Tuesday, October 25, 2011

CBR III Review #23 - The Magician King by Lev Grossman

“Being a hero, the man had observed, is largely a matter of knowing one’s cues.” 

Hot on the heels of completing The Magicians, I decided to read Grossman's sequel,  The Magician King.  This was a mistake on several levels.  The first problem is that the first book was awesome.  The second was going to have a hard time living up regardless.  The second problem is that the second book doesn't even come close to the first.

This book again follows Quentin Coldwater, our protagonist from the first book, although this time his chapters are interspersed with chapters detailing Julia's life before the starting point of this book.  Yes, that sentence was terrible.  Anyway, this narrative structure was just one of the missteps for this book.  Honestly, I didn't care about Julia in the first book (not that we were given a reason to - she was a throwaway in the first book, barely a blip on Quentin's radar once he became a magician.  Learning about her story never mattered to me, and actually following it detracted from what I was reading in the present (as her story was in the past).  While I understand how it was relevant in the end (which I won't spoil, even though it's mind numbingly stupid), getting through her chapters was like pulling teeth.  Moody, teenaged, depressed teeth.  Ugh, so did not care.  Julia is no substitute for Alice, and I felt her absence keenly every time Julia took center stage.

In addition, Quentin, who I expected to have grown up a little after the epic finale of the first book, really hasn't.  Every time his character experiences some growth, something comes along to make him instantly disregard everything he's tried to learn.  By the very last pages, I don't feel like Quentin is any more of a man or a grown up (or, more importantly in the context of this book, a hero) than he was at it's opening.  It takes the few steps he had made in the first book and just throws them out the window every few plot twists.

And then there's the plot.  Jesus.  Quests, Gods, mystical rape, Unique Beasts, travels in and out of Fillory - it got really really ridiculous.  Personally, I'm a big hater of using "God" or "Gods" as a scapegoat for creating conflict.  The first book laid an interesting foundation point for where magic comes from.  When they graduate from Brakebills, Dean Fogg gives a great little speech about how they have access to this power they probably shouldn't, and where does it come from, and who might take it back?  This is really interesting theoretically.  And there might have been ways to explore a source of magic without being so damned cliche about it.  Without getting terribly spoilery about it, I just felt that not only was the use of Gods trite and uncreative, but the way they brought them into the story was just ridiculous.  And whereas the showdown with the Beast from the last book was violent, graphic, and disturbing because it needed to be, the invocation scene with Julia just...no.  No, no, a thousand times no.  That got graphic and gross and the worst part is it felt like it was there for shock factor, not because that's how the story had to go.

All in all, this is one I'd suggest skipping, especially if you had any affection at all for The Magicians.  I'm going to pretend I never read it and eventually go back and read the original again to wash the taste of this out of my mouth.

Friday, October 14, 2011

CBR III Review #22 - The Magicians by Lev Grossman

“For just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there's nothing else. It's here, and you'd better decide to enjoy it or you're going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.” 

The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, an exceptionally bright and incredibly unhappy teenager living in Brooklyn.  After an interview for Princeton takes a shocking turn, Quentin finds himself in a whole new world - one where magic is real, and he can use it.  He begins matriculating at Brakebills, a school for magicians, learning the skills and meeting the people that will shape him from then on.

Important to everything involved in this book is Quentin's love of a children's book series, called Fillory and Further.  A narrative shaped damn near identically to match The Chronicles of Narnia, these books were Quentin's favorite long after he "should" have outgrown them.  But now that he knows magic is real, could Fillory be real, too?

This book is wonderful.  I'm a big fan of fantasy lit, and this does a nice job of making it more contemporary.  Quentin lives in the world we know, but on the fringes is this whole other world, where magic is real, and possibilities are endless.  There is sex and profanity and the type of moral ambiguity and young adult malaise that are so commonplace now.  It felt very authentic and relatable, even if Quentin was often insufferable in his search to find something to make him happy.  Not all of the secondaries get real fleshing out (Janet, in particular, felt a little thin), but the ones that do are well realized (like Alice, wonderful Alice).  It also treats magic even more harshly than I think the later Harry Potter books do.  It is not only something you work at, that can hurt you, but over-reaching your power can get you killed.  This book does NOT shy away from violent descriptions, btw.  There is one particularly nasty sequence near the end that made me think of Sin City and turned my stomach.

A really great read that I totally recommend.  I picked up the sequel, The Magician King, immediately following my completion of this one and am already sucked back in.  I'm surprised this hasn't already been grabbed up for movie rights, as the material seems to lend itself to adaptation, but perhaps it just hasn't hit the right people yet.  Regardless, if you enjoy good fantasy, especially adult fantasy, this is well worth your time.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

CBR III Review #21 - The Ghost of Hannah Mendes by Naomi Ragen

"Fight the degradation of your cultures, of your environment, of your nation and your community.
Dust off the jewels in the attic, shake out the skeletons – stare them in the face.
Stop being afraid."

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes tells the story of three Sephardic women (sort of four, but Janice is really more of an afterthought than a primary character) searching for the past and how to apply it to the future.  Catherine da Costa, a wealthy Manhattan Jew, is nearing the end of her life and realizes she has not passed on the cultural traditions that have made the family what it is today.  Her daughter, Janice, and two granddaughters, Francesca and Suzanne Abraham, do not practice the faith, do not appreciate their familial ties, and are completely disconnected from the history of their family.  Catherine decides to change this, motivated by visitations from the spirit of her ancestor, Hannah Mendes (who goes by several names in the course of the book, all historically accurate as far as I am aware).  She sends her granddaughters on a mission to Europe to locate the rest of Hannah's memoirs, a priceless heirloom missing from the family for generations.  

Both girls are a far cry from their ancestors power and family loyalty.  Suzanne is a stunning vegetarian do gooder who works for a rape crisis center and is perpetually broke.  She doesn't believe the past is relevant to the present and keeps a distance from her family.  Francesca is a petite type A overachiever, with a desire to have the things in life she thinks she should and an intense need to control things.  Once Catherine gets them to Europe, however, things start to change for all three women as they learn more about their family through Hannah's memoirs - discovering her life during the Spanish Inquisition.  The women have a great deal to learn about their religion, their roots, and themselves.

Naturally, there are two romantic subplots, because why not?  It's also one of Catherine's goals not to let the family tree die off, and her two single granddaughters are an obstacle to that.  They meet lovely Jewish men that fit their needs almost immediately upon arriving in London, and the way those plotlines resolve will surprise nobody.

What IS surprising, and enjoyable, is watching the women grow in the light of each new section of memoir they discover.  The book is broken up by excerpts from other texts (historical fiction, as far as I am aware) that teach them, and the reader, more about Hannah and what happened during those bloody years of the Inquisition.  It's a really fascinating read, especially from the perspective of a no-longer practicing Catholic.  I learned a lot about Judaism, and felt a lot of connection to the history within my own faith as well, even though I no longer practice.

This is a really great read and I highly recommend it!