The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I stumbled across The Magicians by accident a couple of weeks ago. I’d not read any of Lev Grossman’s work before but there was something about The Magicians that grabbed my attention. It was partly the cover, a haunting image of a tree surrounded by fog, its leaves scattered like tears across a small lake, that caught my interest. Likewise, something about the description reminded me of a grown-up version of Narnia, an adult fantasy mixing the beloved worlds of Lewis with the sex, angst and conflict of real, everyday life. With The Magicians Grossman tries to reinvent modern fantasy for adults and it’s a novel unlike any I’ve read.

The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater, a teenager who’s just finished high school with his friends James and Julia. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life and pining for Julia, his unrequited love, Quentin lives in a near-constant melancholy; the only relief he finds is in a series of novels from his childhood about the magical world of Fillory. He dreams of living in Fillory and longs for it to be real, believing it would give purpose and meaning to his otherwise unremarkable life.

When Quentin discovers and is admitted to Brakebills, a college in upstate New York that teaches its students how to use and control magic, it seems that his dream is about to come true. But studying magic is nothing like he imagined. It’s tedious, arduous work and his fellow students are competitive and hostile. Suddenly Quentin is no longer the smartest in his class and finds himself struggling to understand his full potential. His depression returns even as he begins to fall in love with Alice, one of his few friends at Brakebills.

Eventually, after five long years, Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills. They move in with a few other graduates from Brakebills and Quentin soon falls into a familiar pattern, losing himself in a world of drugs, parties and alcohol. It begins to drive a wedge between them, with Quentin seemingly content to live a life of mediocrity, while Alice continues to learn about magic.

When another graduate of Brakebills reveals that he has found Fillory — a real place connected to a whole nexus of other worlds — Quentin’s listlessness lifts again. This is what he’s been waiting for; what he’s always wanted. Together the magicians journey to Fillory but soon find that everything is different. The real Fillory is nothing like the world they know from the stories, more nightmare than dream. Together they pledge to set things right in Fillory… but as their relationships begin to fall apart around them, they realise their quest will not only reveal the truth about Fillory but about themselves as well.

I’ve been thinking about The Magicians since I finished it last week and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. On the one hand there’s no doubt that it’s a brilliant, literate reimagining of modern fantasy. But on the other, there’s nothing about the novel that feels particularly magical or wondrous. That’s because, when you get to the heart of it, The Magicians isn’t a fantasy novel at all, not really, and it’s hard to know how to judge it.

Rather, The Magicians is a novel about fantasy. It’s an examination of the genre; it takes classic themes — like magic, strange creatures, fantastical worlds — and in dissecting them and putting them back together asks the question, what if magic were real? How would we use it? Would we value the gift or take it for granted? It’s a serious, adult novel that uses magic to explore the darker side of human nature and particularly the danger of apathy.

As such, what really stands out about the novel for me is the characters. It’s not a particularly long novel but all of the characters feel detailed and real. They’re real people, complete with hopes, dreams, flaws, jealousies… they’re magicians capable of great feats, yes, but they’re ordinary and imperfect and that’s what makes them compelling. Alice in particular fascinated me; brilliant yet shy, she seemed almost autistic at times, capable of great power but never really understanding it.

Quentin on the other hand is a study in contrasts. He is both a dreamer and a pessimist, a young man who finds himself with a gift he has always wanted, only to squander it when he realises it’s not what he thought it would be. His moods range wildly from joy to despair and he keeps making all of the wrong decisions again and again, so much so that as a reader you just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. But Quentin can’t help it. He’s our eyes into this world and represents our own expectations of magic; in a way we are Quentin and it’s hard to imagine that we’d react any differently.

Quentin is the main protagonist but it’s wrong to call him the hero of the story; there are no real heroes in The Magicians, just people. Everything Quentin does is because he longs to escape from his life but each time he just makes things worse and in the end that’s what The Magicians is really about — learning to accept reality, to make the most of what you have. It’s a lesson Quentin just can’t seem to learn and it costs him everything.

