Noah Fram

Battle of the Linguist Mages, playwright Scotto Moore’s debut novel, more than lives up to the nerdy promise of its title. It follows die-hard gamer Isobel Bailie, who unlocks magical abilities due to her mastery of the virtual reality game Sparkle Dungeon, down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and capitalist enterprise. The reigning champion of the game, Isobel has mastered its vocal spellcasting mechanics. But then she’s let in on a paradigm-shifting secret: The same techniques can be used in the real world. By uttering phrases called power morphemes, Isobel can literally change reality. In this Q&A, Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind what he deems his “science fantasy,” from Burning Man and EDM to the very real reality-altering dangers of technology.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is reminiscent of some other speculative fiction I’ve read or seen, like Ready Player One, Snow Crash and Contact, if these were all reflected off a few dozen disco balls and seen through a haze of real-life events. What were your inspirations for this project?
Back in 2010, I had a conversation with a linguist friend of mine who described her work in the field of speech recognition and speech-to-text and scaling that technology out to new languages. And I remember thinking it sounded completely like science fiction to me, a theater artist with no training in linguistics or any other science. Every word you say narrows down the potential words that might happen next, and I sort of cheekily thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be evil if you were capable of surreptitiously planting that first word in the sequence without a subject knowing it?” This ultimately led to me writing a play called Duel of the Linguist Mages, which we produced in Seattle in early 2011.

Then in 2014, I wrote a play called Balconies, which evolved out of a desire to write a giant farce with a romantic comedy wedged into it. I needed two sets of contrasting characters to play on two neighboring balconies, so on one you had a political fundraiser, and next door you had a video game-themed costume party. I’m sure my many Burning Man experiences must’ve inspired Sparkle Dungeon, the video game in that play. By the time I started writing the book, I’d acquired a hobbyist-level interest in DJ culture, so that got added to the mix. Balconies is one of my favorite plays, and the humor in the book is directly inspired by the comedic style of the play. I entertained some wishful thinking about writing a sequel, [but] instead I became motivated to use those characters in a book. That general atmosphere of menace from Duel provided a contrast to the lighthearted nature of the Balconies source material as I started to plot out the book, cherry-picking characters and concepts to use.

“Isobel and Maddy somehow find a way to fight the powers that be without sacrificing conscience or compassion . . .”

Battle of the Linguist Mages (and Sparkle Dungeon itself) sits right between science fiction and fantasy. Do you see your creations as bridging that genre gap or simply filling a niche that neither genre really describes effectively?
I’ve called it science fantasy from the start, although my publisher called it contemporary fantasy at one point, and that seems fair too. There’s so much spellcasting in the book that fantasy probably outweighs the science fiction elements. When I was a playwright, I did often write actual science fiction, but since then, I’ve also come to a better appreciation of fantasy. It feels natural right now to explore the wilder and weirder aspects of my imagination within the context of fantasy or science fantasy.

If someone were to release a real version of Sparkle Dungeon, would you play it?
Well, I don’t actually play video games. So if a Sparkle Dungeon game came out and I wasn’t connected to it in any way, it would miss me altogether. I wouldn’t even notice its release unless it became a monster hit that affected culture at the top level.

I didn’t call this out in the book, but in my imagination, there’s a mode in Sparkle Dungeon that’s like Rock Band, except it’s the DJ equivalent. Whenever Isobel boasts about her DJ skills, she’s actually referring to her mastery of this mode in the game. I might find that mode entertaining, but not “acquire a VR headset” entertaining.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is the exact sort of story that I can see somebody wanting to adapt to the screen, but that might not translate particularly well, given how many things would be challenging to visualize (or auralize). Since you have experience writing for the stage as well, do you think this book is capable of being adapted to another medium?
Oh, you could definitely adapt this book into a film or a streaming series. I mean, I learned working in fringe theater, where the production budgets are ridiculously low, that you can almost always find a way to express a strong creative vision. Resource constraints and limitations become creative opportunities by necessity. Maybe your finished product is rough around the edges, but you can still tell a powerful story. Our version of power morphemes in Duel of the Linguist Mages was a series of intricate sound cues, which the actors lip synced. It was super weird and effective.

