered in-between.
In the last portion of the book, Corin and Co. venture back into the tower with Orden and Vera in an attempt to placate Katashi, who has attacked the school in retaliation to Visage Tenjin’s disappearance prior to the start of the book. (I know, it’s a mouthful.) Corin and his friends are woefully unprepared for this, but luckily, they bring along Derek, the strangely powerful man from the tournament earlier in the school year. We get a little plot twist right at the end of the book: Orden reveals that she orchestrated Tenjin’s capture through a government-wide conspiracy and careful manipulation of Vera and there is a betrayal in Corin’s friend group. We also find out that the Voice is actually Corin’s missing brother, who has been watching Corin’s progress since he went into the tower. The book ends with this cliffhanger/twist along with a lot of loose ends.
Following the LitRPG idea of a video game in a book, each of the characters in Sufficiently Adanced Magic fits into one or two classes. Corin represents the enchanter/healer, Sera is the warlock, Marissa (aka Mara) is the tank, Jin is the rogue, and Patrick is the mage. They also follow the associated stereotypical personality types that go along with these “classes.”
Since the entire book is told in first-person, I’ll focus in on Corin as a character and narrator. Most of Corin’s inner monologue is spent on working out magic/mana problems, feeling awkward about social interactions, and event analysis that’s quickly set aside. We are constantly reminded that Corin hates being touched (even by his half-sister, Sera) and generally abhors most social niceties. That being said, he is still charismatic and doesn’t seem to have much trouble interacting with fellow students. He even takes a few opportunities to challenge professors during class in front of 20-30 other students. It makes his monologues about his awkwardness much less believable and much more irritating.