Recent Reads: McCullough’s WebMage books

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Kelly McCullough did me a nice favor recently, and I realized I wasn’t very familiar with his books, so while on vacation, I picked up WebMage, the first book in his Ravirn series. Devoured it in a day or so, and eagerly went back for the next two–Cybermancy and CodeSpell.

Now, from the titles you can probably surmise that these are kind of a techie urban fantasy, and at first glance, they certainly are. But McCullough revels in his knowledge of Classical mythology and IT-geekspeak. The result is a crackling series of fantasy books that marry 21st century technology to Grecian lore. Magic is an extension of technology (or is it the other way around?), and the tired tropes of urban fantasy are energized by McCullough’s clever re-imaging. Trolls are mainframes, goblins are laptops, pixies are PDAs. The Internet becomes the “mweb” (one of many of McCullough’s simple but effective transformations–turning something ubiquitous in our non-fantastic culture into the foundation of his “magical” realm; he doesn’t have to explain how it works because we just know by virtue of its antecedent), spells are actualized strings of binary code, “jacking in” is a bit of ritualized homeopathic magic, and Necessity is just one huge super-computer, squatting at the exact center of reality. (And there’s all manner of delightful texturing; for example: Eris, goddess of Discord, running her entire server farm on next-gen Macs–the most tightly controlled, ordered computer system available.)

The series follows the exploits of Ravirn, a well-intentioned code hacker who, like many of us boys, is much better at reading code than he is people. The lad has a gift, and his earnest nobility and cluelessness get him into endless amounts of trouble. The relationship between Ravirn and his familiar, Melchior, is classic buddy film stuff: all manner of biting wit and grousing about having to save the other one, while slowly revealing a deep and heartfelt care for each other. As Ravirn extricates himself from one situation to the next, his relationship with the ladies goes from bad to worse to complicated. And along the way, McCullough infuses the staid, time-worn definitions of Greek mythological characters with a great deal of energy, emotional gravitas, and not a little bit of sex appeal.

They’re popcorn books, sure, but McCullough never treats his source material with anything less than reverence, and he never settles for a cheap Piers Anthony style pun. This is smart and tight world-building that constantly put a smile on my lips with both its breezy irreverence and its attentive integration of tech and myth. The fourth book is titled MythOS and it will be out some time next year. From the title along, I think McCullough is just starting to hit his stride with this series, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he’s got planned. (MythOS. I giggle like a tech nerd with an empty shopping cart at Fry’s every time I see that title.)

Besides, his Furies rock. Both as expressions of chaotic energy and as carefully nuanced characters. McCullough has a deft touch in bringing out the humanity in the mythological.