If there’s one problem I have with The Magicians, though, it’s that while all of the characters feel well developed, none of them are particularly likeable. With the possible exception of Alice they’re all bitter, competitive, narcissistic brats; Quentin in particular whines through most of the novel and it becomes tiring. None of the characters seem aware of the destruction they cause around them and while that’s the point, it makes it difficult to care what happens to them or to really relate to them.

Likewise, one of the other problems with The Magicians is that while it is a reinvention of modern fantasy, none of the ideas in the novel themselves are particularly original. Of course, they’re not meant to be; the story is meant to be reminiscent of classic fantasy motifs, making us look at them with new, adult eyes. For the most part that works and Grossman’s world succeeds in feeling familiar but different, but the setting still feels a little clichéd at times, particularly with some of the similarities between Narnia and Fillory.

At times I also felt that Grossman went a little too far in trying to make magic seem so ordinary in the story. Some of the scenes, particularly at Brakebills, feel like they’re included for no other reason than to show how hard it is to use magic in Grossman’s world (more like learning a science than a skill). I know that’s the point, to make it more realistic, but sometimes it just seems to take the magic out of, well, magic. On the other hand, some of the other magical scenes are captivating. There’s one scene in particular where Quentin watches the statue of a bird that a student had tried to bring to life; the spell had failed halfway through and the statue, thinking it’s alive, keeps trying to fly. But it’s too heavy and falls, only to get up and try again and again. It was little more than a paragraph but it’s haunting and stayed with me for the rest of the novel.

My only other real gripe with the novel is that while it’s well written, some of the dialogue feels a little stilted and unrealistic. Secondary characters like Eliot, meant to sound arrogant and supercilious, instead sound overly dramatic and some of the interaction between characters doesn’t ring true, particularly when they’re in larger groups. It’s a stark contrast to Grossman’s prose, which for the most part is excellent; there’s a subtle, rhythmic flow to much of his writing and some of his passages and descriptions are breathtaking.

Overall I’m still not really sure how I feel about The Magicians. I enjoyed it a great deal but at the same time I find it a difficult book to judge. As an idea and a reimagining of modern fantasy, it’s fascinating, but as a novel it’s not perfect by any means and is held back (ironically) by some rather mundane flaws.

Perhaps in the end The Magicians is a little too ambitious for its own good but in a market flooded with Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter rip-offs, it still feels refreshingly different. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent novel and as a novel that makes you think about the nature of fantasy and reality in our own lives as well, it’s a resounding success.

Fantasy fans and general readers wanting something a little different will love it. Highly recommended.

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Startide Rising by David Brin

startide.jpgDavid Brin’s Uplift series is one of the most beloved of science fiction series. The Uplift Saga is populated by an array of strange aliens, characters and worlds, set in a future universe where no species can reach full sentience without the help of a patron race.

The sequence began in 1979 with Sundiver, but it was Startide Rising which cemented Brin’s reputation as a writer. Startide was published in 1983 and won both Hugo and Nebula Awards. It was everything people wanted SF to be at that time: epic in scope, with lots of ideas, aliens, and a pace that propelled it forward.

Reading it now the most striking thing about Startide is that it hasn’t dated that much. Perhaps some of the technology doesn’t seem that different to what we have today (or especially alien), but everything in Startide Rising has a feeling of a history, a past, and that makes it work for the story. The characters also stand out. Creideki, the dolphin captain of Streaker, feels distinctly alien, while Tom Orley and Gillian’s romance is at the heart of their world. The story is very human, set in a strange universe – a level science fiction doesn’t often reach.

Startide begins with the ship Streaker, which has crashed on the world Kithrup and is being pursued by armadas of fierce alien races. Before it crashed Streaker had discovered a fleet of vessels, believed to be the remains of the famed Progenitors who began the Uplift process millennia ago. The Galactics want the location of the fleet and will stop at nothing to get it, leaving Streaker’s mix of human and dolphin crew to fend off their assaults (and a mutiny) as they try to make their escape.

