Book Review: The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Fantasy, 416 pages, 2009)

One could summarize The Magicians as follows: it is a coming of age novel in which a boy discovers the magical lands he read about and longed for as a child are real.  This assessment would certainly be true, but it would also do a grave injustice to this complex and compelling novel.

Grossman’s book is, indeed, a coming of age story.  It explores the delight, depravity, and despair of teens struggling to come to terms with the world and with themselves.  And I really do mean explores.  Grossman does not toss such themes in lightly, but delves deeply, weaving into the very bones of the plot alienation, dis-affectation, young love, sex, jealousy, and the contradiction of one’s hopes for the future with the often less-than-satisfying reality of that future.

The Magicians is also, indeed, about the protagonist’s discovery that a  seemingly fictional land called Fillory (clearly modeled on Narnia) is a real place.  Not just real, but Real.  As in filled with many dark and terrible things not spoken of in the dog-eared pages of the novels he loved as a child.  As in another parable for casting off the silly, golden-tinged dreams of youth and replacing them with the more nuanced and treacherous realities of adulthood.

The story follows Quentin Coldwater, a young man who, when preparing to depart Brooklyn for college, finds himself instead transported to a secret school for magic.  Always feeling that he was destined for a future less mundane than the Ivy League, Quentin quickly embraces his new situation, discovering his power, making clever new friends, and falling in love.  All in Quentin’s life, however, is not roses.  One thing The Magicians does extremely well is face head on the fact that new circumstances will not change who a person fundamentally is.  And Quentin is fundamentally unhappy, always feeling as if the now is not enough, as if something is missing.

The plot soon takes a darker turn, and I will not spoil it’s many twisting and satisfying turns by recounting them here.  Suffice it to say, the real magic of The Magicians is not it’s central conceit, nor its realistic characters, nor its clever upending of canonical fiction, such as the Chronicles of Naria or Harry Potter.  The magic of The Magicians is Grossman’s truly masterful plotting.  Every piece of the tale, no matter how trivial it may seem when first related, clicks into place by the end of the novel, creating (as if bewitched by a spell) a brilliant narrative structure.

Truly, what Grossman has created here is masterful.  Dark, sometimes ugly, and often uncomfortable.  But masterful nonetheless.

Book Review: all these things i’ve done

all these things i’ve done by Gabrielle Zevin (2011, Young Adult, 368 pages)

Set in a dystopian New York City, “all these things i’ve done” tells the story of Anya Balanchine, the 16 year old daughter of the city’s most famous, deceased mob boss.  In this future world, though, it isn’t booze or drugs that Anya’s Family runs, but another now-illegal commodity:  chocolate.  Anya’s story is part of coming of age, part mystery, part romance, and 100% made of awesome.

What makes the book tick (and work) so very effectively is Zevin’s excellent portrayal of Anya.  From the very first paragraph, this girl literally reaches off the page, grabs you by the lapels, and pulls you into her world.  The story is told in the first person, and Anya’s voice and worldview are fresh, distinctive, and endearing.  I found her an incredibly well-written protagonist – funny, loyal, pragmatic (but not without the occasional flair for the dramatic), and flawed.

Nominally under the guardianship of her ailing grandmother, Anya has been left to care for her younger sister and older brother (who is mentally unfit after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt that killed their mother).  Thus, the stakes in this story feel real and weighty.  The plot kicks into gear when Anya’s ex-boyfriend is poisoned by (you guessed it) chocolate he got from Anya.  Sent away to a chillingly horrid future-New York version of juvie, Anya must prove her innocence and protect her siblings.  All of which means getting drawn back into the Family’s illegal affairs.  Mixed into the intrigue is a budding and forbidden romance with the new DA’s son.

Zevin takes a number of fairly familiar YA elements (dystopia, youth in peril, young love…also in peril) and manages to create something fresh and gripping.  This is partly due to a very authentically realized down-at-the-heels future New York, in which water is a vanishingly scarce resource — and one that is rationed along with most other natural resources (fabric, paper, food, etc.).  The success of “all these things i’ve done”, however, rests most squarely on the shoulders of its delightful heroine and her ferocious desire to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.

Gabrielle Zevin, please give me more.

