Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review - The Magic Circle

The plot description for The Magic Circle sounded right up my alley. The story centers around the academic and social world of Columbia University, specifically Morningside Heights. We are introduced to graduate student Ruth whose realm of studies are specifically focused to the science and nature of play and the design of games on a scale that goes beyond the kitchen table. At the start of the book, Ruth is finalizing her design of an immersive interactive gameplay experience around New York City centered on the history and intrigue of an insane asylum. The book extends from this initial premise and has Ruth team up with her roommate Lucy (also a graduate student at Columbia) and their "exotic" and "provocative" neighbor Anna (a wild and eccentric foreigner living in New York). Together the group plans to create a new fully immersive live-action-role-play game based on an ancient Greek play. The synopsis continues by alluding to dangerous and reckless raising of the stakes that will bring the tragedy from role-play to reality.

All in all, this definitely sounded like something I would enjoy. I have participated fairly minimally in a few "alternate reality games." These games generally begin with an Internet presence and take on a role-playing aspect but then expand into the real world to continue the story and the gameplay often with real world aspects including phone calls, letters, interactive hunts around certain locations and more. I enjoy games and game theory as a whole and I really love it when things get more immersive. I was really looking forward to this book.

The book starts out with numerous interactions between the characters focused on the development and delivery of Ruth's game. There are a lot of discussions around game theory, game design and what makes for a good game experience. The three main characters (Ruth, Lucy and Anna) each have their own general opinions and make valid points. This first section of the book is fairly low on any real action but serves to present a framework about the concepts of gaming in the real world. I found the discussions rather interesting but felt like they were somewhat oddly placed especially when things became overly academic or very detailed.

I personally enjoy reading and studying game theory but to a reader looking for intriguing plot, I fear that these first few chapters would have been a bit boring at times. A lot of the information presented does help flesh out the characters and it definitely gives the reader a sense about the world of real-world role-playing but a lot of the details could likely have been saved for a thesis on game design rather than a fictional narrative. What felt even more strange to me was that there was so much focus on building up this particular game and then the rest of the book had very little mention of this game at all. I guess it shows that time marches on, but after all the build up I really wanted to see some people play Ruth's game. I was initially confused since I knew from the synopsis that "the game" in the book plot was based on a Greek Tragedy and this game was not. I thought perhaps they would modify this existing game. But instead, this game is almost wholly abandoned and forgotten as the book progresses.

About a third of the way into the book, we have a rather unexpected shift. Lucy receives a phone call about a family issue that requires her attention. She hopes she'll be gone for only a couple of days but ends up being gone for weeks/months. As she receives the news and prepares to go, we learn a little bit about both Lucy and Ruth (who helps Lucy prep to leave and helps square away her classes for while she's gone).

At this point, the book suddenly transitioned from third person to first person. I found this very disorienting especially since I didn't feel a distinctive change in narrative voice and as such it took a little digging for me to figure out exactly who the narrator was. I knew (or assumed) it had to be Lucy, Ruth or Anna (and I quickly ruled out Anna) but it really wasn't clear initially who was narrating. And honestly, it didn't make a huge difference who was narrating except to try and determine who "I" was. Even when I did figure out who was speaking, I couldn't fathom the justification for moving to first person.

This further confused me many chapters later when the book transitioned yet again. It stayed in first person but moved to yet another narrator. The multiple transitions were definitely disorienting and I really felt like they were unnecessary. The one aspect that the first person does provide is that the first person narrator is speaking in retrospect. She has already seen the events of the novel play out and as such, she occasionally makes comments that directly foreshadow the tragedy to com. I don't think the transition to first person hurts the plot but I also don't think added enough substance to the story to make it worth the jarring change.

Once we are in first person mode, we learn that Anna's brother Anders has arrived in New York and that he and Ruth are now romantically involved. Coincidentally, Anders is also very interested in live-action-role-playing and Lucy returns to the scene to find that Ruth, Anna and Anders are working on a large scale live-action-role-play based on a Greek tragedy. Lucy is reluctantly drawn into planning the game and she quickly comes on board and becomes a very enthusiastic participant.

Very basically, the Greek play they are basing their game on involves the conflict between the "eat, drink and be merry" crowd and the "sober, chaste and righteous" crowd. We hear and see most of the narrative through the view of the riotous partiers and end up in a den of drunken orgies and craziness (fortunately without any real descriptive segments…though there was one scene that, while not graphic, was more shocking than I expected). The game involves the tension between these two groups and the inevitable clash that's going to happen. Throughout the game there were hints of things being taken too far and stakes going too high (as promised in the synopsis) but most of these events happen "off stage" and have only peripheral impact on the plot. {WARNING: SPOILER} In fact, the final conflict/tragedy of the book ends up being more due to incestuous sibling rivalry and a lover's quarrel rather than due to anything that happened in the game. {END SPOILER}


First, the bad.

