Story Rating: 4.25 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Joel Leslie
Length: 8 hours, 13 minutes
In the 18 years since his mother’s murder, Sage McKinley has been trapped—trapped in an emotionally abusive and demeaning relationship with his father sperm donor; trapped in a cycle of doing everything to please the man and still getting nothing but contempt; and trapped with low level magical abilities in a discipline he has no affinity for. As the son of two high-level mages, expectations for Sage’s magical ability were high, but when he tested as low level with no affinity, it only added fuel to the vitriolic fires. To appease his father, Sage chose to study his discipline, social magic; unfortunately, an antisocial nature isn’t conducive to channeling social magic, making Sage’s success in using it sporadic at best and cementing his uselessness and disappointment as a son—a disappointment expressed even after death as his father’s ghost now haunts the bookstore and he spends all his time verbally abusing Sage.
So when a ghost dressed like a gunslinger appears in Sage’s bookstore claiming he’s there to train a powerful mage in Arcane magic, Sage absolutely doesn’t believe it. However, he’s more than willing to help the hunky Gideon Marsh try to figure out why his protégés keep dying prematurely. After a shocking event, Sage can no longer deny the truth about the existence of Arcane magic and his ability to use such a vast well of power—a timely decision because with a serial killer targeting mages on the loose and a disturbing pattern of deaths being uncovered, Sage will need all the power he can get just to stay alive.
The Fantastic Fluke is an entertaining and enjoyable book and the first in the Fantastic Fluke series. The world has an understandable, yet nuanced magic system and beliefs around the magical disciplines, and Sage and his familiar, Fluke (aka Foxy), the fox are utterly charming together. Fluke can’t speak and he and Sage don’t share a telepathic bond, but Burns does a remarkable job conveying Fluke’s mindset and connection to Sage. I just wish that Sage and Gideon’s relationship could have been given the same treatment. As the narrative is in Sage’s POV, I’m told often how smexy and hot Sage finds Gideon. From their first meeting, Sage is throwing out hot for teacher energy, so his attraction to Gideon is obvious; moreover, as Gideon is the only man in 18 years who has been kind to Sage, concerned for his well-being, and willing to “put up with” his quirks, Sage’s quick emotional attachment makes sense.
With Gideon, I had to fill in the blanks for his romantic feelings, for while Gideon’s personality is conveyed well, I’m left with the feeling that his attraction to Sage is more a matter of convenience. I get his lust, but not the emotions needed for a romantic relationship and why Sage is special to him, especially since Gideon’s connection to the source of the Arcane magic he’s teaching Sage to use means he connects with and cares about all his protégés on a metaphysical level. Add that to the fact it seems like all his previous students were females and Gideon’s attracted to men, his attraction to Sage feels more like a product of circumstance; Sage is a cute twink Gideon gets to spend time with. I’m sure Gideon is attached to Sage for other reasons, I just wish I could have seen them.
I also wish there was more on page time of Sage’s training. When Sage meets Gideon, he makes a joke about the Chosen One trope, seemingly as a bit of meta, satirical humor. Yet, the way Sage goes from barely being able to access the magic to having almost god-like capabilities and control makes it seem like the chosen one trope is in full use. They mention training, scenes start with Sage just finishing training and Gideon remarking upon how quickly he’s picking it up and how well he’s doing, but there isn’t any on-page middle ground between almost completely incapable to demigod (in about 2 weeks no less and in a system where it takes years of training to become proficient in your discipline). As the pacing is a bit on the slow side and the book spends A LOT of time on family dynamics, maybe Burns felt training scenes are unnecessary?
That being said, watching Sage grow from believing he’s a worthless loser to believing in himself as a person and a mage is awesome. Sage’s “father” is the absolute WORST, so having Sage find familial love with his grandmother, Gideon, and Fluke and no longer isolated with only his BFF to turn to is heartwarming. Additionally, the secondary characters are interesting and add dimension to Sage’s environment and personality, and narrator Joel Leslie does a great job in his character voice choices. To me, one of the key components of Leslie’s talent is that he treats every word and scene with equal consideration. Whether, it’s a monologue or narration about Sage’s morning routine, Leslie gives it the appropriate energy and delivery, making even something mundane pleasing and “ear” catching; he doesn’t just focus on performing in emotional scenes.
I think this is also why the audio experience of The Fantastic Fluke is one of the rare occasions where the narration made me like the story more. When I read it, my feelings were more mixed; mostly because I wasn’t sure how I felt about Sage. It’s really easy to sympathize with him and understand his low self-esteem, but he can also comes across as willfully ignorant at times. He’s also snarky, but in a passive aggressive way that reminds me of people who smile in your face while talking about you behind your back. After being emotional beaten down by his sperm donor, Sage makes the comments in his head and keeps his mouth shut (except with the few people close to him). Thus, a lot of his asides seem unnecessary, especially the ones where he follows it with a “it’s not his business/nothing he cares about”. So why comment? However, listening to Leslie’s portrayal, plus the additional space from the character I get from listening instead of reading, eliminates my emotional whiplash from wanting to cry for Sage to being frustrated by him.
While I may have been a bit disappointed in the lack of notable progress in Sage’s control over his magic and his relationship with Gideon, The Fantastic Fluke is still a really good story about found family, legacies, and intolerance with a little mage murder thrown in to spice things up. It also contains a complex MC on a touching personal journey and one of the most adorable and fun familiar bonds I’ve ever read. Paired with Leslie’s dynamic and engaging narration, the audiobook is well worth a try.