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Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I just finished The Magicians, a fantasy-type novel by Lev Grossman.  Prior to reading the book, I really didn’t know much about it except a comment made that there was some discussion whether to market it as genre or general fiction. It was ultimately sold as general fiction and in many ways I think that was a wise decision.

The novel opens as Quentin Coldwater, an uber-intelligent, but listless, high-schooler in New York, is whisked off to a strange place to take an entrance test for an exclusive college. Upon his abrupt arrival, he immediately wonders if he has entered the world of Fillory, a land in a much beloved series of children’s books he devoured as a child. These books describe adventures of the Chatwin children who are transported into Fillory much like the children in the Narnia books.

Accepted as a student, he pursues courses in magic a la Harry Potter, but much more monotonous and scientific than Hogwarts. As one student states,

The work is different, too. It’s not what you think. You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.

The problem is, however, it’s not Harry Potter. I love the fact that the book is a bit less silly and more gritty than the Harry Potter books, but the spark that’s missing is a sense of joy and purpose.

The beginning pulls you in: the mystery of the school and discovering how magic works.  But then, nothing.  There’s no great evil to overcome, there’s no purpose to magic in the greater world.

The Magicians seems to me to be a post modernist view of fantasy. There is no overarching morality or rules to follow. Instead, each person is just expected to follow his or her own code. Things just are — there is no meaning.

But, the fact of the matter is that the book is joyless.

  • The characters are joyless, looking for meaning in sex and drugs. They have few bonds of loyalty or comradeship between each other.
  • Magic is joyless: merely a memorization of endless charts and exceptions.
  • Any accomplishments are joyless, even the Harry Potter-esque geme of welters. Virtually all of the active magicians that are shown in the book are empty, purposeless shells.
  • And, when Quentin and his “friends” finally have the opportunity to visit Fillory, it too is a joyless occasion.
In some ways, the book is an homage to Harry Potter and Narnia. But, in many others, it attempts to extract and laugh at the innocence and the magic from those books.
I think I’ll read the sequel, The Magician King, but only after cleansing my palate first.

3  out of 5 stars (finished October 16, 2011)

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Currently reading:  The Myriad by R.M. Meluch and Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich.

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Categories: Book Reviews Tags: ,

Update: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons is released in HB and Kindle

Update from my earlier post in March.  My electronic Kindle version of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons was delivered automatically to my Kindle device today and I’ll start reading it tonight.

The Kindle ebook version as of July 12, 2011 is being sold on Amazon for $14.99 (the print version is currently $18.81) and is, of course, delivered immediately and readable on multiple devices including PCs, Macs, Android devices, iPhone/iPad devices, and Windows Phone 7.

I’m planning to take Thursday and Friday as vacation days to get a good start on the book!

Categories: Musings Tags: ,

Review: The Golden Acorn by Catherine Cooper

The Golden Acorn is a juvenile fantasy book.  In it, Jack Brenin discovers that he is part of a prophesy as the chosen one to save the magical creatures from Annwn that exist in our world:  nymphs, hamadryads, dragons, among others.  Jack is tested to confirm that he is the one that has been awaited; if he fails, the souls of the trees will be lost forever.

The story started out a bit slow and I thought that the writing was a bit stilted. But the further I moved into the story, the writing appeared to get better, albeit with much less depth than Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, etc.

Because it is a juvenile, the main character took the news about his new role, the existence of these fairy creatures, and talking animals and trees too much in stride. Cooper did show, however, Jack’s nervousness about whether he would demonstrate the full commitment to the ritual; without wholehearted desire, the rite would fail.

The quest consists of finding several lost pieces of a cauldron which will open the gates to Annwn. These plates were lost during the Roman occupation of England and Jack must travel to the past to discover where they were secreted. Unfortunately the denouement seemed almost a bit too easy and fairly late in the narrative.  Cooper didn’t quite summon enough danger. I was also surprised that Jack never considered contacting some of the long-lived characters who lived in that time to assist in the recovery.

In particular, the character of the Druid boy-turned-crow was very likable.  Although mischievous, often stretching the truth, and grouchy, he is true of heart and loyal.

A sequel, Glasruhen Gate, is set up nicely.  Overall, a very nice enjoyable read that works for both adults and young alike.

As of July 2011, The Golden Acorn is still offered as a free download for Kindle applications.

3 1/2  out of 5 stars (finished July 4, 2011)

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Currently reading:  The Dolphins of Pern by Anne McCaffrey & The Hot Gate by John Ringo.