In the midst of all that spectacle and action, a very character-driven story engine drives the book. Isobel, Maddy and the Dauphine of the Shimmer Lands feel to me like a charismatic trio of leads you really want to follow through this adventure. They’re like a mini superhero team, but instead of secret identities, they really wear their hearts on their sleeves with each other.

Read our starred review of Battle of the Linguist Mages.

A lot of the characters and organizations in Battle of the Linguist Mages are very, shall we say, recognizable from our real world. How much were those references intended to situate the reader in a familiar world, and how much were they intended to make a point?
I always wanted to situate the reader in our world, in the present day, because I think part of the fun is how our world is a springboard for these elaborate flights of fancy, so to speak. You get mileage out of that contrast, and the real world looks different to them when they return home. And the cabal’s actions have a more visceral impact because the story takes place in California instead of an invented land. It could be you or your own family that gets swept up in their schemes.

Meanwhile, as I developed the characters, it was apparent that Isobel and Maddy (like many of us) were deeply skeptical of modern capitalism, and some of my own rage bled through as they interacted with rich and powerful people in the story or observed how the world was being shaped by such unscrupulous forces.

But Isobel and Maddy somehow find a way to fight the powers that be without sacrificing conscience or compassion, and that’s what makes them so compelling to me.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is also very meta with all its references to literary and video game tropes. Do you think the characters in your book use tropes to describe their lived experiences, or did those tropes causally shape those experiences?
Isobel spends a huge amount of time in Sparkle Dungeon, immersed in the narrative tropes of the game, and she uses her instinctive understanding of those tropes to succeed at the game. That way of thinking does bleed into her daily life. So for instance, when she needs to study new spells with Maddy for several weeks, she flat-out thinks of it as a “training montage.” But this is the era of TV tropes and the culture having a really deep knowledge now of the typical tactics that narratives deploy, so she’s probably not the only character who’s immersed on some level in those tropes. Still, I think Isobel revels a lot more in fulfilling a literal role in a narrative than anyone else in the book.

“Facebook has altered people’s perception of reality so definitively . . .”

I’m a composer and psychomusicologist (it’s a real thing, I promise) by training, so I’m fascinated by your choice of EDM and house music as the vehicle for magic, both in Sparkle Dungeon and outside the game. What attracted you to using that genre in particular?
I think it’s just familiarity more than anything. I’ve been listening to electronic music since the mid-1990s, which is actually late to the game. A friend handed me an Orb CD and an Orbital CD and insisted that I would enjoy them, and she was totally right. And to the extent that my Burning Man experiences influenced Sparkle Dungeon, I mean, electronic music is seemingly everywhere you turn at Burning Man, or it was back when I was regularly attending the festival. Electronic music has been the soundtrack for a big chunk of my life.

The singing scenes are also particularly interesting to me, because they point to power morphemes’ implicit therapeutic potential. Where do you think they lie on the spectrum from therapy to enhancement?
Well, it’s tricky. The way Bradford pacifies the participants in a large brawl by singing sequences of power morphemes is almost akin to a guided MDMA session, so therapeutic potential is certainly there. At the same time, Isobel notes more than once that some of the euphoric healing sequences she uses have addictive potential. Spellcasting in that fashion seems slippery, although if you scaled it up, maybe you’d cure diseases.

But I think it’s telling that instead of curing anything, everyone is a lot more focused on “combat linguistics” and other subversive techniques. It’s like these power morpheme sequences provide steroidal power boosts to the spellcaster, which are a lot more immediately compelling to these people than anything altruistic.

