Glitter in the Rug: Review of Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore
Battle of the Linguist Mages. Scotto Moore. Tordotcom, January 2022.
The title of this book is a bit misleading. Despite the many battles between linguist mages which explode regularly off the page, accompanied by showers of sparkles and an absolutely kick-ass soundtrack, this book is not about linguistics, or about mages. It is about computer games.
Battle of the Linguist Mages is set in a Covid-free version of our world, focused on an MMORPG called Sparkle Dungeon, whose core aesthetic is every possible combination of sparkly glitter and music that you can imagine. The Sparkle Realm swarms with antagonists such as feral baby rainbows and corrupted glam rockers. Weapons take the form of armor-piercing Bedazzler rays and moonbeam kaleidoscopes and poisonglitter; NPCs have names like Graziella von Groove, Vintage, and Chillmeister; and everything comes with a soundtrack or other musical affiliation. Sparkle Dungeon is a charming love letter to everything that is whimsical and wacky, in the best possible way, about gaming.
Our narrator, Isobel Bailie, is the world’s top player of Sparkle Dungeon, which brings her to the attention of the game’s creators. They tell her that the entire game has served as a training and selection tool to find people with skills like hers, people who can produce power morphemes. These are units of intensely compressed meaning that, when pronounced properly and combined in sequence, can shape reality in various magical ways. In the first half of the book, various parties–companies, politicians, religious cultists who are absolutely not at all based on Scientologists–compete to use power morphemes for their own advantage, but things escalate quickly, and by the second half of the book we are struggling to rescue the whole multiverse from evil while also thwarting a villain’s plan to use people-powered batteries to drive an apotheosis into godhood.
So far, so typical: Battles for the fate of the universe are comfortable and familiar in SFF; and the discovery that hard-earned skills in a hitherto ‘trivial’ domain are in fact going to save the world is the core of the Ascended Fanboy trope. Unfortunately, very little else about the book makes much sense. See, one of the primary uses of power morphemes is transmutation, which allows the user to transfer their existence from our corporeal world to the logosphere. The logosphere is an incorporeal realm of thought and meaning, and also, somehow, the actual Sparkle Realm from the game Sparkle Dungeon. This was a simultaneously ridiculous and delightful narrative choice. It is a delight because, by this point, we have learned the game in exquisite detail, from the artifacts and characters, to the game-adjacent scandals and online discussion boards, to the cosplay at the launch party of Sparkle Dungeon 5, to the minutiae of diva-casting. Knowing all this, how could we not rejoice at the opportunity to enter that world directly, to talk to the Dauphine of the Shimmer Lands, to wield the Remix Ring and Electronic Dance Mace?
Transmutation, though, also allows people to go beyond the Sparkle Realm, to explore other layers of the multiverse, and this quickly becomes simultaneously confusing and repetitive. Once you’ve transcended a plane of existence and transmuted yourself into a being of pure thought and energy, it loses its punch if you do it again, but this time to a different plane of existence. Especially if you then do it again. And then again. I lost track of all the different multiverse realms we encounter, and of whether the various magical things were the result of wielding power morphemes, or the result of transmuting Sparkle Dungeon artifacts into the real world. I never had a firm sense of what these spells and objects could or could not do.
Moore recognizes this vagueness in his worldbuilding, but rather than resolving it, he tries to dismiss it through conscious lampshading: Isobel, in the midst of a battle, tells us “I didn’t understand how the heralds were just magically developing weapon-specific resistance until I caught myself using the word magically and realized, duh, just shut up and focus on the fight.” This is extremely unsatisfying. In a book that draws so heavily on the principles of computer games, regularly invoking the systematic rules and protocols governing how players can interact with the game, recover from injuries, wield weapons, and defeat enemies, it was odd to have no sense of the scope of possibility of the power morphemes or any sense of the rules or constraints governing the magic. There was a distinct anything-goes ethos to the narrative, and that required me to suspend my disbelief far more than was comfortable. It crossed the line from fun into confusing, and then just kept going.
Yet, despite this wackadoodle absurdity, I can’t help but respect the risks that Moore took, and the many choices he made that worked well. Isobel’s narrative voice is extremely contemporary, which means it will probably seem hopelessly out-of-date in only a few years. But because I read it this year, it charmed me. Characters are introduced with explicit pronouns as part of their description, which seemed quite clunky, and may also age badly as conventions about how to acknowledge gender identity shift; but we do not have accepted conventions yet, and this book’s choices offer a model for one way to avoid reliance on default cis-het identities in fiction. One of the villains instigates a fascist takeover of California, but in so doing she also abolishes ICE and billionaires, and Isobel is understandably torn about the conflict between ends and means.1
I must also praise the rock-solid linguistic foundation underlying the concept of power morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest units of language that can carry meaning, and indeed one way of categorizing languages is by how much meaning they squeeze into morphemes.2 Taking facts beyond real-world limitations is the core creative thinking that underlies science fiction, and it is rare to see that creativity applied to the field of linguistics.3 The role of intonation, too, in structuring sequences of power morphemes is both linguistically accurate–intonation is a core part of linguistic structure that is often overlooked in basic linguistic analysis–and also links back quite elegantly to the centrality of music in Sparkle Dungeon. When Moore’s characters discuss linguistics, they get it mostly right. This is a refreshing change from the common layperson’s misconception that a linguist is just a person who knows many languages.
My edition of this book has a pull quote from Charles Stross on the cover: “And now my head hurts.” This seems accurate. The book takes wild risks, and gets many things right, but it does leave a bit of a headache in its wake. You can never get glitter out of the rug.
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1I am, perhaps, less optimistic that this topic will become obsolete as quickly as internet slang, but the discussion is nevertheless steeped in the language and conventions of anticapitalist progressivism that are current in the Twitter discourse of today.↑
2Synthetic languages combine multiple meanings in a single morpheme, while agglutinating languages tend to have one morpheme per meaning. In English, the suffix -s on a verb like he runs carries multiple meanings: third person singular subject, present tense. An agglutinating language, like Turkish or Finnish, would divide up those conjugational meanings among multiple morphemes.↑
3Except, of course, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis–the idea that the language you speak affects your thoughts, which in SFF means that learning a new language can confer psychic powers. See, for example, Robert Heinlein’s Martian tongue in Stranger in a Strange Land, or the language of the heptapods in the film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life.)↑
Clara Cohen is a psycholinguist by profession, with a deep love of science fiction and fantasy, and a chronic insufficiency of bookshelf space, art supplies, and fountain pen ink. You can find her (unedited) reviews on Storygraph, and her art on Instagram.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Arina Nabais. The author and editors had no relationship prior to this piece. The author used her own copy of this work for the review.