nobody103 (Domagoj Kurmaic)’s Mother of Learning is a completed web-serial. The 823,563-word effort was serialized between Oct 17, 2011 and Feb 10, 2020.
Zorian Kazinski is neither as talented as his oldest brother Daimen nor as charming as his second oldest brother, Fortov. That’s fine with him. He doesn’t want to be shown off by his social-climbing parents. But Fortov’s value as a social investment fizzled when he turned to be a likeable freeloader. Zorian is now subjected to unwanted attention from parents who are determined to turn his diligent studiousness to account. He appears to acquiesce but … is looking forward to that wonderful day when he can cut all ties with his family (save, perhaps, for his annoying but adorable younger sister, Kirielle).
For the moment, he has to settle for the lesser distance provided by his stay as a boarder at Cyoria's Royal Academy of Magical Arts.
There, Zorian will spend a surprising amount of time in third year. Years and years. Or he will spend a couple of months. It depends on your perspective.
Third year brings unexpected changes, not least of which is that fellow student Zach Noveda transforms from a mystical slacker to magical powerhouse. Zorian keeps his head down and studies on … continuing to alienate his fellow students by his social clumsiness.
This works as well as can be expected (not at all well) until the day of the school dance, when Cyoria is suddenly invaded by an army of trolls, undead, and other unwelcome visitors. Zorian and Zach end up fighting the enemy together. They die together as well.
Nobody is more surprised than Zorian when he wakes again, on the morning before third year begins. Zorian has somehow become stuck in a time loop. The loop seems to begin on the morning he leaves for school and ends on the day of the invasion. To be precise, it ends whenever Zach gets himself killed, something at which Zach has had a lot of practice.
We learn that Zach has been stuck in the loop for decades, which accounts for his remarkable magical skills. Zach was under the (mistaken) impression that he was the only person aware of each iteration of the loop. Now he’s got a companion. (At this juncture, many people in Zach’s situation would ask themselves what the odds are that there are two and only two loopers.)
Zach is a magical powerhouse; Zorian is comparatively weak. But not for long. Zorian’s strengths are determination, skill, and insight. Just the things a seemingly infinite time loop gives one time to hone.
But it isn’t an infinite time loop. It will end and the world will end with it. The pair will have to figure out how to break out of the loop and save the world.
For a fellow with a considerable aptitude for empathy and mind-magic, Zorian has a real talent for stepping on social rakes. Perhaps there’s a sort of meta-empathy at work; one not only needs the ability to read other people but one has to think of applying it.
Note for arachnophiles: although I did not mention them in my synopsis, the story features an abundance of adorable giant talking spiders, who just want to give strangers a warm hug. Precisely why they are not regarded by humans as warmly as, say, kittens, eludes them.
This book was very long. I would have tackled it as several reviews but despite the presence of several story arcs, did not see a nice stopping point. See also John McCrea’s web-serial Worm.
Zach is the Chosen One because he has the qualities of a Chosen One. He’s bold, resolute, and most importantly, lacking in caution or curiosity when it comes to making agreements with the mysterious entities that appear in his dreams1. Zorian is too smart, too pragmatic and intellectually curious to be a Chosen One. As he discovers, this isn’t enough to keep him from getting drafted into the role.
The author uses terms like “magic missile” and talks of numbered grades of magic, which suggests that he plays Dungeons and Dragons. He seems to think in ways fostered by simulationist (as opposed to story-telling2) roleplaying games. I figured out the D&D heritage long before I read the afterword, in which he flat out states that he was inspired by D&D. The afterword wasn’t much of a big reveal.
The work is an exercise in world-building, a hobby that sometimes results in works like Lord of the Rings but very often does not. Sometimes the creator is perfectly happy to settle for detailing languages and society and the occasional bundle of king-sized-bed-sized maps: see, for example, Greg Stafford’s Glorantha. When the creator does turn to writing fiction, plot tends to be strongly developed while the traditional accoutrements of story-writing—characterization and prose, to name just two—are sometimes seen as optional extras.
nobody103 does indeed put a lot of effort into gleefully working out the implications of his D&D-derived setting3 and in his plot. Admittedly, the prose at the beginning is a bit rough, but one of the advantages of composing a Moby-Dick-sized tome is the chance to practice and improve. It’s as if the plot’s theme of self-improvement is reflected at a higher level. While decades of reading the output of Lancer, Pyramid, certain modern publishers I will not name, and the lesser SF magazines of the Disco era have left me largely immune to dodgy prose, there is no way I could have finished this were there no positive qualities beyond worldcraft and logic games. I had fun reading Mother of Learning, and you might as well. And the giant spiders really are adorable.
1: Zach also has the endearing quality of being an essentially good person (which is a good thing if you’re going to read an 823,563 word serial in which he features prominently). For example, when he is backed into a corner where the choices appear to be his death by fine print or the deaths of his friends, he accepts that he is going to have to die. This is something of a surprise to his enemies, who assume they can flip him by appealing to his self-interest.
2: Simulationist games tend to be more quantitative, whereas story-telling games lean qualitative. Habits developed for one flavour of game design may or may not work well in the other.
3: One of the hints Something is Up is that beings in the loop lose the ability to contact other-planar entities such as demons or angels. As it happens, the Gods stopped talking to angels, demons, and mortals long before the current loop began. Is there a much larger loop in which all the non-divine entities are unwittingly trapped?