Although power morphemes are speculation, the core premise—the invention or discovery of something that alters people’s perception of reality regardless of their agency—hits a little close to home. Things like power morphemes can cause immense harm but also achieve incredible good. How worried are you about the possibility that real life may come to imitate your art?
It’s happened already. Facebook has altered people’s perception of reality so definitively that otherwise rational people now believe wholesale in bizarre and outright harmful conspiracies. When these users first created their Facebook accounts, hoping to connect with friends and share photo albums or whatever, they never suspected they’d be hammered with insidious lie after lie after lie, propagated by an algorithm that operates with no mercy. I mean, maybe when you agreed to the terms of service, you willingly gave up your agency, but I doubt most people think of it that way.

At one point in the book, Olivia describes her work in advertising as “planting meaning in the culture and guaranteeing its effects.” Facebook mastered this approach, and they used their technological wizardry to torpedo the stability of American democracy and prop up despots around the globe. I’m not seeing the incredible good anywhere in sight. Maybe that’s part of why I like writing fantasy.

Author photo by Ian Johnston.

Scotto Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind his “science fantasy,” Battle of the Linguist Mages, which more than lives up to the nerdy promise of its title.

Summarizing Scotto Moore’s debut novel, Battle of the Linguist Mages, is an exercise in futility. Reducing it to the skeleton of its plot—Isobel Bailie discovers a talent that is considered magical, goes on a quest to save the world and maybe falls in love—would be ludicrously simplistic. Treating it as a philosophical treatise or a searing critique of contemporary politics would discount the fact that it’s also a riveting romp of an adventure.

Isobel, an avid gamer who lives in Los Angeles, contends with villains in the form of cynical advertising executives, disinterested game designers, conniving politicians, idealistic anarchists and arrogant gods. Along the way, she has to figure out how to get the “good” ending and she must also confront the mother of all trolley problems. To make matters worse, it’s all happening in real life, not in the friendly confines of her favorite virtual reality game, Sparkle Dungeon. Her talents in that game’s vocal spellcasting mechanic make her an ideal fit to learn power morphemes, vocalizations that alter people’s perceptions of reality so thoroughly that they change reality itself. While becoming the embodiment of a weaponized Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that the structure of language shapes a person’s perception of reality), Isobel learns that all of existence is under threat and must be saved.

Battle of the Linguist Mages reads like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler conceived a metaphorical child while high on LSD and blasting Skrillex in a basement. It is hilarious and irreverent, and it relishes the intrinsic ridiculousness of real-life mages and superheroes training in a video game that’s a cross between Kingdom Hearts and Beat Saber. In blindingly inadequate words, Battle of the Linguist Mages is, conceptually, very dense.

Scotto Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind his “science fantasy.”

Flashes of social commentary shoot through this lurid unreality like lasers through a nightclub haze, but the most fascinating element is the deftness with which Moore crafts a fantasy epic about characters who role-play fantasy epics. Lying beneath endless music puns, pointed re-creations of Angeleno excess and cynicism about the modern-day celebrity cult is an impressive narrative self-awareness, an acknowledgment of every trope that Moore uses to render the reasonably straightforward core plot (discovery of magical talent, training montage, quest to save the world) as subversive.

The most powerful aspect of Battle of the Linguist Mages is not the sly humor, unrepentant geekiness, slow-burn romance or the trenchant sociopolitical commentary. Rather, it is the story’s tacit argument that books (and video games) are power morphemes. They contain the toolsets to construct entire universes but require readers (or players) for that vision to be fully realized. And, to pursue this analogy to its heavily foreshadowed conclusion, every writer is a linguist mage.

Except writers don’t have to be able to vocalize multiple vowels at once. Thank goodness.

Battle of the Linguist Mages reads like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler conceived a metaphorical child while high on LSD and blasting Skrillex in a basement.

Greta Kelly’s The Frozen Crown introduced Askia, the exiled Queen of Seravesh, as a confident leader struggling to survive amid the schemes and machinations of the Vishir court. But during what should have been her triumph, a political marriage to the Emperor of Vishir, she was kidnapped, and the emperor and his senior wife, Ozura, were murdered—but not before Ozura pledged her soul to Askia’s service. For Askia is not just royalty: She is also a death witch, a rare magical talent who can both commune with and command the dead.Emperor Radovan of Roven, Askia’s kidnapper, intends her to be his seventh queen, to kill her and take her power for his own, as he has done six times before. But Askia has no intention of going quietly.