Book Review: Deathless

Deathless by Catherynne Valente (Fantasy. 352 pages. 2011)

Deathless tells the tale of Marya Morevna, a young Russian woman who falls in love with Koschei the Deathless and is spirited away to the fantastic kingdom he rules. Once there, she must prove herself worthy to wed Koschei by performing three tasks for the monstrous Baba Yaga.  But these are only the first of Marya’s trials.  Though Koschei has swept her away from the harsh world of Communist Russia, she is soon confronted with the violence of war on the doorstep of his magical kingdom–the relentless onslaught of Koschei’s brother, who seeks to bring all life into the realm of the dead.  Marya must also face the blackness, jealousy, and infidelity lurking inside Koschei’s heart, and within her own.

Deathless is set against a background of war — war in the realms of the mortal and the fantastic, war between lovers, and war with ourselves.  Based on Russian history and folktales, Deathless plunges the reader into worlds sometimes beautiful, often horrific, and always grimly fantastic.  No matter where Marya turns, starvation creeps behind her — and not just the kind of starvation that gnaws at her belly, but the kind that threatens to whither her heart and soul  as well.  In Deathless, Valente explores how we nourish ourselves and struggle to survive in spite of great odds and our own worst instincts.

Valente tends towards lush prose and Deathless is a beautiful read for those who love the written word.  It’s a bittersweet book that provides a rich narrative alongside a probing look at humanity, magic, and our penchant for war to destroy both.

Maybe not a beach read, but definitely a rewarding one.

Book Review: The Forever War

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974, 288 pages, Science Fiction)

The Forever War is a science fiction classic — and righly so.  Written in response to the author’s experience in the Vietnam War, the novel follows Mandela, a young man conscripted to fight in an interstellar conflict against a little understood alien foe.  It is deeply thematic story, examining the dehumanization of warfare, as well as its bureaucratic aspects.  Despite a philosophical bent, most of the story is told through unfolding action sequences, in which Mandela is trained, dispatched to battle, discharged, reenlisted, and so on.  The catch is that unlike humanity’s previous wars, ‘time dilation’ plays a role in this future conflict.  Due to faster than light travel through the stars, Mandela barely ages while life on Earth unspools for decades, and eventually centuries.  Mandela stays young, a hero in a war that should never have been waged, while everything he’s fought for changes beyond recognition.

The Forever War is a condemnation, a satire, and a love story all at once.  There are sections that drag, and the crushing reality of war can be a hard slog at times, but this book is well worth reading.  Not only does it ring with unfortunate relevance today, but it also offers a deeply satisfying conclusion.  Invest your time in Haldeman’s book and be rewarded with characters and a story you will continue to think about for days and weeks after.

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (2011, Young Adult/Fantasy, 352 pages)

The cover of Ransom Riggs’ new book shows us a young girl with a serious expression and wise eyes.  The photo is arresting in its strangeness.  It is black and white and a bit grainy.  The girl is dressed in a 1920’s style drop-waist dress and Mary Janes, but they look a bit too big, as if she’s playing dress-up, and, though she appears to be standing stiffly as if for a portrait, she is actually floating at least a foot off the ground.

This photo is one of many interspersed throughout the book.  All show rather odd children posed in impossible ways.  Ransom Riggs found these photos and transformed the children in them into characters in his marvelous first novel.  The result is a book as peculiar as the children who populate it, a story about a magical world hidden out of space and time yet still tethered to our own.

The narrative follows Jacob, an alienated teen fascinated with the strange tales told by his Grandpa Portman about an island refuge for special children.  When he witnesses his grandfather’s murder by a creature straight out of a nightmare, Jacob is launched on a journey leading him to a mist-shrouded island off the coast of England where he seeks to discover whether his grandfather’s stories were true.

To reveal much more of the plot would be to give away spoilers aplenty.  Riggs’ story has many twists and turns, each of them well set-up and engineered to keep the pages turning.  The mood of the novel is dark and spooky, but charming as well, and the magical world Jacob discovers is – in the end – much like our own:  full of wonders and horrors in equal measure.

Children (teens, really), take center stage here, and like much YA, they are launched into fraught situations and must confront monsters (both real and those within themselves) from which adults cannot save them.  Since the novel really focuses on facing fears and making difficult decisions, it falls comfortably within the ‘coming of age’ genre.

The packaging that Riggs wraps this coming of age story in, however, is enthralling and unique.  My only disappointment was that the book ends on a rather inconclusive note.  Perhaps Riggs intends to write a sequel, or perhaps he has chosen to conclude his story realistically – the transformation from child to adult is neither neat nor tidy and not an experience easily book-ended.

