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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

A Gamer Learns to Weaponize Sounds in This Genre-Bender

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Scotto Moore’s BATTLE OF THE LINGUIST MAGES (Tordotcom, 441 pp., $28.99) is absolutely wild, a wacky dance battle of a book with a wry, grounding edge. Isobel Baillie has devoted the last eight years of her life to being queen of the video game Sparkle Dungeon, a rave-themed virtual-reality dungeon crawler and its three sequels, topping the leaderboards at the cost of her job and her girlfriend. But her notoriety leads to an opportunity with the game’s ad agency, Jenning & Reece. On the pretext of performing usability testing for Sparkle Dungeon 5, she is taught “power morphemes” — ways to condense layers of meaning into abstract sounds that can bend real-world physics, shattering glass and folding space-time. Her teachers call these “combat linguistics,” but the titular linguist mages — including politicians, cult leaders and gaming executives — have competing ends in mind, and Isobel is instrumental to all of them.

This is a stand-alone novel with material enough for six, leaping from rung to rung of an escalating plot like — well, like a video-game character parkouring her way through an auto-runner. By the halfway point, it had blown my mind twice and accumulated such cavalcades of incident that I couldn’t fathom where it had left to go — but it found places, and it went there. Hyperbole is Moore’s organizing principle, and puncturing it with granular mundanity is his applied mathematics; the result is an audacious, genre-bending whirlwind.

IN THE SERPENT’S WAKE (Random House, 512 pp., $18.99), Rachel Hartman’s latest fantasy epic, is a direct sequel to “Tess of the Road” and set in the same world as “Seraphina” and “Shadow Scale.” Publicly, Tess is on a quest: to sail through the Archipelagos to the South Pole and find the Polar Serpent, for science and for her friend Pathka, who has an ailment only the Serpent can ease. Privately, Tess is on a mission for the queen of Goredd: to spy on the neighboring nation of Ninys’ activities in the Archipelagos and report any aggression against its Indigenous peoples.

Hartman’s novels are notable for the compassion she brings to building a layered world, developed through observation and argument with our own. But that compassion is not cozy; it requires discomfiting her protagonists, making them scratch at their ideals and assumptions as at a shedding skin. In Hartman’s first duology, Tess’s sister Seraphina had to learn to love and accept the parts of herself she’d been taught to keep hidden, while “Shadow Scale” forced her to learn uncomfortable truths about the world that had been hidden from her. Tess follows a similar trajectory in her books, healing from family trauma in “Tess of the Road” only to find herself, in the sequel, getting a crash course in settler colonial theory (and practice).

In keeping with its predecessors, “In the Serpent’s Wake” is wonderful, instantly immersive and deeply affecting. But while the previous novels kept a tight focus on their protagonists, this one has a more expansive cast, better serving its wider ambitions: to challenge settler assumptions about civilization and identity, stories and their tellers. Where reality obscures, erases and elides truth, it falls to fantasy to correct the record.

Delilah S. Dawson’s THE VIOLENCE (Del Rey, 498 pp., $28) takes place in a post-Covid Florida, on the cusp of a very different pandemic. It’s 2025, and Chelsea Martin lives an apparently idyllic life in a gated community with her wealthy husband, two daughters and small fashionable dog. In reality, Chelsea’s husband is physically and emotionally abusive, and has systematically cut her off from any friends or support systems apart from her cruel and self-absorbed mother. But as a new disease called the Violence spreads — causing brief, individual episodes of amnesiac rage during which the infected beat the nearest living thing to death — Chelsea sees an opportunity to free herself and her daughters.

Dawson’s prose is a kind of knife work: short, sharp stabs after agonies of teeth-clenching tension, whether in Chelsea’s marriage, her teenage daughter Ella’s relationship with her boyfriend, or her mother’s relationship with her own powerful husband. The virus intersects in shocking, transformative ways with the casually accumulated and painfully sublimated violence of their daily lives. What could have been a flimsy allegory is instead a carefully and surprisingly angled mirror: Some people are falsely accused of being infected; some falsely claim infection as an excuse for their actions; some struggle to control the Violence, while others try to induce it.

While painting a chilling portrait of domestic abuse, “The Violence” also feels like the first real Covid novel I’ve read, and not only because it acknowledges a recent past of masks and lockdowns. It also makes viciously explicit two twinned and opposite pandemic fears: the fear of killing people with your illness, and the fear of being killed by the illness of others. There’s a dizzyingly effective passage in which a group of infected people unburden themselves by naming the people they’ve murdered — their partners, their parents, their children. It’s impossible not to read, in that, a kind of reckoning with the realities of our current pandemic and how we’ll think of it in the future.

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