I've been looking forward to reading this, as this line was Satyros Phil Brucato's baby, and he's very proud of it, and it should tell me a lot about his attitudes towards M20 (I've liked the Mage Revised books by him I've read, though this will be a line that he had nigh complete editorial control over, to my understanding).
And right out of the gate, I'm blown away by the fact that there's a map! And better, it has the White Tower, Mistridge and Doissetep on it, answering questions I've been wondering about for years, and making me feel truly stupid. Well, that's part of the point of this, to find all the things I've missed in Mage by coming to it so late (2001 was my first Mage game).
The introductory fiction is quite good, and I'll avoid spoilers other than that, like many Mage books, it involves an Awakening, though this one is a bit unusual. The only thing that bothered me was the font, and that's a matter of taste, but it made even the pleasant writing into a chore to read through for me. The intersticed art, however, by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, was very good and very atmospheric.
The introduction itself is everything that I've come to expect from White Wolf over the years. It was appropriately dramatic, grabbed my attention and roughly laid out what else would be in the book, the sections being Magick (setting), Science (character creation) and Faith (rules) which I can't believe were chosen arbitrarily, but rather to highlight specific connotations, and I'm particularly amused by the fact that they ask us to have Faith in the rules.
On to Magick, beginning with Chapter 1: The Path of Thorns. It begins with a general overview of the Mage setting: what an Awakening is, Seekings, the Spheres, etc, but all in Renaissance terms, and considerably more god than in the modern books, fitting to the setting.
The chapter goes on to explain the general Mage concepts in character for the Renaissance, talking about Covenants and Crays (Chantries/Constructs and Nodes), Resonance and The Scourge (paradox), tass and companions. The coolest thing, though, which was lacking in Mage Revised, where I learned the game, was a list of "Major European Crays and Covenants" both the Council and the Daedaleans! This is great, it's just name, faction that owns it, and location, but that gives such a good picture of what's where and who's where that it seems essential now that it's been presented to me.
Chapter 2: The Mortal World, is a history. It's VERY Eurocentric, being told in character by a European to a European for a game set in Europe. But even so, there are a few nits to pick. For one thing, the world was precisely how large most people thought it was, Columbus was wrong in thinking it smaller, which is why he thought he'd made it to India. Rather, most people thought that the world was empty sea between Europe and Asia via the West. This particular nit is probably redundant, due to the language being likely a bit florid, but it's a personal pet peeve to give Columbus too much credit, so I couldn't help but point it out.
There's a bit of ahistorical references inside, though that's clearly for the benefit of the modern reader (there wasn't really a "Germany" during the Renaissance, and the word was used often to denote the modern region, which at the time was more accurately the Holy Roman Empire.) A few more nits to pick, because very little is said that is substantially wrong (making this one of the better researched history sections in an RPG book I've seen, though I'm not a Renaissance historian), but the number of people killed by the Inquisition seems high, though I don't know how the historical discussion has changed over time (I can find some references from the early 2000's indicating very low numbers, but the numbers do seem to be in some dispute, and I see numbers ranging from 1800 (Spanish Jews) to 40,000,000 (all of Europe, for almost 700 years) depending on what you include in the Inquisition, which era, and which historians you trust).
The mundane history closes on a strong note: a good timeline. It hits a lot of major events, including things that most people wouldn't think about (like the implementation of + and - to denote addition and subtraction) along with all the obvious ones, like the War of the Roses.
And then we get to the magical history, a huge part of what makes it a Mage book rather than a Renaissance history text, and they start at the beginning, with the roots of so very many magical traditions, including the Order of Reason, tracing back to ancient Egype vis Thothmes and Hatshepshut. The rest of the history is pretty solid with a detailed timeline, though there are a few unfortunate things, with terms like "Gypsy" left in, and I hope that Mage 20 does a better job with such groups.
Chapter 3: I feel like I'm getting a bit long winded, as I'm only just now getting to chapter 3. Now we're into the world of magick, and the part of the setting that makes Mage tick, and finishing off Book I: Magick. Then we get into Faith and Science, which will go much faster, because I'm not going to go into so much detail on reviewing game mechanics (though I'll note anything that jumps out at me) as I will setting and character.
