Cyber Mage, Saad Z. Hossain (Unnamed Press 978-1-95121-328-2, $18.00, 288pp, tp) December 2021.
Saad Z. Hossain continues to break down genre boundaries, weaving mythology and magic into science fiction (and vice versa) with his third novel, Cyber Mage. Set in the same universe as Hossain’s novel Djinn City and the novellas The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday and the forthcoming Kundo Wakes Up, the standalone Cyber Mage sees the return of some familiar characters but in a wholly new setting and in a compelling post-climate change story replete with vivid characters and his by-now trademark mix of dark humour, social satire, breezy style, and galloping pace.
It’s 2089 in a privatized, post-Disintegration-Era Dhaka, Bangladesh. The air is thick with nanotech that maintains fragile microclimates. With all food artificially grown, all manufacturing & services automated and almost everything else run by sentient AIs, ‘‘labor’’ has been eliminated, and with that the need for a working class, leaving them with nothing to do. However the 99%, most of them climate refugees, still have one use: make up the numbers to attain the population density score required to support livable microclimates with the Private Medical Devices (PMD) implanted in their bodies. The GDP of their flesh? Beneficial nanotech, invisible spores released into the air by their individual PMDs, all in return for getting food, shelter, and, if you’re a non-shareholder in a city (previously known as a citizen), access to the metaverse of the Virtuality, a coalescence of all the internets of the previous decades.
The PMDs have a primary function, which is to monitor the health of the people they’re implanted in and to repair their bodies and keep them healthy for as long as possible using nanotech. So people live a lot longer and it’s that much harder to kill them. Unless you behead someone, which is exactly the method preferred by Akramon Djibril, the talwar-wielding golem and street sipahi tasked with a secret mission to find out more about the djinns (‘‘like fairies but more litigious’’). But when you have a penchant for walking in crowded streets with severed heads swinging from your belt, you’re bound to grab attention.
Enter the Cyber Mage. Elite hacker who’s amongst the world’s best, known to the players of Final Fantasy 9000 as the legendary Goblin King, and given to spending time in the Virtuality and with Russian crime syndicates, who’s currently keeping an eye on Djibril and tracking his every move with his frequent collaborator, KPopRetroGirl, AKA ReGi. But reality has a way of impinging on virtual pursuits. The Cyber Mage is in love. For in meatspace, he is Marzuk Khan Rahman, an emancipated teenager still living with his privileged parents and smitten by Amina, a student at an elite high school. If he is to win over his one true love, the Cyber Mage has to live his life as Marzuk and, more horrifyingly, attend high school as a regular student, and be a part of the inevitable teen drama that the story veers into, bullies and cafeteria incidents included. Marzuk is the Cyber Mage, though, and when he stumbles upon a new kind of AI, one that isn’t in the mandatory AI Registry, that reaches out to him through his dreams, he knows the world is going to change. He takes Kali – as he names it – under his wing as part of a contract just as Djibril is hot on the trail of a clue that suggests his quest is at an end. If only. It’s not. Not before the djinn have their way. Or ways, because the djinns are by now divided into various factions, each of whose ends is at odds with the others. Needless to say, Djibril and the Cyber Mage find themselves at the center of djinn plots and the novel’s many sub-plots.
Hossain deftly weaves together multiple plotlines – involving free-willed, intuitive-thinking AIs, djinns working code, shenanigans aboard the International Space Station (which was sold by NASA to Amazon, by the way), throneless kings, otherworldly intrigue, dragons, whisky-loving djinn, and a depressed cowardly airport – stitching them into a singularly fine fabric of a novel, with an action-packed climax worthy of a Hollywood summer blockbuster (and that’s a compliment!). Cyber Mage hits the sweet spot of being engaging and making you laugh and think in equal measure. If genre-bending novels are your cup of tea, then take a sip from this book. You will not stop till the cup is empty, leaving you wanting more.
TG Shenoy is an sf/f enthusiast and a columnist whose writings have appeared in several places. He wrote India’s longest-running weekly SF column, New Worlds Weekly for FactorDaily and the SpecFix column on sf/f for Time of India’s Bangalore Mirror. He can be found on twitter as @theBekku.
This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.
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