Book review: The Mother of Learning
8/10. Excellent. The reactions of those know of my taste in literature likely range from surprised to mortified that I’m writing a book review on a pulpy sci-fi web novel. The fact that I refer to books as literature should reveal my pretentious tastes and opinions. Furthermore, though I arrived at the thoughts shared by myself, they are likely not unique owing to my lack of experience with the medium altogether, and that the series has been complete for several years now. Also, I feel compelled to include the caveat at the beginning that I’m nowhere near completing the series. At the time of commencing this review, I sit at forty chapters into a hundred-chapter long novel.
The Mother of Learning is a web novel by Croatian writer Domagoj Kurmaić, who started off being known as Nobody103. It was published as a serial on FictionPress starting in 2011, and completed nearly a decade later. There is precious little other information available on the author and publication history, and earliest publications of the last chapters leads me to believe that it was completed around February 2020, but I could be mistaken. The novel is set in a fictional world where magic not only exists, but thrives to the full extent of its fantasy glory: the only novels where I’ve seen more types of magic and fantastical beings exist. This is of course abetted by the sheer length of the story, possible only for web serials: the first chapter is some eight thousand words, and although the chapters seem to get longer, I’d estimate the length of the entire work to be around eight hundred thousand words, or one-and-a-half Infinite Jests. Of course, this is a slightly unfair comparison as the book is neatly subdivided into arcs, but the point stands that The Mother of Learning is not some triviality.
The story is set during a catastrophic invasion of Cyoria, a magical city, by hoards of the undead, headed by a lich. The protagonist is a surly and unremarkable student from the beginning of the story to his demise at the hands of said lich, but then wakes up in his own bed at the beginning of the next chapter, finding himself trapped in a time loop. Over the course of the novel, he improves his own abilities with the hope that by the end of the time loop, he is able to stop the invasion from destroying the friends he now has in the city that he now loves.
As with most of my fantasy recommendations, it was my friend J who introduced me to The Mother of Learning. Our friendship is surprisingly strong for a mostly virtual relationship predicated on video games, fantasy novels, and manga. In this instance, it was a both of the later interests that aligned: the classic reader/author insert time-loop isekai manga and the fast-paced fantasy novel. For those who don’t know, the isekai is a specific subgenre of novel that transports the typically male protagonist into an alternate universe where he finds success. The protagonist is often a loosely disguised self-insert: a common scrub who excels in this alternate universe due to some ridiculous innate talent or even worse, video game ability. I view the genre rather disparagingly as a model to profit off young male dissatisfaction and fantasy at best, and an indicator of young male alienation from society at worst. You can read more of my thoughts on the isekai here.
As writing goes, it has obvious flaws. Standard modern fantasy writing, sacrificing elegance and flow for pacing and technical worldbuilding. Kurmaić doesn’t plan too far ahead either, seemingly flying by the seat of his pants and then quickly resolving plotholes and inconsistencies with expository dialogue in the next chapter. The most unbearable of these is the isekai aspect of it, and how much the protagonist reeks of a self-righteous nerd getting his just desserts. In the time loop, our bespectacled hero realizes how much female attention he’s actually been getting all this time, which he has somehow ignored. Those more popular and socially integrated than him are mostly affable asses. The kicker? He’s not antisocial, nor does he have anxiety: he’s actually an empath who experiences others’ emotions and feelings too strongly in large social gatherings, so that’s why he avoided them. The pandering to alienated young men rings in a bit too strongly for my liking.
There are some points of relief however. At sixty chapters in, our protagonist has started to show some empathy: he has begun to treat his family members better, and acknowledges his own faults now that he has been creating clones of himself. There are also some things that the protagonist cannot excel at, a welcome respite from the isekai stories where the protagonist becomes effectively undefeatable. The worldbuilding is nothing to write home about, but the pacing is unparalleled, and keeps the reader absolutely engrossed. It’s slick to the point where I can read while television or TikToks play in the background, demanding that I keep reading to discover what happens next.
In a way, web novels are a sort of Darwinian battleground that optimizes for this exact trait: the stories must not only be good and well-written, but absolutely must leave the reader thirsting for the continuation. To do this in an information poor medium is even more impressive, and it’s done without cliffhanger endings à la Dan Brown. The environment is more competitive than ever, but there has been a history of great novels being published serially: The Count of Monte Crisco, Vanity Fair, Crime and Punishment, and Tender is the Night. To scoff at the webnovel as a medium is to deny legitimacy to a tradition of writing that has not only produced great stories and writers, but has also entertained generations of readers.
The Groundhog Day time loop mechanic combined with a clear goal is also interesting. Most time loop fiction in the West involves the protagonists trying to escape the time loop, like in Palm Springs. Japanese media has certainly explored time loops as a quest of sorts as well, in All You Need is Kill, where the protagonists aim to kill invading monsters, trying new things every time. In that sense, it’s similar to an old-timey video game boss: try to kill Bowser, and then try again when that doesn’t work. There are also no consequences to losses, just like one could turn off old video games without saving, and revert to the previous save state, but with the knowledge and practice they had from the attempt.
But The Mother of Learning is like an open-world mystery video game where it takes more than reflexes and practice to defeat the boss. Rather, time devoted to earning in-game resources and completing side-quests gives the player a great chance of success. Not only are knowledge and skill improved, but so are spellcasting ability and endurance. It reminds me of failing to defeat a Pokémon boss, not saving, improving my in-game ability against the other largely static inhabitants of the town, and then trying again. Fantasy novels, manga, and video games. The three things J and I ever talk about.
The Mother of Learning is the first web novel I’ve read aside from some questionable fanfiction and the first ten chapters of Worm. I’m critical of it not because it’s a poorly-written web novel, but because it’s poorly written at times. It is also absolutely spectacular in many other aspects. I can confidently recommend it to anyone who has a taste for fast-paced books or genre fiction, and I think it’s great for getting people into books. This is all with the caveat that I’m only eighty chapters in at this point in time, so if it devolves into offensive drivel in the last twenty percent, I cannot be held accountable. Happy reading.