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Review: A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin

Ever since George R.R. Martin announced that the fifth installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance With Dragons, would be released on July 12, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return to the machinations of the Starks and the Lannisters. So there was nothing for it but to reread the series to refresh my memory.

The first four books are

  1. A Game of Thrones — finished March 22, 2011
  2. A Clash of Kings  — finished April 5, 2011
  3. A Storm of Swords — finished April 19, 2011
  4. A Feast for Crows — finished April 28, 2011

I read all four books in just over a month, but I’d suggest that would not have been typical for a first read through since they are very dense, complex, and you’ll likely want to savor the journey.

Note that all 4 books are available for the Kindle and at the time of this blog post can be purchased together in a single Kindle file (although I have read some complaints that it can become a bit unwieldy due to the size of the text). Hundreds of reviews for these books can be found on the internet, so I am just going to make a few brief comments about why I particularly enjoy them.

Complexity

For me, good worldbuilding must include historical depth, half-truths and mis-remembered legendary history, and enough background flavor.  A Song of Ice and Fire has all of these. The backstory of the waves of rulership over the lands, legends of a previous heroic age, and the sheer number of characters (both primary and tangential) add to the sense of “reality”. In fact, in some sections it is almost impossible to piece together the past without visiting a wiki where someone has documented the fragmentary mentions of each event.

Too, Martin does a good job portraying many events from many different viewpoints and rumor, which makes sense in an age of often difficult communication, the desire to spin events for the common people, and partisan agendas.

Gray characterization

Often, high or epic fantasy draws too strict of a line between good and bad characters. While good characters may occasionally make a mistake or have to atone for a single act of stupidity or anger, they are sometimes so good that their actions are almost predictable and boring. Evil characters are often the Dark-Lord-cackling-as-he-tortures-a-bunny stereotype. Not so here. So many of the characters (Tyrion, Jaime, Robert, just to name a few) are at times noble, moral, loyal, gentle, kind but also ruthless, cruel, deceitful, murderous, and lewd. Not only does this create a multi-dimensional personality, but the reader is never sure which side they should be rooting for.

When I originally read the first 2 books, my favorite character was Bran Stark. But upon re-reading, I now most enjoy the chapters focusing on Tyrion Lannister, “the imp”, and Cersei Lannister, the queen (even though she might be closer to stereotypical evil, her imperious and underhanded actions are fun to watch).

Body count and disfigurement

The reader can never be sure if a favorite character, even one who is a POV character, will be alive or whole in the next chapter. Martin kills off kings, scions, children, criminals, deserters, and commoners without discrimination. And, those he doesn’t outright kill, he maims or lames. War is real, and war isn’t pretty.

Plot and intrigue are more important than magic

Although magic becomes more prevalent as you read through the series, I never felt it was the primary focus. Instead, the books are more about different factions vying for power, taking the opportunity of war and chaos to further their own ends or revenge themselves on an earlier wrong, playing both sides against each other, and overturning the natural order of the ruling class. When magic is used, it doesn’t feel like a lazy plot devise.

Do be warned that the language is coarse at times and that the books portray some adult themes.

Categories: Book Reviews Tags: ,

George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons has publication date!

According to George R. R. Martin’s website today, the publisher of his magnum opus, A Song of Ice and Fire, has set an official publication date for the long awaited 5th volume, A Dance With Dragons:  Tuesday, July 12, 2011.  Martin confirms that “this date is real” and is the size of A Storm of Swords (the hardcover ran to 992 pages and the paperback to 1,216).

Read his full update here.

The A Dance with Dragons (Song of Ice and Fire)""hardback can be pre-ordered through amazon.com.  No word yet on whether a Kindle ebook version will be offered on the same day.

I’m very excited as this is one of the most original series I have read.  I’m sure that the body count will remain high, too.

If you haven’t read the previous books in awhile, they are:

  • A Game of Thrones
  • A Clash of Kings
  • A Storm of Swords
  • A Feast for Crows
******* Update to this post on July 12, 2011 ********
Categories: Musings Tags: ,

Review: Daggerspell by Katharine Kerr

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I just finished Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr, which is the first book in her Deverry series.  The conceit is that hundreds of years previously a Gaulish people are mysteriously transported to a world they call Annwn (“no place”) before the culture was Romanized.  In this new world, mankind meets the woodland Elcyion Lacar (essentially elves, more in the Sindarian tradition of Tolkien rather than the more refined high elves) and the Wildfolk which are wild elemental spirits which can partially appear in the physical plane.  In addition, some individuals can access the power of dweomer, a magic system which consists of using the elemental powers to impact the physical world.  The origin of the people from our world, however, is unimportant in this book, where the major idea is of wyrd — having to make amends for poor decisions in a previous life.

