Off to Be the Wizard is a funny book. Very funny in some spots. It’s humor and general breeziness make it a quick read, but its charm can only carry it so far.
Martin is a computer geek. One night he discovers (on just about the very first page of the book – it works better than I expected) a text file, plays around with it, and discovers that chestnut sci-fi trope: that our world is really just a computer simulation, with parameters that can be endlessly modified. In short order he’s essentially practicing magic by summoning sums of money from thin air, teleporting, and travelling through time. It’s the first of those that gets him in trouble (damned Treasury agents) and cause him to flee not just to another place, but another time – medieval England.
At this point, I expected the story to turn into something like Doomsday Book, but with jokes, where Martin has to use his wits and “wizardry” to survive. Instead, Martin falls into a community of similar time travelers and spends most of the book interacting only with them. Aside from a few mentions here and there, the same story could have been told in the Old West, feudal Japan, or the prehistoric African plains. It’s a huge wasted opportunity and hints one of my main problems with the book.
That is, things are much too easy for Martin and his friends. Not only are they not subject to the vagaries of medieval life (aside from a wonderful running joke about stew), there isn’t even any real conflict happening until, about 3/4 of the way through the book, the author realizes there has to be. The resulting ending, with a big bad that comes out of nowhere and has a temporary menace that the rest of the book doesn’t justify, is too quick and perfunctory to mean much.
What that leaves is a bunch of Martin, mostly in the company of his older (and more interesting) mentor Phillip, learning how all the wizarding works. This provides some good chances for comedy, but the need to build up Martin’s need to pass “the trials” is undercut by there not actually being any. Aside from one run in with bullies, at no point does anything that might hint at a book-defining conflict pop up.
Along the way, anything that might complicate the wizards’ fairly easy life (typical time travel issues like changing the past/future, the ability to power computers in medieval England, etc.) get hand waved away. On the one hand, I like that – it’s a funny book, not a deeply thought out treatise on the potential hazards and difficulties of time travel. But still, having everything work out so easily almost renders the time travel pointless. No surprise, then, that Martin is never seriously pulled by a desire to return to his own time (to be fair, he’s never given a reason to be pulled).
That also keeps Martin from really interacting with the world he’s time travelled himself into. This is a particularly glaring missed opportunity because it really emphasizes the absence of women from the book. Martin’s mother gets a mention or two and there’s a crazy old woman with goat problems, but otherwise the only woman around is Gwen. She goes from a complete blank of a character (main defining feature – all the wizards want to do her) to, magically, a big player when the plot finally cranks up. There’s no ground work laid for this and it comes completely out of the blue (deus ex vagina, perhaps?).
There are other women who have found the file and travelled back to this time, but they’ve all headed off to Atlantis, conveniently off screen (to be fair, the second book in the series goes there, so I’ve read). But that doesn’t explain why, in the day to day of living, Martin and his pals are able to avoid any contact with the opposite sex. It’s the kind of blind spot you’d expect in some of the foundational fantasy literature the book gently satirizes, but not something written in the second decade of the 21st Century.
That all sounds harsh, and maybe it is. But, like I said, being funny can take a book a long way and Off to Be the Wizard is funny. And in Philip, the wizard from a slightly older time who finds himself out of step with the more currently pop culturally savvy wizards (he knows not of The Simpsons, for instance), it has a really interesting, greatly drawn characters. Except for one thing – when, late in the book, he’s able to crank Genesis on his car stereo (yes, in medieval England – you’ll have to read the book), it’s completely out of character that it’s something from the poppy Phil Collins era (“That’s All,” to be specific – there’s a hilarious discussion of the video). I mean, come on! Surely “Watcher of the Skies” or the end of “Supper’s Ready” would have been more appropriate!
As I was saying – a fun book, a quick read with lots of laughs. However, its flaws stand out enough that I’m not interested in heading further into the series.