REVIEW SUMMARY: A funny and diverting pair of novellas showing the author’s range beyond epic fantasy
BRIEF SYNOPSIS:John Golden is a Debugger, whose job is to debug computer systems of something even nastier than Trojans or Viruses.
PROS: Strong, snarky commentary from Sarah on events; excellent narrative voice; high concept; solid humor and geeky references.
CONS: Worldbuilding is a touch light; much more is suggested than shown.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting pair of urban fantasy novellas with a distinct voice.
Cyberpunk is not a flavor of science fiction that is often mixed into fantasy, despite some of the obvious parallels and ideas in the two subgenres. Spells are often as complicated and finicky as computer programs. A.I.s can be as powerful and dangerous as any Djinn. Virtual worlds and fantasy realms seem like two ideas made for each other. However they have not been explicitly put together all that often. Kelly McCullough’s Webmage series mixed mythology with computer programming; Jane Lindskold and Roger Zelazny’s Donnerjack had the Internet transform itself a fantasy otherworld. Shadowrun, of course, is perhaps the best known RPG example. And now Django Wexler’s two novellas about debugger John Golden can be added to that list.
John Golden, Freelance Debugger and John Golden and the Heroes of Mazaroth are two new entries mixing these two flavors of genre together. The world of John Golden appears to be ours with one major difference: instead of computer viruses, or perhaps in place of them, computer systems can and do become infected with rogue computer code that creates virtual beings called faeries. These faeries, as capricious as those of myth and fantasy, eat up computer resources like any virus. Certain people, Debuggers, have the special ability to physically manifest inside the digital worlds of computers and deal with the faeries by hook and by crook. John Golden is one of these talented people.
The voices of the characters — both John himself and his assistant, Sarah — are the strongest draw of these two stories. While the worldbuilding can be sometimes maddeningly thin, leaving lots of unanswered questions, the voices in the novellas are a strong and bright point. There is plenty of geeky topical humor present in John, and especially in Sarah. Sarah is John’s assistant, having been transformed before the events of the novellas into a digital entity who resides in a state-of-the-art laptop. Sarah rightly gives John grief about this, as it is indicated it was John’s clumsiness that caused it, but she does take advantage of her state and nature to aid John in his work in ways she never could as a human.
The structure of the novellas are as annotated after-action reports written by John and annotated by Sarah. The two stories thus have a “how will they get out of this?” sort of feel rather than strongly questioning whether or not they will survive. The novellas also try to sketch out unseen adventures, both past and present, indicating a long and most interesting career for John and Sarah.
A textual note. I read the first novella in ebook form, and listened to the second in audio form. I found the audio experience to be far superior to the ebook. The audiobook version of the novellas have a distinct advantage over the ebook version in that the annotations and footnotes from Sarah come across immediately and in her voice. Annotations are something ungainly in ebooks, still, but this aural solution makes Sarah’s comments on the narrative far more pleasant, more welcome, and far less intrusive than they appear in the ebook. The use of two narrators — one for John and one for Sarah — further enhanced this.
Both novellas together show Wexler’s talent and range as an author, and I welcome the chance to read (or as said, even better, to listen) to more stories of Golden’s adventures.