To Have and To Code is the latest novel by Debora Geary. Geary is now number 4 on Amazon’s ranking of Fantasy authors ahead of such pikers as #11 J.R.R. Tolkien and #26 Terry Pratchett. The ranking is based on the last 30-days of unit sales which explains things a bit. Nevertheless, congratulations Debora!
In this book, Geary takes a step backward in time to tell the story of how Aervyn’s parents met. It is fairly clear that the entire series is leading toward the story of Aervyn as the Merlyn of our time, and Geary is entirely comfortable working toward a slow revelation of his destiny through these books. The Aervyn we’ve met so far is a child prodigy of magic who is being thoroughly well raised in the large but happy family that Nell and Daniel have created together. The two parents have been an integral (albeit tertiary) part of the prior novels, and so this novel goes back to 1997 to tell the story of how they met and fell in love.
The very set up for this novel reduces its potential for dramatic tension: we know that Nell and Daniel will meet, fall in love, and eventually get married and have kids. Romance novels are fairly predictable in that respect in general, but Geary seems to go out of her way here not to place many dramatic obstacles to impede the progress of the two towards their inevitable union. When Nell and Daniel meet neither is in a relationship, and neither even has any significant exes in their past. They are both in their late twenties, and they share a lot of common interests. In fact, the only reasons for Nell and Daniel not to fall in love with each other instantly are really just Nell and Daniel themselves.
Nell begins the novel by fretting over the up-coming nuptials of her best friend, Sammy, who will be moving to Texas after her wedding. Having no sisters but a bunch of brothers, being a programmer in the outrageously male-dominated field of computer games and being a powerful witch, Nell lives a relatively isolated life, and Sammy is one of her few connections to any kind of normality. Nell is at that stage where your friends are all getting married, and there’s nothing on the horizon that would indicate that your life would ever take a similar shape. Nell is not looking for romance at all, but fears the way her relationship to Sammy will change after she has married and moved away.
Daniel, on the other hand, is pretty much of a loner as well. He was star pitcher at Cal, but his professional baseball career came to a screeching halt when he walked away after a badly bungled trade. He has taken up hacking as both an avocation and a vocation. He is, of course, a white-hat hacker: finding security flaws, reporting them and selling his services as a freelancer. He still plays ball in various rec leagues with some friends, but he is pretty rootless.
Nell and her brother Jamie have designed and built Enchanter’s Realm which is already up and running back in 1997. I have promised Geary to mock her ruthlessly as non-gamer trying to capture what a computer game might be like. Back in 1997, the first Diablo had just been released the previous Christmas, and the first successful MMORPG, Ultima Online, would not be released until October. Nevertheless, Geary’s Enchanter’s Realm in 1997 is apparently already a 3D persistent shared world with an elaborate magical system in which the player’s ability to code rather than mash buttons is a key feature of the game-play. Because, goodness knows, the reason most PC gamers play is because they like to code. Just look at all the games out there that require coding as part of the game-play.
Nonetheless, such a game is exactly the kind of game that would a attract Daniel. And, indeed, he has been working his way toward defeating the challenges which bar most players from going through the plot door that allows players into the secret inner world of Enchanter’s Realm. Nell and Jamie have somehow managed to create a virtual world in which real world witches can combine their off-line magic abilities with on-line code to create and play within a magical virtual sand-box. The only problem for Daniel is that he is not a witch and has no such off-line abilities.
However, Daniel is a hacker, and finds a way to co-opt Nell’s supply of spells thinking that they are Jamie’s since Nell’s in-game avatar is male and Jamie’s is female. Daniel breaks his way into the inner realm, and Nell unloads her arsenal on the thief while Daniel mostly dodges while trying to figure out what all these apparently empty function calls for magic are for before he gives up and flees. Since Daniel is a white-hat, he soon confesses to the security exploits he had used, and Nell reluctantly agrees to hire him to fix them.
The fact that Nell is a witch does not prove to be much of an obstacle for Daniel, but the fact that he is not a witch is more of an obstacle for Nell. Furthermore, Nell’s mother, Retha, had a very strong vision of Nell as the mother of Aervyn when Nell was born, and so the real struggle in the book is Nell’s grappling with her apparent destiny and role. Thus, while the novel offers a few twists on a story of which we knew the outline before it began, there are definitely some unexpected emotional stakes in play as well.
As usual in Geary’s novels, To Have and To Hold is an engaging tale of how people’s lives are shaped and nurtured in the context of family and community. Nell and Daniels courtship is not without its bumps, but, ultimately, they find their way to open up to each other and discover their unique love for each other. Up next for Geary is the fifth book in the main series, A Different Witch, which she is targeting release for Solstice.