This kind of book is why I’m thankful for SPFBO competition because without it I might have never heard about this book at all. Like Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft or The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French, Sufficiently Advanced Magic (SAM) by Andrew Rowe is truly a gem in the self-published fantasy world that is on par or even better than many traditionally published fantasy books. In fact, I think of SAM as the best book to ever appear in SPFBO. I’ve read Senlin Ascends and the previous years’ SPFBO top 3 books, so I know what I’m saying is a very bold claim but I’m confident with it due to one simple reason: I am the perfect audience for this book.
There are many reasons why this book worked so damn well for me but in order to explain them properly, it’s mandatory for me to give a little insight on what LitRPG is and what first made the genre famous.
LitRPG stands for Literary Role Playing Game, and it basically integrates the elements of MMORPG with SFF novels to create a story that revolves around characters inside and outside an in-game world. This means that most of the time, the characters will know that they are in fact inside a game. The most popular example for a LitRPG novel that I can think of is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. However, what made this genre famous in the first place?
My first encounter with this genre wasn’t in a novel form but it was in an anime called .hack SIGN back in 2002. However, this anime didn’t revolutionize or make the genre famous at all, and I strongly believe that LitRPG became extremely famous only in 2009, when the anime called Sword Art Online (SAO) appeared. Honestly speaking, I am a huge gamer; I love anime, but I’m not a fan of LitRPG due to the fact that there’s no real ‘danger’ or suspense because when the in-game characters die, the audience knows that they will eventually revive because it’s just a character. SAO and .hack eliminate this factor by ensuring that, if your in-game character dies, the person playing the game will be truly dead or induced into a coma. This simple tweak is the reason why the genre became famous.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic is not a LitRPG, but it’s a high fantasy book heavily inspired by LitRPG and JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games). The world in this book isn’t an MMORPG; it’s truly a high fantasy world like most of the other high fantasy books you’ve read. What makes it unique and different however is that the world is filled with LitRPG elements. A few examples to begin with: the characters do level up, equipment does matter, magic requires mana (usually called MP in video games) to use. Hearing this you’ll probably wonder “is it necessary to be a gamer in order to enjoy this book?” The answer to that is absolutely not. SAM is still at its core a high fantasy book; being a gamer will enhance your experience for sure but it’s just the icing on the cake.
The plot begins with the main character, Corin Cadence, entering the Serpent Spire in order to find his older brother who had entered the tower five years ago and never returned. Right from the first chapter, the book immediately captivated me due to the fact that The Serpent Spire is a place that’s filled with puzzles, traps, and ever-shifting levels. It’s pretty much like things you can find in dungeon-crawler video games and most JRPGS such as Persona, the Tales of series, and Azure Dreams.
The first four chapters were heavily gaming inspired with a bit of anime elements thrown in, but once the book entered chapter 5, the storyline entered a long arc with which I envision most high fantasy readers—myself included— would be gratified and comfortable: magic school. Yes, you heard that right, it’s a favorite trope for fantasy bibliophiles. The magic school was brilliantly done; it contains a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter franchise except that it’s more fitting not only for YA readers but also for the NA audience. If you’re a fan of this trope (seriously, who isn’t), you really owe it to yourself to give this book a try for its exceptionally well-paced storyline and well-written magic school aspect.
The characters' development was also great. Although the book was told in 1st person, being inside Corin’s head was never boring, because Rowe managed to build the other side characters' personalities magnificently through Corin’s eyes. It was also amusing and interesting to see Corin’s blooming friendship with his friends in the academy.
The one single thing in my opinion that will determine whether you’ll enjoy this book is whether or not you enjoy reading intricate magic systems. I’m not kidding, you’re going to read tons of exposition on the multi-layered magic systems; it’s without a doubt one of the main driving forces of this book. I’m talking about a Brandon Sanderson level of intricacy in Rowe’s magic system here, except maybe even more detailed. Here’s an overview of the level of detail in the magic system: there are six Shifting Spires in the world, and in each tower there are exclusive attunements. In this book, we only get to see the one from the Serpent Spires, but from there we get to see eight Attunements: Diviner, Guardian, Elementalist, Enchanter, Mender, Shadow, Shaper, and Summoner. This is only from one tower! We haven’t seen anything from the other five towers, but I assume this will change in the sequel. Each attunement is next defined by the user’s mage level, which are, from weakest to strongest: Quartz, Carnelian, Sunstone, Citrines, Emeralds, and finally Sapphires. All of them are intricately explained and you’re going to hear a lot about them, especially for the Attunement of Enchanter, Corin’s main attunement. These magic divisions are obviously inspired by jobs systems that can be found in tons of video games, especially older JRPGs. However, Rowe managed to make sure the magic divisions or classes are integral to the storyline, much like in the video game Bravely Default, which Andrew Rowe himself stated in the acknowledgments as being his main inspiration for expanding upon these divisions in his magic system.
Although it may sound insane and like a lot to take in, Rowe did a fantastic job in making sure everything is easy to understand. This is because the author’s prose is pretty simple and straightforward, and it never gets in the way of the storyline’s flow. I do admit that some parts could have been cut down and the dialogues between characters are a bit cheesy sometimes, but overall it was tolerable and fun because of the author’s passion for the book, which could be felt in every word.
Minor issues with dialogues and over-explanation aside, the only other criticism I have is that I think the tone of the book was too light for my taste sometimes; I hope the author will consider upping the sense of danger in the sequels.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic is for me the best thing to come out of SPFBO since Senlin Ascends and The Grey Bastards. Heck, I think this one is even better. Every scene was vivid, the actions were well-written, the climax sequences were rewarding and set a wonderful platform for the sequel. It’s truly an enthralling LitRPG-inspired high fantasy book with an intricate magic system and a magic school trope done right. It’s sufficient to say that I’m looking forward in advance to the magic (see what I did there?) that Rowe will offer in the sequel. Well done, Andrew Rowe, you just earned yourself a new reader from a fellow JRPG player here. Suffice it to say this is one the very few indie books from which I'm looking forward to the sequel; now I’m off to play some video games.
I reviewed this as one of the judges for the finalist of SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog off) 2017. Everything written here is my honest opinion of the book, and there are possibilities that parts that work for me will not work for others and vice versa. I wish Andrew Rowe the best of luck in the final round of the competition.