In Kelly’s follow-up, The Seventh Queen, Askia has morphed into a ruthless manipulator, willing to use any hint of leverage to save her own life and to prevent her world from falling under the dominion of the power-hungry Radovan. While this characterization is something of a leap, it suits Askia’s nature as a doggedly competent survivor. Kelly’s incisive prose, along with a plot that continues to defy fantasy tropes by focusing almost entirely on court intrigue rather than displays of magical or martial prowess, renders such narrative discontinuities forgivable.

One of the highlights of The Seventh Queen may be Radovan himself. In the prior book, he was a sinister yet distant threat, easily dismissed as the inevitable emperor motivated only by a bottomless quest for power. Here, Radovan is revealed as an odd sort of failure, a capricious dictator who began by genuinely trying to right the world’s wrongs. Kelly’s world is one dominated by magical elites, and Radovan is one of the only characters who questions this status quo. 

Radovan is much more compelling than when he was a remote evil, but the treatment of his character is also indicative of the loss of the moral complexity that made The Frozen Crown such an interesting take on fantasy. The Seventh Queen categorizes Radovan’s actions as those of a simple madman whose policies are only twisted parodies of true reform, refusing to admit that there was any merit in his initial crusade and uncomplicatedly championing its aristocratic, magically gifted protagonist. While there is plenty of dramatic tension, the most surprising part of how Kelly concludes her duology is how closely it hews to the standards of high fantasy and abandons the thematic ambition of The Frozen Crown.

While not truly groundbreaking, The Seventh Queen has a compelling villain and an unusual focus on courtly maneuvering for a fantasy novel. It is a wholly satisfying conclusion whose only real shortcoming is its inability to fully realize the ambition of Kelly’s debut.

The satisfying conclusion to the story launched in The Frozen Crown features incisive prose, along with a plot that continues to defy fantasy tropes by focusing almost entirely on court intrigue rather than displays of magical or martial prowess.

In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, the acclaimed young adult and romance author Zoraida Córdova takes inspiration from her Ecuadorian heritage to create a family saga that’s more than worthy of its comparisons to works by Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. An instant classic, Córdova’s tale is complex but ceaselessly compelling, and features some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any genre this year.

You’ve won acclaim for your YA and romance novels, and Orquídea is your first adult fantasy. Who did you write Orquídea for? Was it for a specific audience, or more of a story you felt you just needed to tell?
Every book I write is for myself. My YA is for my teen self, who hungered for magical stories. My middle grade is for the painfully shy kid I once was, one who wanted adventure. My adult romance is for the version of myself that denies being a romantic (though I am). The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is for the person I am now. It was always meant to be an adult novel, though its inspiration came from a short story I wrote for the YA witch anthology Toil & Trouble. The more I explored the characters, who’ve changed quite a bit from the short story source, the more I knew there was no way this book could be YA.

Many of your previous novels have belonged to series or collections. Do you envision Orquídea as the start of a new series?
No, the story of the Montoyas was always going to be a standalone. I’m starting to become very partial to standalones. There are a lot fewer rules to keep track of from book to book.

“I wanted to pose the question, ‘What price would you pay for survival?’”

All of the names in the book have meanings that are important to the plot, but you only explicitly explain some of them. Where did you get the inspiration behind the names you chose?
As with all my books, I reach for family names first. Orquídea’s name [which means orchid in Spanish] was originally Rosa, but the more I wrote her backstory, it didn’t feel right. As for Marimar, Orquídea’s granddaughter, I borrowed the name from “Marimar,” my favorite telenovela starring Mexican superstar Thalia. I spend way too much time on names and will sometimes fill entire pages with a character’s name, plus alternates, until it looks, sounds and feels right when I speak it.