This chapter includes a VERY detailed discourse on the Mists, which in the modern line are called the Umbra, and frankly, presents a far more coherent cosmology than Mage Revised does, making clear the various relationships and where different realms live (inasmuch as location makes sense) and what the Horizon actually is: the furthest reaches, where all the realms are carved out by magi. It even makes mention of some of the big ones: Horizon, Doissetep, Fors Collegis Murceris (all Hermetic), Helekar (Euthanatos) and Perseus Sanctum (Skyrigger). It then continues to the Fragmentum, the realms of the Spheres/Planets, and then down to the Underworld. As a curious aside, it's here that I realized that the word "entropy" used throughout the book and referring to a sphere, was first used in 1865, combining the English root "en" (meaning inside) and the Greek root "tropos" meaning change or transformation. Funny that it should be used in a Renaissance book, but I can assume that is for consistency with Mage: the Ascension.
When discussing the Void, there's the curious fact that the narrator, a Verbena, speaks casually of having lovers among the Skyriggers, a faction of the Order of Reason, which tells us many things about the War at the time, namely that the sides are more permeable than most mages wish to admit. And now I'm looking at that sentence and wondering when my hobby of historiography started asserting itself into reading about fictional worlds centuries before the games that I actually play take place...I suppose I could just write something like this out as a dissertation or excerpt from something from an in-character historian...
Moving on to Book II: Faith
Chapter 4 is Character, and it starts out as a fairly standard character creation section for a White Wolf book. I've never been a big fan of a strict "one tool per sphere" method of assigning foci, preferring instead holistically defined paradigms where how to do each individual effect has to be considered and must flow naturally. But I know that's rather hard (people with a stronger interest in philosophy or investment in a particular paradigm tend to do better with this) so this system is fine as long as it's optional, and it hasn't really gone away. Though previews of M20 indicate that this system is finally being toppled by a game mechanically defined holistic paradigm approach, which I very much approve of.
There's a nod in the direction of craft names, though throughout the run of the whole game this is something that comes and goes. The rest of the chapter continues to be fairly standard, a few different abilities are mentioned to match the time period, but nothing earth-shattering.
Chapter 5: the players, is another meaty one. Here we get to factions. The sections on the Ahl-i-Batin and Solificati are very nice, though the other Traditions don't really have much to add compared to their modern selves. This is unsurprising, because their modern selves evolved from these versions, after all. But the real joy of the chapter is in the Order of Reason getting a detailed description. They've changed so much more to the modern setting that this look into their origins is very well placed, describing the early Conventions with precisely the same care that the Traditions got. (Something, to note, which was entirely lacking in Mage: the Ascension Revised)
Chapter 6: The Storyteller, has advice on storytelling. The advice is generally solid, though nothing an experienced ST hasn't figured out on their own by that point. It does, however, have a bit on how magick works, and more importantly, how it feels and how Resonance works.
Book III: Science
Chapter 7: Rules, contains the rules. How success and failure work, damage, combat, etc. It also has an extended discussion of the Umbra and spirits.
Chapter 8, Magick Rules, is the heart of any Mage core book's mechanics. This is one of the better ones I've seen. It's got a long list of common effects and how to do them with spheres. Including a section titled "How do you do that?" which is going to be a title of an upcoming book is great. This section covers Shapechanging, permanent effects, creating wonders, necromancy, otherworldly travel, perception, summoning and warding, charms, possession, exorcism...it's truly excellent. And then it goes into "Roleplaying the Magician" another very good section that I recommend for all players. It discusses several paradigms and mystic tools, and then moves on to spells. This is the best magick rules section I've seen, though admittedly, it's only my third one to go through carefully.
Finally, we reach the Appendix. This consists of characters and wonders, spirits and machines, along with the mood resources that are usually discussed at the beginning in Revised books. It's notable that Ars Magica is still on the list at this point, before the WoD/ArsM break became complete.
And that's it. I think the review speaks for itself, but I'll just sum up with this: the Sorcerer's Crusade is an excellent book, and I'm tempted to try to run a game based on it, I just need players, time, and a bit of a plot to start from.
Honestly, other than M20 itself, this is the best core book for Mage, by a good amount.