The book revolves around Nevyn, who precipitated a series of events which led to the destruction of many lives, either by physical death or by tragedy.  As an apprentice of the dweomer, he swears to never rest until he is able to bring his love also to the art of the dweomer and resolve the tragic intertwined lives.  350-odd years later, Nevyn is still alive, acting as a wandering herbmaster, searching for the reincarnated souls who will eventually be brought together again.  Interestingly, each soul will resemble to a degree the personality of its original life, but may be born to another station, learn new skills, or have an entirely different relationship to the other souls (for example a brother/sister relationship becomes a father/daughter pairing many years later).

After recounting the story around Nevyn’s mistakes in the past, the book jumps to the “present” where Nevyn discovers the souls have been brought back and begin to come together.  In successive sections, two previous reincarnation episodes are told, where the souls either add to their wyrd or become slightly more enlightened.  Kerr helpfully includes a chart of the four time periods so that the reader can remember which soul represents each character.

The world-building is largely Celtic both in language and culture, set definitely at a medieval level, with various clans occupying and governing different regions in a semi-military structure.  Kerr introduces several strong female characters, particularly Jill and Lovyan in the present incarnation, who in many ways are the most important characters of the book. Jill because she is both the character around which each of the other characters revolves and because she is the agent of action.  Lovyan because she uses her inner strength to politically and maternally contain the conflict which erupts.

Daggerspell ends somewhat precipitously and it is obvious that editorially the story was split into two volumes (book 2 is Darkspell), but I’d recommend this book as a standalone just for the wondrous multi-layered growth of the characters/souls over the years.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished February 27, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,  Darkspell by Katherine Kerr, & Starship:  Mercenary by Mike Resnick

Categories: Book Reviews Tags: ,

Review: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

February 20, 2011 2 comments

This is the second time that I’ve read Eragon by Christopher Paolini.  I’d had a poor response to the book the first time I read it, but with several more recent recommendations, I decided to give it another shot.  After this re-read, I suspect that I had listened to an abridged version of the book, rather than the full text, since this time I felt that it had more depth.

Essentially the book is standard epic fantasy fare:

  • young boy whose parents are, or presumed to be, dead is more than he seems
  • wise, old mentor trains the boy but is eventually killed before training is complete
  • telepathic bond with a magical creature (in this case, a dragon)
  • a quest and a sword
  • a dramatic battle at the end

But for all of that, it’s still an enjoyable read, although it clearly has derivative roots in The Lord of the Rings and the Dragon novels of Anne McCaffrey, among others.

Some of its strong points:

  • Eragon himself exhibits some flaws.  He overreaches, he forgets previous lessons, and he becomes, for a short time, consumed with hate for revenge.
  • There are multiple factions within the “good guys”.  Often, the side for good is too united, which is perhaps a bit naive.  The rebel Varden are strained by tensions between the elves, the dwarves, the magic users, and those following the Varden leader, Ajihad.
  • I really enjoyed the characters of Brom and Murtagh, who again have more depth in their personalities and histories than a first novel might have.
  • I was touched by one early scene where a young Saphira (a newly hatched dragonling) is compelled to stay at a remote location and essentially leashed up in a tree for safety.  Her straining at the leash, not quite understanding why Eragon had to leave her was quite real to me.

There were a few areas, however, that were not as well developed.  For example, other than a few references in the book, Paolini was oddly silent on the tight bond between Eragon and his dragon Saphira.  Other novels using a telepathic, almost predestined, pairing of human and animal explore the emotional link much more clearly — and each separation from one another causes a painful tearing of their souls.

Plot-wise, I had two complaints:

  • The early wanderings to find the Ra’zac who killed his uncle seems quite random and not fully conceived, almost as if there had been a change in plot during the writing of the book.  I also thought the relative lack of clues to the passage of time hurt the novel a bit, since it was difficult to truly buy into Eragon’s education in swordplay, in magic, and even to read.  It was quite late in the novel by the time Eragon reflects that six months had passed since finding Saphira’s egg.
  • The final portion of the novel from the time that Eragon enters the valley of the Varden to the final conflict seems somewhat over lengthy and perhaps a bit underwhelming.  The pace might have been better if the Urgals had arrived literally on their heels and the battle fought immediately.

The ending is well set up for the next volume, which I plan to read soon, since I suspect that Paolini will be more original in some of the plot devices.

(btw, the movie is OK, but the detail and motivations in the book are better)

4 stars out of 5 (finished February 19, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,  Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr, & Starship:  Mutiny by Mike Resnick