How did the story change between when you started writing it and when you finished?
This book taught me how to slow down. Young adult editors tend to give suggestion notes like “cut for pacing” quite a bit. When it came to Orquídea, my editor at Atria gave me breathing room and space to explore the heart of the story. Every editorial round was another layer of a large house, but that house needs a strong foundation.

There’s an amazing amount of detail in your characterizations! How did you go about deciding which details mattered and how to weave them into the final book?
I wish I had a better answer than “I write for myself first.” But I do. I’m a visual writer and spend a lot of time thinking about what a scene looks like. Smells like. Sounds like. I need to want to live there first. Then, my editor comes in and tells me when I’ve gone too far or not far enough.

You draw on your own family stories throughout the novel, but were there other key inspirations behind the fantastical elements of this book?
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is perhaps the first time some readers are going to read about an Ecuadorian family. That is both exciting and terrifying. Exciting for obvious reasons, but terrifying because it’s hard to encompass all the experiences of any one place. I pulled from my own family stories for inspiration. For instance, when I was a little girl, my uncle had a visible scar on his belly, and he told 5-year-old Zoraida that he’d wrestled a crocodile in the river. I don’t know if that actually happened, but that was the inspiration for the River Monster that Orquídea meets. It was also important to me to include bits of history about Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is why I set pivotal scenes on the Cerro Santa Ana, the birthplace of the city, as well as La Atarazana, which is where I grew up. I hope readers enjoy those details.

How did the need to incorporate both English and Spanish impact your writing, especially with a story that’s in conversation with classic Spanish-language magical realism?
Spanish is my first language. When I was in junior high school, I was embarrassed to speak it because there were a few kids who made fun of me. We’re also living in a xenophobic climate where we see videos of Spanish speakers getting screamed at or accosted for speaking something that isn’t English. I’m proud to speak two languages, and when I write a Spanish-speaking character or family, it’s only natural that Spanish should be incorporated, even if it’s in small phrases. Magical realism, as a literary movement, sprung from Latin America, which is another reason why I didn’t pull back from any instance where a character speaks Spanish.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina.

Do you think of the magic in your book as an intrinsic part of the world you built or as a foreign entity?
Absolutely intrinsic. The magic is a part of Orquídea’s journey and the very thing that gives her the ability to transform and survive. I did want to balance the magic with the contemporary world. I wanted to pose the question, “What price would you pay for survival?” The answer is of course extrapolated into the magical.

Author photo by Melanie Barbosa.

Zoraida Córdova’s first adult fantasy is an instant classic.

Through an accident of timing and celestial alignment, Orquídea Montoya was born unlucky. But unlike most unlucky children, she knows how to bargain, even with creatures of myth and magic, and how to phrase a wish. Her search for luck leads her from her home in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to the small Midwestern town of Four Rivers, where she finally puts down roots and starts a family.

Decades later, Orquídea’s descendants are summoned home to Four Rivers, to the house and verdant valley she conjured. Once there, they discover they have inherited a deadly legacy of ill-used power and festering secrets.

Acclaimed young adult and romance author Zoraida Córdova’s first adult fantasy novel, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, is strongly influenced by the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism. Córdova weaves the story of Orquídea’s childhood with that of her family’s struggle in the present, masterfully synchronizing revelations in both timelines. In the process, she successfully casts those who mistrust or are suspicious of magic as irrational and unwilling to believe their own eyes. After all, magic is everywhere in Córdova’s enchanted reality, both the endemic sort of magic found coursing through rivers and creeping up trees and more alien varieties. Magic is an absolute cornerstone of this world, and Córdova evokes it beautifully.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Zoraida Córdova blended the traditions of magical realism with her own family history.

Most striking, however, is her careful and deliberate use of language. Córdova’s gorgeously compelling prose brings a natural sense of humor and poignancy to even the darkest moments of the story, and the way she uses Spanish to enhance and add depth to her narration is remarkable. Additionally, she has paid extraordinarily close attention to the names of characters and settings. Every single one has meaning to it, and while some are explained in the story, others are left for the reader to discover. This lends a unique sense of purpose to the writing and exemplifies the uncommonly poetic precision of Córdova’s prose. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina demands to be savored and read with care.

