Most people who are familiar with Scott Meyer’s name know him as the author of the webcomic Basic Instructions. Off To Be The Wizard is Meyer’s first novel, a time-travel fantasy that leaves the heavy lifting to other writers and sets out to offer the reader nothing much beyond a good time. For the most part, Meyer succeeds at this goal.
I feel compelled to start by pointing out that this book is self-published, and Meyer might want to make use of a professional editing service for future books—it’s riddled with misspellings and missing punctuation, mostly in the form of quotation marks missing around chunks of dialogue, which drives me bananas. Also problematic, to me, is the hand-waving away of sketchy plot points within his premise—there are vague explanations for these, but they’re deeply unsatisfactory. I don’t demand my fantasy novels have a factual basis in general (because, hey, fantasy), but when you start explaining away some things, you have to explain them all away in order to maintain some internal consistency.
So here’s the deal: a 20-something geek working a dreary, dead-end job (unspecified past the dreary and dead-end parts) who spends his spare time poking around in various corners of the internet stumbles upon a buried file. Out of habit, he pokes around in the unguarded file and discovers that it contains his name and basic info. On a whim, he adds two inches to his height in the file, and is surprised to find himself growing two inches. This leads to more poking around, and Martin Banks soon discovers that the human race is basically nothing more than a giant computer construct. From there it only takes a little computer, er, wizardry to figure out how to teleport and how to time travel, two skills he figures out how to manage by developing crude apps for his smart phone. Martin is smart enough to realize that he may, in the future, need an escape plan in case whomever oversees this file figures out that he’s messed around with it.
Martin decides the best place to escape to is the past, and chooses a benign time in the Middle Ages in England as his escape destination, figuring he can pass off his new crude skills as magic and himself as a powerful wizard. He’s forced to put his plan into action quite soon when all of his monkeying around with his bank account lands him in trouble with the Treasury Department. Dressed in Slytherin robes, Martin teleports himself back in time, landing outside the village of Leadchurch which, unfortunately for him, already has a wizard in residence. So the locals aren’t exactly impressed. Been there, done that.
As a premise, this has loads of potential, and Meyer milks it pretty well. He also doesn’t waste any time setting it up, which has positives and negatives. On the one hand, there’s not much in the way of info-dumping here. On the other, there’s not a lot of detail—one page, Martin is running from the feds and the next he’s hit his escape app and landed outside Leadchurch. But on the plus side, the swift removal of his character to the Middle Ages allows Meyer to get down to business and have a little fun.
See, it turns out ALL the wizards in his new time period are actually time-travelers who’ve come from various decades. Like Martin, they chose to escape to the Middle Ages thinking it’d be easy-peasy to pass their ability to manipulate the file off as magic. Eventually, they all created a shell file to standardize their wizardry. Leadchurch’s Wizard-in-Residence, Philip, takes Martin under his wing, offers to train him up in the use of the shell program so that he can pass the Wizard Trial, and shows him how to live a modern lifestyle in the Middle Ages. So Martin gets some snazzy robes and a hat, makes a staff, and eats a lot of stew while learning to pull burritos out of his hat, fly, and transport his bed from home to his hut in Leadchurch. He also meets a clutch of other time-travelers/wizards and begins to make friends.
The set up gives Meyers a chance to make zillions of funny pop culture references about everything from The Simpsons to Apple computers to Pontiac Fieros, and Martin’s adventures in learning his new trade are genuinely amusing. The problem, which you’ve no doubt figured out by now, is that these people all need computers to access the shell and make their tricks actually work because in this world, wizardry is actually nothing more than a series of macros that are created to respond to vocal commands, and there was no electricity in the 1300’s to run the computers on. Meyer gets around this difficulty by letting them use the shell to create certain fields around themselves and objects to preserve a constant, which is actually fairly clever—they can create fields to maintain their body temperatures at a constant level of their choice, and, more important in the world-building sense, they can create fields that will allow their computer batteries to forever remain at a full charge. Because Meyers is working from the premise that all of life is basically a computer construct, he can get away with this—manipulate the program to get whatever you want, be it a burrito or fully-charged computer battery.
Where it all gets a bit hand-wavy is with the use of cell phones and cell phone apps to control things. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how their smart phones could actually work in the Middle Ages. Because they can carry them back and forth, and they can conserve the battery charge at a permanent level, but it’s a fact that my cell phone, full battery or not, will not work if I’m in a dead spot. And I can’t think of a bigger dead spot than the 1300′s. I finally just gave up and waved my hands too. It was easier than imagining cell phone towers dotting the landscape of medieval England, and Meyer at no point described how they might make this work.
Martin has more adventures once he becomes a fully-trained wizard, and Meyer leaves himself enough room that he could easily make this into a series if he’s so inclined. I found this a fast, entertaining read. It’s not going to win any points for style, but it’s told in an engaging, undemanding fashion. My biggest issue with it was that the characters never really bloomed: they each seemed to have an assigned character trait (Martin, for example, is impulsive, while Phillip is very steady and conservative) and didn’t ever grow or change along the way; the result is that they’re not really driving the plot, just walking through it. If he does carry on with these characters in a series, he’ll need to work on that. But he has a very promising foundation to build on.