Even though I liked the game theory segments, I felt like they were far too academic for a fictional narrative, especially one that was trying to be an action thriller of sorts. The discussions were interesting to me but I felt like they got too detailed and would come off as long-winded to a reader less interested in the subject.

While I enjoyed the smattering of details and descriptions throughout the book, I felt like there were many cases where there was a lot of description or detail just for the sake of trying to flesh things out. The details were good and well described. The characteristics were interesting. But they felt out of place and didn't add anything substantial to the story. For example, we have great detail about one of the character's dealing with an eating disorder. This goes on for multiple pages in great depth. But the eating disorder has no impact on the story and, while interesting, doesn't effect the character of this person in a way that suggests it's important to the plot other than to suggest that she's had to work through some personal demons. We have other scenes which similarly describe random objects, areas or characteristics. While the language of these descriptions is fluid and very nice, these additions didn't seem to add to the story and in some ways felt out of place.

In a similar vein, I felt like the dialog was sometimes very stilted. I will grant that Ruth and Lucy are graduate students and are very academically minded. But a lot of their conversations felt overly academic and formal. As a result, they didn't often feel very natural. They maintained the heightened language even when just lounging around their apartment or at a bar and not specifically talking about the science of games or some historical lesson. I wasn't hoping for a lot of slang or anything, just for conversation that sounded more like people talking naturally to each other rather than trying to write a proposal. I have known some graduate students who can get into the "stilted" conversational style when they are talking about a subject they're passionate about. But their language doesn't remain academically stilted once they return to "normal" conversations (where to eat or exercise or other mundane things).

Also related to the characters, I found their behavior and attitudes to be a little juvenile in contrast to their academic attitudes and vocabulary. I suppose these characters are plausible but they felt like a paradox of traits. On the one hand they seemed very smart and thoughtful. They were creative and adventurous but also had the careful and meticulous nature of thinking things through. On the flip side, these same characters seemed to really "let their hair down" (though not their conversational vocal) and act like a bunch of immature college freshmen. I had a hard time putting my finger on their true nature. The book seems to place them in their early to mid thirties but I had a hard time even seeing them as being in their 20s at some points. They just seemed to have not learned any good life lessons that would have matured them…which seems paradoxical for graduate students in New York City. :)

Lastly in my "bad" critiques, I have some problems with the overall plot and story arc of the book. I felt like there was a lot of promise and some good intrigue being built up. I think part of the problem came from the issue I mentioned above with all the extra detail that didn't add to the plot.

There were so many superfluous details floating around that it wasn't clear what the real conflict was going to be. These details didn't act like red herring "clues" in a mystery novel. Rather they were presented in a way that made them feel vitally important to the story. This would be fine if they continued to be present to suggest they might have importance even though they were red herrings. Instead, these various elements (such as the eating disorder) make a very prevalent appearance and then vanish completely.

Beyond the extra details that didn't play out, the overall conflict/tragedy of the story ended up extraneous to the game itself. While the game provided an interesting surrounding for the events of the story, the promise of the synopsis was that the game would provide the motivation and action for the events of the story and this was not the case. Frankly, the end conflict/tragedy could have happened just throughout the act of the friends writing their graduate thesis and getting stressed out near the end of things. The climax of the book is only related to the game in that it took place at a game setting. But the details of the climax could have happened outside of the game world. I think there was the potential for the climactic conflict to have been more related to the gameplay and perhaps that is the intent. But for me as a reader, the connection was a weak one and fairly unclear.

Now, the good.

Being a fan of games and game theory, I really enjoyed the discussions around gaming, play and entertainment. The information seemed to be well researched and very informative. I enjoyed the descriptions of New York and Morningside Heights. I appreciate the literary experimentation of changing points of view from third person to first person to yet another third person (I enjoyed the experiment…I don't think it ended up working out as well as hoped).

I enjoyed learning about the games that were developed and seeing the fun details that were played out. I especially enjoyed seeing the various character reactions to the crazy aspects of live-action-role-play. I thought the story had a lot of promise and was pretty interesting.

Even though, as I mentioned above, I don't feel like the end conflict/climax of the book was directly related to the live-action-role-playing, it did present an interesting story.


Overall, I felt like this book had a lot of promise that ended up undelivered. I feel like I've talked this book down quite a bit and I feel a little bad about that. I went in expecting a fun and exciting bit of tragedy within a live-action-role-play and ended up with a lot of confusing extraneous details, some wild and crazy gameplay and a lot of action that happened outside of the game. I kept seeing glimpses of in-game activities that would have fulfilled the promise and I kept hoping they would take center stage and then explode into conflict. Instead, we ended up with a strange soap opera with some smart self-involved people. I enjoyed the intrigue generally and I had fun with some of the science/theory and with some of the literary experimentation (changing tenses, etc). I feel like the story was alright generally but I had hoped for more and felt like it needed to be tightened up a bit to fulfill on my expectations.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

yeah, i think i will put this one the skip list...too much in the bad...and the perspective shift makes it sound not so well, thanks for taking the lump on this one...smiles.