A commandingly propulsive story with a complex writing style that is best enjoyed slowly makes The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina a challenge, but one well worth the time.

Through an accident of timing and celestial alignment, Orquídea Montoya was born unlucky. But unlike most unlucky children, she knows how to bargain, even with creatures of myth and magic, and how to phrase a wish.

One of the hallmarks of the Arthurian saga is its peculiar fluidity. Out of the same building blocks—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Mordred, Merlin and so on—have come so many reimaginings as to render the source material almost, well, immaterial. Its most mutable features are the female characters: Some stories paint Morgan (also known as Morgaine, or Morgana) as a villain, others as a heroine and still others as a bit player; Nimue is sometimes the mystical Lady of the Lake and other times Merlin’s vengeful apprentice; some Guineveres are the chaste objects of Arthur and Lancelot’s doomed affections, while other Gwens are confident and thoroughly in command of their twinned relationships. 

And yet from this panoply of characterizations, Laura Sebastian, the bestselling author of the young adult Ash Princess series, has found an entirely new perspective for her first adult fantasy. Half Sick of Shadows centers Elaine of Astolat, the one the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson dubbed “The Lady of Shalott,” in a reference to her home castle. Elaine's primary role in the classical telling is as one of the many maidens who falls in love with Lancelot. When she dies of heartbreak due to his lack of affection for her, the noble knight guiltily grants her a lavish funeral. It is a Romantic tragedy, and one badly in need of rescue.

Much as Marion Zimmer Bradley reclaimed Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon, Sebastian masterfully changes the narrative for Elaine in Half Sick of Shadows. But unlike Bradley’s sweeping masterpiece, Half Sick of Shadows is fascinatingly personal, finding the intimacy in one of English literature’s grandest tragedies. Elaine spent her childhood and early adolescence being bullied and repressing her magical gifts, until she becomes a seer and apprentice to Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. Under Nimue's guidance, Elaine comes of age alongside Morgana, Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. When Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and High King of England, dies, the quintet returns to the land of men from Nimue’s fay realm so Arthur can claim his throne over the objections of Mordred (whom Sebastian casts as Arthur’s half-brother, not his incestuous son).

Arthurian aficionados will note several departures from the most commonly accepted version of the tale. Many of these are par for the course in this particular corner of historical fantasy, such as Mordred’s presence as Arthur’s rival from the beginning and the reference to a war between men and the fay. And rather than focusing solely on the goings-on at Camelot, Half Sick of Shadows splits its time between Avalon and Britain, with a notable venture into the mythical and monstrous land of Lyonesse. Even more striking is the near-total absence of religion from the story. 

But perhaps Sebastian's most provocative choice is her use of Elaine as a partially omniscient, first-person, present-tense narrator and her emphasis on the part of the story that precedes Arthur’s coronation. The entire span of time between Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone and Mordred cutting him down in battle happens in the space between consecutive chapters. Rather than rehash the enormous tragedies of Arthur’s death, Sebastian instead focuses on the smaller tragedies of his life and the lives of those around him. In doing so, she transforms a story dominated by archetypes, clear-cut right and wrong, and women who are either docile or demonic into a tale of three confident, powerful women all honestly striving for good, only to find that it can be hard to determine exactly what “good” is, especially for the prophecy-cursed Elaine.

In an author’s note, Sebastian warns that Half Sick of Shadows deals very frankly with themes of mental illness and suicide, and her warning is very much necessary. Although it handles these topics decorously, there are certainly places where the tragic romance of the Arthurian saga is in unavoidable conflict with the realities Sebastian is interested in exploring. This is most definitely not a book for everyone; it is often deeply upsetting. However, it is a vital new contribution to the Arthurian canon and to fantasy more broadly, and a beautifully executed star turn for Elaine of Astolat.

Laura Sebastian has found an entirely new perspective from which to retell the Arthurian saga: that of Elaine of Astolat, Lady of Shalott.

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