S. Andrew Swann,
Broken Crescent
(DAW, 2004)

The idea of treating magic as if it were a computer programming language made me anxious to read S. Andrew Swann's Broken Crescent. This promised to be a most intriguing premise for a novel, and I am always interested in reading the exploits of any hacker -- real or fictional. I must admit, though, that the first few chapters of this novel had me worried because they quite failed to grab me. Nate Black promised to be a fascinating character, but his journey from this world to some mysterious other place was arbitrary and vague, and his initial contact with the new locals -- consisting mainly of wisecracks no one there could begin to understand -- threatened to become tiresome very early on. Once Nate's captivity began, though, and the new magical world began to come into focus, all of my concerns were tossed aside as I found myself deeply drawn into the story and presented with several fascinating concepts.

College student Nate Black was once one of the world's most famous (and wanted) hackers, the infamous Azrael, but he abandoned the black hat for a white one and thought he had covered up all traces to his former identity. Someone, though, has learned his secret and sends him a number of anonymous, untraceable emails to that effect. When the feds suddenly appear on campus, Nate runs -- and somehow falls into a dark void that leaves him high and dry in an entirely different world where magic is real. No one in this mediaeval-type setting understands Nate's language, and he soon finds himself a prisoner. He is held by the College of Man, the overseers of magic who basically control society there. Nate is locked up and subjected to intense questioning by men in wild masks and robes, but the rudimentary communication device that allows for speech between him and his captors does not help him understand where he is, how he got there or why he is being punished so severely.

This new world is made up of two races. Man reigns supreme, but numbers of ghadi, peculiar-looking creatures unable to communicate and treated like trained animals/slaves by man, work as laborers in the castle. Eventually, Nate falls under the care of the ghadi and their few human overseers. He begins to learn the language and grows increasingly disconcerted when he finds out the ghadi look upon him as their long-anticipated savior -- and the College of Man fears him for that very reason.

This world is even more complicated than he knows, for the land's youthful monarch soon becomes an unpredictable component of a furious three-way struggle for power. Agents within the College of Man have been working to bring the college down, and Nate eventually gets the chance to learn magic at the secret Shadow College, where students are being prepared to step in after the College of Man is defeated. Here, practical magic is taught, but this does not satisfy Nate. He is not content to merely copy arcane symbols for age-old spells, and he surreptitiously dives into the meaning and logic of the ancient Gods' Language. In time, he sees it all as the equivalent of a computer programming language, and he assiduously begins to hack the "program." For centuries, no one has sought to do what Nate is now doing, as it is seen as the height of dangerous folly. Nate ends up becoming the lynchpin of immense social and political change in this new world, and he must struggle to develop his growing abilities as quickly as possible -- there is revolution in the streets, violence in the air, and great uncertainty everywhere. In so doing, he finally discovers just who brought him to this world and why.

The novel is full of action and mystery, heating up to a fever pitch by the end. The concept of magic as a programming language is fascinating in and of itself. I don't think this is a perfect novel by any means, however. Swann seems to take several convenient shortcuts in the course of developing his storyline, and Nate learns the natives' language as well as the runes-based Gods' language surprisingly quickly. I think a few of the supporting characters also could have used a little more development, but the social aspects of the conflicts on this world are compelling, and Nate develops into the type of hero -- a very human one -- that should appeal to most readers.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 22 January 2005

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