Webmage, by Kelly McCullough
8/10, a solid, fun adventure in urban fantasy with surprising depth
Disclaimer: I read Kelly’s writings over at Wyrdsmiths and have corresponded with him.
In fact, I picked up “Webmage” at a book signing and feel bad it’s taken me so long to read it!
I can’t really complain about the modern fantasy market being dominated by cookie-cutter Dragonlance adventures, because I only read fantasy that’s come with pretty good recommendations, or else authors I know and trust (like Tim Powers, who could not by any stretch of the imagination be called “cookie-cutter,” unless you happen to have a trans-dimensional cookie-cutter, and even then it would have to be shaped like an ancient god or something). That said, I picked up Webmage largely on the strength of having read some of McCullough’s short works–and attending his book signing.
The big hook of Webmage is that it melds classical mythology-based fantasy with modern technology (hence the title). Ravirn, the protagonist, is a descendant of Lachesis, one of the three Fates (Clotho and Atropos are the others). He and his family stand for Order, in opposition to the goddesses of Chaos. He’s an expert hacker–not as good at coding spells, but great at digging into them.
The problem he faces is that one of his aunts has gone a bit too far. She wants to impose a lot more order on the universe–namely, getting rid of that pesky free will that knots up her threads. Her spell doesn’t quite work, however, and that’s where she’s tried to rope him in. Ravirn doesn’t like the sound of the spell, and goes about trying to expose his aunt to the other Fates.
Webmage keeps the reader involved with some great chases, problems, and characters. Ravirn, though clever and resourceful, relies heavily on the assistance of others, most frequently his snarky laptop/familiar Melchior. Even though the “familiar with attitude” is a fairly common modern fantasy archetype, it works wonderfully here. Mel is a great complement to Ravirn; together they can muddle through lots of situations, and other characters show up to help when they can’t.
In the end, the hook is really little more than an entertaining magic system, but it adds enough originality to the book to elevate it above the traditional fantasy. McCullough has a great touch with character, description, and action, but beyond that, the question of free will is woven nicely into the book in a way that makes it more than just an adventure. I love mythology-based fantasy and Webmage did not disappoint. Having attended the U of M (Minnesota), I particularly enjoyed following Ravirn through its campus (and in one scene in which he breaks into the hated Weisman art museum, I was cheering for him to do more damage).
If you’re looking for something that stands out from traditional dragon-fighting medieval quests, or just for a good story, Webmage is a fun, engaging read.