Book Review: The Magicians

Take Harry Potter, uproot him from Hogwarts, and drop him in Brooklyn. Add six additional years to his 11, resurrect his parents but make them indifferent, and give him a serious case of teenage angst and depression.

That just about gives you Quentin Coldwater, the sometimes-hero-sometimes-antihero of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians.” Quentin’s world is the dark, seedy underbelly of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy–Hogwarts with sex, drugs, and a much thinner line between good and evil. The first in Grossman’s trilogy, “The Magicians” complicates magic with startlingly realistic characters who don’t always know what they want and don’t always do the right thing.

The novel’s dark nature is evidenced by its opening scene: Quentin, as yet unaware of the magical world that’s about to consume his life, is on his way to a Princeton interview with his friend James. When they arrive at the interviewer’s house, they find him dead on the floor.

His death serves as a mechanism to transport Quentin to Brakebills, a prestigious magic academy somewhere in upstate New York. He takes a grueling wizard test, passes, and winds up studying magic there for three years. Magic at Brakebills doesn’t involve wands, and its study is intense, all-consuming hard work. Quentin and his classmates memorize foreign languages, incantations, and hand motions. Each spell is cast according to “conditions:” which moon is foremost in the sky that day, which direction they’re facing, which wind is blowing from the south.

In this academic setting, Quentin makes friends, develops an enormous crush on Alice, a gifted spellcaster, and altogether escapes his old life in Brooklyn. At first he’s relieved to be at Brakebills. He’s spent his whole life waiting for something remarkable to happen, and this is finally it. Brakebills is the cure to his longing, his depression, and his disappointment in the world.

At least, until it isn’t. Eventually Quentin becomes disenchanted and begins to crave whatever comes “next.” He’s destined to be a hero, he’s sure of it. But Alice warns him about post-grad life for wizards. There’s no enormous evil to conquer. There’s no grand adventure. They’ll have to devote their lives to some beneficent cause, something like global diplomacy or the hunger crisis. Otherwise, all that awaits them is nothingness.

Grossman weaves in a thread of darkness that persists throughout the novel. At Brakebills students die, disappear, and go insane. Professors aren’t infallible or all-knowing–Some display a cool indifference toward the students that’s alarming. Grossman’s magical world is as cold and cruel as the real one, but its stakes are higher.

The book is divided into three parts; the first is spent at Brakebills, and the second is after graduation. Post-grad life is cruel to Quentin, Alice, and the rest. They move to New York City where, with nothing better to do, they party all night and sleep all day. Alcohol and drugs, the hallmarks of boredom, tie the young wizards inextricably to non-magical life.

But everything changes (again) in the third part, which takes place in a magical land called Fillory. A fellow Brakebills alum seeks out the group to reveal that the “Fillory and Further” books, which they all read as children (a Chronicles-of-Narnia-esque series in which a group of kids travels to Fillory, goes on magical adventures, and then returns to reality), are real. Fillory exists. By way of magic button, off they all go to Fillory in the name of grand adventure.

It turns out that wizardhood doesn’t qualify them for heroics. Fillory is unexpectedly brutal, and its characters are violent and strange. The young wizards are hopelessly outmatched, and flinch at the sight of gore to the point that they seem pathetic. They aren’t heroes, and they bumble their way through an adventure that’s too big for them.

As for Quentin, his longing wasn’t satisfied by Brakebills, wasn’t cured post graduation, and isn’t even squelched by Fillory–the place he’s waited his whole life to see. His disenchantment haunts him, and Alice finally calls him out for being “the asshole who can’t even be happy in Fillory.” Happiness is a choice, she says, not a magical spontaneous occurrence.

Although Quentin’s sense of under appreciation  permeates “The Magicians,” the world Grossman creates is nothing short of awesome. He brings new, complicated layers to a tried-and-tested scenario, and manages to add a healthy dose of personal drama to the mix. Common threads run through greater conflicts, making the magical world believable: Neglectful parents, unrequited love, relationship drama, mental health. Each character has their own demon to deal with, and each wrestles with it in ways that show their flaws.

They’re not perfect, and neither is the magical world they inhabit. Each is real enough to be tangible, to capture the reader’s attention, and to keep it.

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Book Review: The Magicians

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

Books are an escape. Pick one up and it whisks you away into its time and its place, its people and its action. Yours fade into the grey distance and you absorb only what’s on the printed pages, at least for a little while.

That’s why books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea exist. They make fantastical worlds and wizardly deeds accessible to us lowly muggles (to borrow a term from a different fantasy world). They’re pure, delightful, fulfilling distraction. Le Guin’s novel, a slim volume filled with straightforward prose, is also a classic bildungsroman with deceptively simple themes.

In this novel, the first of Le Guin’s larger Earthsea series, Ged, a budding wizard, is the narrator. The story follows him from his early teachings at the hearthside of an aunt to his apprenticeship with a wise and powerful sorcerer to his time at a famous wizard academy to a battle for his life with a deadly foe. Throughout the novel Ged grows equally in his wizardly powers and as a character.

He starts out as a curious little boy, but his curiosity quickly turns to smugness when he realizes the extent of his inborn talent. Before long he’s casting circles around his aunt, and even saves his village from a murderous invasion. This catches the attention of Ogion, a powerful wizard from northern lands. He takes Ged under his wing and attempts to round out his teachings.

This doesn’t go so well. Ogion’s epithet is “the silent,” and at this point in the story Ged can muster nothing but scorn for Ogion’s humble manner. Ged wants to rush, to learn, to absorb, and to reach the extent of his power as quickly as he can. Swayed by ambition, Ged instead travels to Roke Island to attend the wizard academy there.

