As a geneticist, Dan Koboldt has written extensively within his field of research and in nonfiction for the general reader (such as Clarkesworld) on science in speculative fiction and related genres. Expecting and hoping for his fiction to be filled with speculative elements related to genetics, I was caught off guard by his debut novel, a light-hearted portal fantasy titled The Rogue Retrieval. A successful start to a Harper Voyager series called “Gateways to Alissia”, it has been followed by The Island Deception earlier this year, and will continue in a third volume due early 2018.
The protagonist and point-of-view character for The Rogue Retrieval is Quinn Bradley, a talented and witty stage magician/illusionist who dreams of finding large-scale success headlining Vegas. In addition to attracting the notice of casino reps, Quinn’s act also attracts the attention of agents for CASE Global, a secretive corporation with the financial resources to recruit Quinn into an exclusive contract too tempting to dismiss.
Quinn learns that he has been recruited onto a mission to track down a rogue anthropologist employed by CASE, a man who has gone missing in Alissia, a land connected to our Earth through a gateway owned by the corporation. Though this land lacks the technology of Earth, it is permeated with magic and a culture structured in part around those that are capable of using that magic. Exploring Alissia in disguise and covertly observing/studying its population, CASE associates are interested in the resources and opportunities this new world could provide.
However, those employed by CASE don’t share the same agenda, and the existence of Alissia can’t be kept hidden from spies. Quinn soon finds himself in a situation of political and corporate conflict that endangers Alissian society. Worse for Quinn, with capital punishment as the penalty for magic impersonation, his stage illusions used to infiltrate their society carry the ultimate personal risk.
Overall The Rogue Retrieval is a clever and fun read that delights readers of portal fantasy adventures. It has a good mixture of action and humor with perfect pacing. In other words, Koboldt writes with a good tone and voice. The plot setup also gives an interesting twist to the genre with a protagonist who is a magician in the conventional sense of reality, but who must now contend with a situation where magic of a supernatural nature exists. The situation calls for all of Quinn’s strengths as an entertainer and ‘liar’, and reading about the paths this takes the character down is enjoyable.
Yet, I felt disappointed while reading The Rogue Retrieval. Some of that comes admittedly from unreasonable expectations that Koboldt would write a story that focused on biological speculation. Regardless, even pure fantasy could use a larger dose of biology in it, and this novel is a missed opportunity to do so. At its heart it ends up being a standard portal fantasy, entertainingly good but nothing groundbreaking. This wouldn’t be a criticism at all were it not for my personal sense that Koboldt could have made it much more.
Beyond those perhaps unfair expectations, the novel still contains some flaws in its characters and their motivations. As enjoyable as Quinn is, he suffers from being too charming and successful at getting through predicaments. The other characters also have similar types of one-dimensionality where they seem to be formed around motivations that enable the plot, rather than the reverse. For instance, the entire setup that requires Quinn to be recruited by CASE for going to Alissia seems a bit tenuous, and even his decision to go with this mysterious group – even if warily – was hard for me to buy.
Despite having those imperfections, Koboldt’s debut novel is a worthwhile read for anyone just looking for some world-escaping fantasy action. The best parts of the novel come in its world building and the discovery of Alissia through Quinn’s eyes, particularly when dealing with the two meanings of “magic.” As the first book of a series, The Rogue Retrieval leaves some matters and questions unfinished. Readers that enjoy it will definitely end up committing to the volumes that follow for discovery of where the larger plot goes in terms of Alissia’s future as rival corporations vie for its control. It may not be my top priority in the to-be-read pile, but I will pick up The Island Deception sometime when the mood strikes me for a lighthearted romp through that gateway.