Personally, though, I’m hoping this delightful book is followed by an equally delightful sequel.  In fact, [UPDATE]: Riggs’ posted this recently on his blog.  Looks like good news!

Have any of you read this book?  If so, what did you think?  Or, do you have others like it to recommend?  Please share!

Book Review: Hounded

Hounded by Kevin Hearne (2011, Urban Fantasy, 289 pages)

Hounded is the first book in the new Iron Druid Chronicles, which follow the adventures of a 2,000 year old Celtic Druid.  The story is set in modern-day Phoenix, where the protagonist (Atticus O’Sullivan) is living as the twenty-something owner of an occult shop and doing his level best to keep off the radar of the various gods, goddess, and magical creatures he’s pissed off over the centuries (in this world, all the gods are real – every religion, every last one of them).

Atticus is witty and irreverent, with just the right touch of world-weary thrown in, and he makes for pleasant company.  The story of Hounded follows the efforts of a Celtic god to recover a magical sword that Atticus took off him in battle centuries ago — basically, it’s an ancient grudge match.  Various other creatures join the fight on either side – the Morrigan, goddess of death, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, Atticus’ vampire and werewolf lawyers, a nosy neighbor, and Atticus’ companion, an Irish wolfhound he communicates with through telepathy.  If this sounds like a ridiculous mash-up, it is.  It’s also a lot of fun.

Hearne has actually done a really great job of a taking what could read like a big pile o’ nonsense and making you buy into the world.  The various gods and goddess behave just as you might imagine deities who’ve been around for aeons but must blend into the modern world would act.  Likewise, in lesser hands a telepathic conversation between a 2,000 year old Druid and an Irish wolfhound might come off as cheesy beyond measure.  Hearne dodges this (just) by infusing their relationship with real charm — the wolfhound can communicate and is interested in human culture and knowledge, but, at the end of the day, he’s a dog and Hearne never lets us forget it.

The pacing is good, the twists come aplenty, and the characters are lots of fun to spend time with.  Better yet, Del Rey has chosen to release all three of the books in rapid succession; the second in the series, Hexed, just came out last week, and Hammered, the third, will follow in short order.

These books are perfect summer reads – fun, action-packed, creative, and humorous.

Book Review: In the Garden of Iden

In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker (1997, 329 pages, Science/Historical Fiction)

Well, I must say, this book was not at all what I was expecting.  The cover and blurb on the back imply time-traveling science fiction with immortal cyborgs.  The story delivers that, plus a Jane Austen-esque romance married to a Charlotte Bronte-esque tragedy mingled with a heavy dose of philosophizing on religion and the human condition.  It was the strangest, loveliest mash-up; wholly unexpected and very hard to set aside.

The story follows Mendoza, a child plucked from the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition by the Company, a group of immortals bent on saving the world’s treasures from the rest of us “ugly monkeys.”  We follow her adventures as she too is transformed and then plopped down in rainy, tumultuous sixteenth century England to complete her first Company assignment.  Though iced over with a veneer of Sci Fi, this story boils down to a romance – part Darcy and Elizabeth’s delicious verbal fencing and part steamy bodice-ripper, all shadowed over with the looming efforts of doomed Mary Tudor to re-Catholicize England.

Such a crazy combination of styles and stories would result in an awkward narrative in less skillful hands, but Kage Baker fits it all together like a Rubik’s cube and hands it to you with an unsettling smile.

Book Review: Native Star

Native Star by M.K. Hobson (Fantasy/Steampunk, 2010, 387 pages)

Native Star recounts the adventures of Emily Edwards, a witch from a backwater, wild west town.  Headstrong and opinionated–yet still rather naive–Emily is swept off on a cross-country quest when she inadvertently bonds with an unstable chunk of magical stone (the titular native star).  Joined by snobby, uptight warlock, Dreadnought Stanton (no, I’m not making that up), she finds herself racing against time and a host of devious bad guys who want nothing more than to get their hands on the stone–whether or not it’s still embedded in Emily’s hand.  There’s plenty of high stakes action, romance, and magic to keep the reader well entertained.

