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August 18, 2009

Long-ass Reading Update

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
We3 by Grant Morrison
Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

It's been a book-devoury kind of 72 hours. I read The Magicians in a day, and Sacred Scars in two. Haven't done that in a while. Maybe I was just hungry for it.

The Magicians is about an older teen -- getting ready for college, who is obsessed with Fillory, a Narnia-like fantasy world explicated in a series of children's books. He discovers that there IS actually magic in the world, and is recruited into a college for magicians. Upon graduating, he finds himself in exactly the same lost state that all college graduates find themselves in (which my college best friend called the Wounded Chicken Phase) and then

HERE BE SPOILERS (FOR THE REST OF THE POST, ACTUALLY.)

discovers that Fillory actually exists.

The book's a good read, a page-turner, but there are two serious problems with it. The first is that Grossman can't seem to decide if the book is a parody, a tribute, or metafiction, and sadly runs with all three. The story doesn't have much to do with the Narnia series: its rather a cross between The Neverending Story and The Secret History with a little Harry Potter thrown in. That's the tribute. In fact, you can see an example of really successful tribute in the sorting into houses segment, where there's no sorting hat, but rather students are divided according to the direction their magical gifts take. The house common rooms aren't the site of butterbeer drinking and flirting so much as serious boozing and sex. The nod to Harry Potter and The Secret History are visible, but the similarities are not one-to-one, and are abandoned entirely in favor of pursuing the good story.

So the Narnia-like elements in the second half of the book are pretty much parody: talking animals that are boring, an evil witch who isn't really all that scary, Aslan replaced by two sheep (rams, but still,) and an Edmund Pevensie-a-like who turns truly evil. And the book is waaaay too knowing about all of this, without ever actually stepping outside of itself to get real with us. So we have to deal with the snarkiness of a metafiction, without ever being invited into the deconstruction along with the author.

There are some shifts between the world of the book and our world which aren't oiled, and are therefore awkward. For example, some of the characters make direct Tolkien/LOTR references. Of course, Tolkien and Narnia author C.S. Lewis were friends and colleagues, and part of the same fantasy geek squad. So having a world with Tolkien in it, but not Lewis (but which DOES have a C.S. Lewis-esque, or perhaps Lewis-Carroll-esque, author in it who is degraded by being depicted as a pedophile) is a shift that needs to be smoothed somehow ... and isn't. Unlike in Galaxy Quest, where the TV show starts out as a parody of Star Trek and then takes on a life of its own, Fillory does the reverse: starts out as a sort of tribute-world with the potential to have its own life, and then turns into an increasingly flat parody.

The second problem is that he gives in to a horrible compulsion to tie up every single little thread. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this ruins the book. The wonderful tension in the first half of the book comes from the play between the mundane world, in which the protag is a geeky loser who doesn't get the girl (who feels sorry for him but is also creeped out by him,) and the world of magic, which is kept free of unpleasant weather, and in which the protag is the good-looking lover and top student he always dreamed he would be. But the mundane always creeps into the fantasy: learning magic is hard work and very boring; possessing magic doesn't save you from purposelessness; you can kill someone with a stupid prank just as easily with as without magic.

The creeping realism is really effective in the first half, but in the second, as the truly excessive number of pistols hung over the mantelpiece get fired -- one by one by one by one ... -- the realism creeps right the fuck back out of the narrative, and we're left with neither a serious fantasy, nor an interesting experiment in juxtaposing realities, but rather a smirking parody. If only a couple of the major threads hadn't tied up quite so neatly, the book would have been great, rather than just good.

To wit: Julia, the girl who won't date him in the mundane world, turns up, desperate and begging to be let into the world of magic. He tells on her and lets her swirl off back into the magicless world, certain that her memory has been wiped. It would have been fantastic if he had just left it like that. Because that's what happens in real life. We don't always find out what happens to the former loves of our lives, who step down off their pedestals and then disappear. (That's what google is for, frankly.) But no, Julia has to turn back up at the very very end, having mastered magic in her own way and now prepared to be part of a new superhero team of magicians. Yak.

Also, the incredibly scary monster from another dimension that turns up in the first half (the analogue to A Wizard of Earthsea's death shadow,) ends up being the Edmund-Pevensie-a-like, stopping back in from Fillory to wreak havoc and seed a revenge-motive. Waaaaaaaay too neat. Yak. It would have been so much better if the scary monster had just remained a random scary monster from another dimension. It would have made the danger and vastness of the practice of magic so much more present. Tying this thread up only flattened what was starting to be a very complex world.

The worst one, however, was the ending, where a new superhero league of magicians seems to be forming. WTF? The ending should not have been neat at all, but should have ended in a ragged tear. He's returning to reality, after all.

Okay enough bitching. I'm giving the impression that it's a terrible book. It's not, it's quite good. But it's not great, and it's not going to rise above the level of the other twenty or so good reads I'll have this year. And it could have done.

We3 is very short and sad. Weaponized doggies and kitties and bunnies. Weepy. I hear they're making a movie. Visuals a little hard to read during the action scenes. Hope the movie is more legible.

Sacred Scars is fantastic, in both senses. It picks up right where Skin Hunger left off, and pulled the same nasty trick that Skin Hunger did, in that it didn't really have an ending, but just sort of stopped. There's a third book in the works, and if it's as good as the first two, I'll be thrilled. I'm not as mad as I was at the end of Skin Hunger, because this time I was expecting the book to just end without resolving anything.

I've never seen a writer with so much patience, building up the game, or war, or whatever it is that's playing out in Sacred Scars. The books, in alternating, short chapters, tell the story of a boy and girl, centuries apart, who both have a role in bringing back and shaping magic in their secondary world. The girl, Sadima, who has a magical gift, runs away from home to be with her magician love Franklin, who is the servant of Somiss, a sociopathic royal family member trying to bring magic back to the world. Sadima soon discovers how evil and crazy Somiss is, and ends up trapped in a cave with him and Franklin, and a group of caged street children Somiss is experimenting on.

The boy, Hahp, is an aristocrat's second son, whom his parents send to -- yes -- a school for wizards run by Somiss and Franklin centuries later (how? We only start getting a clue to this in the second book: a longevity spell.) The school is a rat-maze for sociopaths: the ten boys admitted are told that only graduates survive the schooling, and only one of them will graduate, and are forbidden to speak to or help each other. How they negotiate their schooling is detailed excruciatingly (for them, that is), and is starting to be revealed to be an elaborate game, or wargame, between two factions of their teachers.

SPOILAGE ONCE AGAIN, IN THE FORM OF SPECULATION

Okay, I just want it down for the record what I think is going on: I think the comment Hahp makes that he thinks that Somiss is being punished is part of the truth. Somehow, Sadima gets her memory back and finds her notes and learns to practice magic within the confines of the Eridean group. She discovers, as Erides did, that magic can't be controlled, and founds the school herself to ensure that all graduating (that is, surviving) wizards do so because they have shared magic and resources with others. She punishes the original wizards by forcing them to teach in this school.

Yeah, okay, it could go a bunch of different ways, but that's my current speculation. Wow, a good reading weekend!

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