The first words from Saad Z. Hossain to his readers in Cyber Mage isn’t, as you’d expect, an opening line designed to hook your attention, or a description of the South Asian-flavored cyberpunk setting that’s a breath of fresh air in an occasionally-stale genre. Instead, it begins with a simple dedication, one sentence long, explaining just what Cyber Mage is about.
“This one is for my gamers.”
And make no mistake—Cyber Mage is very much ‘one for the gamers’, not only with its blatant reference to popular MMORPGs in the form of Final Fantasy 9000 and various RPG-related jargon, but also through shining a light on how people can form the strongest of bonds, even within virtual spaces… even if you’re an elite hacker with ties to Russian crime organizations.
Enter Murzak, the titular Cyber Mage and first of two protagonists, who lives in post-apocalyptic Bangladesh. Despite the moniker and his online reputation, he’s really your average teenager, featuring traits such as struggling to adjust in new social groups, an inability to connect with his parents and last but not least, the dreaded unrequited crush for someone—things that are perhaps, all too familiar for the introverted gamer.
Through him, we get a glimpse into not just how everyday life in a futuristic Bangladesh might look like—it involves lots of 3D printers, infused nanotech into every citizen to create livable climes and stable population centers, and even genetically-modified pets—and how the future hasn’t changed that human need to connect, offline or online.
The second is Djibrel, who can broadly be described as ‘mercenary of magical origin who goes around chopping off heads’. It’s while performing those acts of head-loosening that one begins seeing Hossain’s quippy black comedy surface in Cyber Mage:
“Later, walking down the hawkers’ bazaar that was the main Mirpur thoroughfare, he tied the long beard into a knot and used it to carry the head in his left hand, swinging it gently back and forth as if it were a football in a net. This was the kind of antisocial behavior that gave him a bad name.”
Another thing that fascinated me about Cyber Mage was, as mentioned before, the reimagining of staple cyberpunk tropes as viewed under a South Asian lens. Dijbrel is a street samurai in all but name; here, he is a street sipahi. Instead of a katana, he wields a talwar. Instead of orcs and elves, we have djinn and golems, or when it comes to cuisine, morag polao instead of noodles. It’s a good touch in that it never distracts from the classic cyberpunk feel, and subtly helps distance Cyber Mage from the issues the genre has had with East Asian orientalism, while the plot itself remains comfortingly familiar: There’s corporate plots afoot, both on the mundane and magical end, which Marzuk and Djibrel are inevitably drawn into.
If I have any real issues to point out with the book, it’d mainly be with how it concluded; at one point, a life-or-death situation is concluded, and shortly after, the final few chapters of the book are dedicated towards the gaming aspects of the plot. This isn’t entirely bad, but it felt jarring for the stakes to deflate in that way.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely—I think that Cyber Mage well worth reading, for Hossain’s quippy and dark humor told through his characters, for its fascinating backdrop, and while the gaming aspect is somewhat more debatable, I think this book has enough intrigue that even if you’re not much of a gamer, it’ll still make a fine read.