The Magicians – Lev Grossman, 2009

People I admire and respect loved this adult fantasy. Me, not so much, though I wanted to. It sounded right up my alley: a cross between a sorcerer school story and realistic fiction. We meet Quentin Coldwater as a brainy seventeen-year-old Brooklynite. Led into a community garden which gets bigger as he walks through it, he finds himself in the grounds of Brakebill College for Magical Pedagogy somewhere up the Hudson. In this world magic takes talent but most of all ferocity at studying long hours and memorizing arcane scholarship—it’s kind of like law school. Quentin’s spent oodles of time practicing sleight-of-hand, which has prepared him well. That’s a brilliant touch—great magicians in real life are the ones who’ve put in crazy time practicing, so it fits. The professors and the other students are well-drawn and believable modern people. I liked the idea of the Disciplines (herbalism, physical magic, etc.) grouping the students into little clubs, and that the initiation rite is for the “sorted” students to figure their way into the clubhouse.

So the book has redeeming qualities—many, in fact. I can see why others have liked it. But I have two major problems with it, which in combination ruined the experience for me.

1. Ultimately what makes the novel realistic/modern/”psychologically piercing” as the jacket says—it goes on “…in which good and evil aren’t black and white, love and sex aren’t simple and innocent, and power comes at a terrible price”—is almost entirely that the characters are miserable, drink a lot, swear, and treat each other badly. Quentin in particular is one of those people who mopes around, always expecting that the next goal (getting into Brakebills, having a girlfriend, entering Fillory (the world from their children’s fantasy books which turns out to really exists)) will make him happy, and always bitterly disappointed that it doesn’t. A major character, Eliot, is described as an alcoholic, but Quentin commits a terrible betrayal while drunk and doesn’t acknowledge that as a problem. Plus this existential malaise they all share is far more told than shown. I was heartily sick of the lot of them halfway through.

2. Quoting the jacket flap again: “Grossman pays homage to the fantasy novels of C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and J.K. Rowling while creating an utterly original realm…” If only it were so.

2a. OK, he’s pretty open about the Rowling references—the characters frequently refer to Harry Potter, and given the contemporary setting we start in, it all makes sense. But does Brakebills have to be quite so slavishly Anglophilic, especially in upstate NY? Do we have to have a magic game (not Quidditch, but indebted to wizard chess) with an international tournament between magic schools? And for goodness’ sake, the inconsistent number of students at Hogwarts has always been a problem in Rowling, but at least she can’t be pinned down. Grossman specifically states the size of the maximum student body (100) and then, like Rowling, has many scenes and situations that just don’t work if there are that few of them. Ultimately it feels a little lazy to model the Harry Potter world so closely.

2b. The major T.H. White reference I noticed is a doozy: as part of their education, the students live as animals, specifically geese. Merlin has the Wart inhabit many animal societies, and one of them is geese, including migration and courtship. Couldn’t Grossman have picked something of his own? Again, lazy—very lazy. (Plus where they end up is basically the Isolate Tower from LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.)

2c. But the Narnia rip-off is totally brazen. In the book, everyone has read these Fillory and Further books by Chistopher Plover, about the five Chatwin children who enter the magical land of Fillory, the first time through the cabinet of a grandfather clock. The older children can’t return in the later books, etc. etc. It’s Narnia with just a few details changed. The final straw for me was when the characters enter Fillory themselves and recapitulate The Magician’s Nephew. They hold buttons, rise through a fountain, and find themselves in one of countless squares, each fountain the gateway to a different world. To me, stealing the concept of the Wood Between the Worlds is inexcusable—and that’s just the worst of many, many direct lifts from Lewis. Once in Fillory, our mopey crew travel to an underground tomb (aka Aslan’s How) where the god of that world, a giant golden ram (!) waits to crown two kings and two queens, yada yada.

There’s a decent twist at the end where the Big Bad turns out to be somebody rather unexpected, but I no longer cared about any of it. I felt like Grossman had plagiarized C.S. Lewis only to sully good fantasy with exchanges like this one:

“What the fuck, man! Didn’t you plan for this?”
“This is the plan, Earth child,” Dint snarled back. “You don’t like it, go home. We need kings and queens in Fillory. Is that not a thing worth dying for?”
Not really, Quentin thought. Asshole. That slutty nymph was right.

I immediately went back to read the Narnia books again and get the taste of this out of my mind. All seven put together are about half the word count of The Magicians and at least an order of magnitude better, IMO.

U is for Undertow – Sue Grafton, 2009

Does Grafton have a contractual obligation to turn in a certain number of pages? This is a really good 250 pager bloated to 403, and all the extraneous stuff is front-loaded. I was on the verge of bailing early on, and almost the only thing that kept me going was the entertainment value of the excessive, prosaic details. I started reading passages aloud to Jonathan, like this series from one trivial backstory scene (all on pages 60 & 61):

Annabelle shrugged and chose a roll from the basket. She pulled off one segment and buttered it. She took a bite and tucked the nugget of bread into one side of her cheek, a move that slightly muffled her speech.

There was a pause while they studied their menus and decided what to have. Salads, rare New York strips, and baked potatoes with sour cream, green onion, and grated cheese.

He paused, looking up, as the waitress arrived at the table with the wine. She turned the bottle so Kip could read the label, and once he approved, she proceeded to open it. Kip sampled it, nodded, and said, “Very nice.”

A little later Kinsey goes to interview someone who lives in a small town.

I retrieved my Mustang, gassed up at the entrance to the 101, and headed down the coast to Peephole (population 400). The area, like so much of California, was part of a Spanish land grant, deeded to Amador Santiago Delgado in 1831. His mother was distantly related to Maria Christina of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, the fourth wife of King Ferdinand VII…

It goes on like that for two entire pages. Is this tourist brochure in any way relevant to the plot? No! It’s as though the protagonists took down the gun on the wall in the first act, examined it, discussed the model, its provenance, and how to fire it, and then we never saw it again.

As I mentioned while discussing R is for Ricochet (I read S and T but didn’t blog them & barely remember them), Grafton’s alphabet mysteries are gradually turning into historicals. One could argue that she’s dwelling on the details to document the 80s, or to show off her research (a common historical fiction failing)…or for the benefit of people from another culture? Jonathan wondered whether she’d hired someone to pad out the beginning of this book to meet the hypothesized page quota, but it reads exactly like Grafton’s distinctive voice, taken to an extreme or parodied. She’s always excelled at the immersive first-person experience, so that we know far more about Kinsey’s daily life than about most other mystery protagonists.

But Grafton here crosses the line between documenting every detail in an interesting way–like Nicholson Baker in The Mezzanine–and walking the soporific reader through every minute of every day, diluting the telling moments with tedium.

Then on page 123 Walker McNally, one of the many people we’ve met so far, wakes up in a hospital with no memory of his drunken weekend and is told he killed a girl with his car. Like a python emerging from a swamp, the compelling, plot-weaving Grafton lifted me right out of the slog of the first quarter of the book, wrapped me in her coils and didn’t let go again until the very satisfactory ending.

In other words, hang in there or skim until you get to the good stuff. Where are the editors of yore? Couldn’t someone have carved away the flab and helped this become the taut little joyride it ought to be?