I was impressed with the way Hobson unfolded the plot of Native Star.  In particular, the author does a great job of pacing and upping the stakes throughout the story.  Each time you feel you have a handle on what Emily and Dreadnought will do to save themselves, Hobson changes the stakes and moves the plot in a believable but not wholly expected direction.  This kept my interest and made it hard to put the book down.  The character development is also fairly well done.  Emily and Dreadnought both have likable and unlikable qualities and both grow and change in ways that are consistent with their backgrounds and the things they experience during their journey.

A few small nits are worth mentioning – first, the novel really only has minor streampunk elements (most notably a pretty darn cool biomechanical flying machine), but aside from a prosaic steam engine train, these elements are largely unnecessary to the plot; the story could have been told just as well without them.  There are also moments where the narration style vacillates unexpectedly.  For much of the story I felt I wasn’t meant to take anything too seriously — it was all just a fun romp.  Then an odd, deeply serious mood would fall over certain passages and I felt I had wandered into a wholly different story.  This isn’t really a bad thing, but I did find it a bit jarring.

In sum, though, Native Star is a fast, fun read with interesting characters and a cool setting (I’ve always been a sucker for early American history).  The story is a stand-alone with a proper well-wrapped-up ending, but it does seem to leave the door open for a sequel.

Anyone else read this one?  Thoughts?

Book Review: The Secret History of Moscow

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia (2007. Urban Fantasy. 289 pages)

This book snuck up on me — tiptoeing in through a side door, tapping me on the shoulder, and whispering strange, beautiful secrets in my ear.  I was charmed.

Though it takes place in an urban setting infused with magic, Secret History of Moscow is unlike any urban fantasy I’ve ever read.  It’s strange, and drifty, and thoughtful.  Sad.  Dreamlike.  In fact, the book is much like the Russian fairytales from which its author draws inspiration.

Set in the chaos of 1990’s Russia, Secret History, tells the story of those who don’t, won’t, or can’t belong.  It tells the story of a hidden, underground realm where misfits, magic, and fairytale creatures dwell side by side, ageless and ambiguous.  This isn’t a realm of delights any more than it’s a realm of horrors.  Like the surface world, it’s hung with a strange, claustrophobic feeling of impending and inescapable sadness.

Enter, Galina, a misfit herself on a quest to discover the fate of her younger sister, Masha.  Masha, it seems, has turned into a bird and flown away.  Drawn into the narrative (and the search for Masha) are a multitude of sad, lovely, lost souls.

Don’t look for an action-packed plot here.  This story is about the sights along the way, not the end point (though Sedia does arrive at a satisfactory and tonally appropriate conclusion, wrapping up all of the hanging plot threads).  The writing is quite beautiful and the book a delight, if a slightly mournful one.

Funny, though, for so melancholy a tale, I felt oddly uplifted after having read it.  Secret History of Moscow was a pleasure — one I hope you’ll share.

Book Review: A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (1999, Science Fiction, 774 pages)

Deepness in the Sky is set among one of the cultures that provided backstory in Fire Upon the Deep, the Qeng Ho space-faring traders.  The story revolves around a fleet of Qeng Ho vessels journeying to a remote planetary system known as the On/Off Star (because the sun burns out and relights on a regular cycle).  They plan to make contact and trade with the planet’s occupants, a race of intelligent spiders, but their plans are disrupted by the arrival of another human culture, the Emergents.  Conflict ensues.  The story explores the cultural differences between all three groups, focusing especially on technology, trade, and mind control.  It’s creative and compelling.

I read this book because it’s a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, one of my favorite books of all time.  Perhaps going in with my expectations so high, it was inevitable I’d be slightly disappointed.  I certainly liked and enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it.  While I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction and space opera, I wouldn’t necessarily say OMG YOU MUST BUY IT NOW!!

The main problem I had with this tale was the way it was told.  Rather than the action unfolding in uninterrupted “real time” it occurs stutter-stop over many years.  Thanks to the technology of coldsleep, the characters in Vinge’s world can live hundreds of years by periodically interrupting their normal lifespan.  While cool (no pun intended), coldsleep also stalls the action and allows a lot of character interaction and dynamics to occur offstage.  For me, this stole some of the urgency and interest from the narrative.  Also, as compared to the Tines culture in A Fire Upon the Deep, the spiders of Deepness just didn’t interest me as much – they weren’t as inventively alien.

Still, Deepness in the Sky is an intricately plotted and well-told tale, and I would unreservedly recommend it to science fiction fans.