Roke isn’t good for Ged. He excels in classes but is jealous of other wizards-to-be, and his jealousy draws him into a dangerous challenge. He attempts to call a spirit from the underworld and instead unleashes a horror: a shadow that will hunt him for the rest of his life, intent on sucking away his being and possessing his body for evil.

Ged’s mistake is his turning point–he folds to temptation and pride. Afterward, as he recovers from the blow, he realizes that what he has released will haunt him wherever he goes. He matures because he must. He’s now wise enough to know that there’s no escaping the evil he has unleashed. It must destroy him or he it–there’s no alternative.

Surprisingly, this realization occurs only halfway into the novel–the rest is spent on a harrowing journey across land and sea to confront that which would destroy him. At first he’s on the run, but gradually Ged learns that his fear gives the shadow strength. To defeat the shadow, he must master himself and become the fearless hunter.

Ged’s series of realizations throughout the novel are what mark his maturation as a character. His mindset evolves from a need to prove himself to devastating uncertainty in his own abilities to gradual, mature confidence and acceptance of his limitations. His story is one of taking destiny into one’s own hands, and of refusing to be conquered by fear of the unknown.

Countless other characters enter the narrative and contribute bits of wisdom to Ged’s growing collection. Ogion reappears to guide him; Serret, an enchantress, tempts him with limitless power; and his friend Vetch instills in him a sense of duty. The novel reads like a miniature Hobbit, with each location offering a new cast of characters and a new set of challenges. The chronicle stretches like a single thread, then loops back on itself to connect certain characters at crucial points.

Refreshingly, those characters are as ethnically diverse as the inhabitants of the modern world. The people of Earthsea primarily have “red-brown” skin, although those from the south and east are much darker. Characters from the northern island look mediterranean. Only those from the north-east have light skin and hair. In an article for Slate, Le Guin stated that this choice was “conscious and deliberate from the start.” She was tired of fantasy tales that only resembled medieval Europe. The diversity of her characters makes the novel not only more inclusive, but also more representational.

If you read through A Wizard of Earthsea, subtleties such as these become apparent. Each new reading brings to light a different detail. So many subplots and layers of theme run through the novel that, although it’s an easy read, its simplicity seems like a cover-up. Much larger messages are at work in this simple coming-of-age tale, but they don’t detract from the pleasure of disappearing into Earthsea for a while.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

Book Review: Broken Monsters

Reading and reviewing books is a passion of mine, so this will be the first review of many posted to my site. Feel free to comment with your own opinions on the book!

On a normal basis, a distinct line is drawn between fantasy and reality. One exists, and the other does not. Simple.

In Lauren Beukes’ newest thriller, Broken Monsters, fantasy and reality blur until the line is rubbed out. Beukes interweaves the world of rigid police investigation with eerie supernatural elements, resulting in a creepy crime thriller that invites readers to suspend disbelief. Beukes’ strong style and compelling characters make the invitation impossible to deny.

Set in modern rundown Detroit, the novel chronicles a police investigation that follows a serial killer’s trail. Beukes begins the action with a jolt: The body of a young boy is discovered under one of Detroit’s many seedy, graffiti-covered bridges. Instead of legs, the boy has hooves. The killer has attached the bottom half of a fawn to the boy’s torso.

Detective Gabriella Versado leads the police investigation with gusto. As more maimed bodies turn up and Versado falls further down the police work rabbit hole, she unwittingly puts her relationship with her daughter, Layla, on the line. Versado is a gritty and outspoken character who’s fascinating to follow because she’s so flawed–so real. You could telephone Detroit’s precinct and Gabi would answer the phone with a mix of exhaustion and steely determination.

Layla, too, is lovable for her unquestionable teenager-ish-ness. She and her friend Cass, who has a secret past of her own, spend their time hanging out, talking boys, and bating child predators on underage chat sites. Of course this leads to a conflict of its own, and drives Layla near to the breaking point. Her intentions are perpetually good, but her antics put her perpetually in harm’s way.

Beukes narrates through the eyes of mother and daughter, as well as an odd assemblage of other characters: Jonno, an aging ex-hipster with commitment issues; TK, a homeless man with a harrowing past trying to get his life together; and Clayton Broome, a decrepit visual artist still trying to make it big. Each character is complex and relatable, and each adds a unique point of view to the tapestry of Beukes’ story.

These multiple perspectives lend themselves to Beukes’ message that no one is the same in public as they are in private. As she puts it, “everyone lives three versions of themselves, a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” There are multiple facets to every personality, and the aspects Beukes’ characters choose to conceal are often their undoing. She gradually reveals pieces of each character, lending to the novel’s suspense by saving the juiciest tidbits for last. Then, as everything unravels, they come clean.

Or, as clean as they can. The taint of the surreal is never absent from the novel–there are certain aspects the reader can never completely untangle. Like the characters in the story, readers must suspend disbelief if they’re looking for any semblance of a clean takeaway. Some concepts, like mother-daughter relationships and the power and deception of social media, are sussed out and analyzed, while others, like the killer’s motivations and fantasy vs. reality, are left intentionally vague.

Detroit, deserted and gutted and left for desolate, is the perfect creepy playground for Beukes’ scenes, both tangible and intangible. In a story where the villain is driven to madness by the ghost of his past, Detroit becomes a character in its own right. The city is both the ghost of its own past and the wrecked hopes of its future.

Each character, like the city in which they reside, is hopelessly damaged. Each is worth reading about, and each plot line plunges the reader deeper into a mystery with an ambiguous, yet satisfying, resolution.

Book Review: Broken Monsters