I’d not read Startide previously, though I had read Sundiver, and the first thing that impressed me was how Brin goes straight into his story. He wastes no time with Streaker discovering the alien fleet, or even its crash on Kithrup; he uses this as a backdrop, while other authors might have made another novel out of it. I also liked the depictions of the aliens in the novel. The Galactics are primarily humanoid and their strangeness comes more from their rituals and culture than their physical appearance. In their own way it is the dolphins that are the true aliens; Brin describes them (their movements, battles, rescue fever) almost as another race, and their language of Trinary is unique, a haiku language which is both beautiful and sad. The overall sense I got from Startide Rising was, again, of a very human story, as much about the characters as the science… I found that refreshing compared to more contemporary space opera.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like as much. First, I didn’t think the pace was as full-on as other people have said; certainly the novel has a good pace, but there were sections where I found it dragged for 20 pages or so. Some of Streaker’s politics also weigh the story down from time to time. And for as well as Brin writes his characters, one of the more interesting characters, Dennie, is largely neglected during the novel. At times I would have like to have seen more of her point of view, rather than Toshio’s.

Still, these are fairly minor details. Startide Rising is space opera at its best and still holds up well so many years after it was first published. Highly recommended. Just don’t be put off by the fact that it’s book 2 in the series; Startide Rising is where the Uplift Saga truly begins.

Quantico by Greg Bear

Quantico Greg BearGreg Bear has written some of my favourite SF novels in the past but for the last few years has been moving more into the mainstream with his fiction. That’s fine with me as I’ll read anything I can get my hands on and Bear’s thrillers are different to most, but I admit I’m looking forward to his return to science fiction as well with his next novel; that’s where he really excels.

In the meantime Bear’s latest is Quantico, a novel based heavily on the fear of extremism. His story is set in a near-future where the Terror War is in its second decade and not progressing well. The Dome of the Rock has been destroyed by terrorists and a second attack of the scale of 9/11 has rocked the US; the threat of terrorists obtaining chemical and biological weapons has never been higher. In this atmosphere, three young FBI agents have recently graduated from Quantico; it is believed they could be among the last to graduate as critics seek to shut down the FBI for good. But when rumours of an immense planned terrorist attack begin to emerge, the agents find themselves in a race against time to stop it.

The first thing which struck me about Quantico was its tone; it’s dark and pervasive. There’s little optimism in the novel and not much humour, something which is unusual for one of Bear’s novels. Quantico represents the fears we all have in a post 9/11 world and at times is very confronting. Some people might find it too confronting but that tone is necessary for the novel to convey its message. Bio-terror, extremism and global politics form the backdrop for the world we live in and I found Bear’s depiction of a believable direction for the War on Terror both troubling and resonant.

Quantico works primarily on a suspense level as the FBI agents try to unravel who is behind the threat of passing a deadly strain of anthrax to religious fanatics; we’ve all thought about the idea of a chemical or biological weapon being used but here Bear takes it a step further – what if that weapon could be keyed to target a specific race? Suddenly the Holocaust doesn’t seem so distant and Bear’s science makes the premise scarily plausible. The characterisations in Quantico are also strong. The characters come across as flawed and believable, reacting realistically to the situation they find themselves in; Rebecca Rose, for instance, shows the impact of living with terror for 20 years, obsessed with cleanliness and her job, so much so that she has no other life.

The focus on Fouad Al-Husam (one of the agents) also gives the novel an interesting dynamic, contrasting modern Islam with fundamentalism and allowing Bear to explore the extent of profiling within the FBI. Another interesting aspect is that Islamic extremism is not the larger enemy in Bear’s work; rather much of it focuses on a domestic form of terrorism instead which makes the threat even more immediate, showing how fanaticism can arise anywhere, and the circumstances which might lead someone to committing such an act.

That said, a few things didn’t work as well as I might have liked. The main problem is that the ending, though bringing about a resolution, feels slightly abrupt; after a lengthy lead-in I would have liked to have seen the consequences followed though a bit more, to see the full impact on the characters. Also the internal politics of the FBI play a large and necessary role in the novel, but in certain scenes seem to weigh the story down more than in others, and more than any of the science. Likewise you could say that some of the government infighting seems slightly forced after a second 9/11 (although it might be accurate given the current partisanship).

But those are fairly minor points and the unnerving story arc is more than enough to pull the reader through from beginning to end. The pace is sharp and Quantico presents a compelling and intelligent examination of the War on Terror and our world as it might become. If you’re interested in a science-thriller based on current world events, I’d highly recommend it.