I have a new draft blog post up today, discussing two potential first-rounders I saw as well as former Mets draft pick Teddy Stankiewicz. Also, the Kindle edition of the indispensable cookbook Ruhlman’s Twenty is just $3.03 right now.
* The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s fantasy novel that was also a parody of popular fantasy novels, is one of my favorite books of the last ten years for the way it weaves (largely affectionate) satire of Harry Potter, Narnia, and Tolkien into an original story. In that book, Quentin Coldwater, an ordinary teenager in New York City, goes through a familiar series of events, becomes a wizard, and ends up visiting the land of Fillory, which he always assumed was fictional. Crossing the chasm into the world of magic and into this alternate reality brings with it all sorts of unanticipated problems, with some tragic consequences along with the successes and adventure.
Grossman followed that book up with a sequel, The Magician King, which he intended to be part two of an eventual Magicians trilogy. It does suffer a little from Middle-Book Syndrome, but that didn’t bother me as much as the split narrative that gives a lot of attention to the back story of one of the secondary characters from the first book, Julia. Denied admission to the magic school, Brakebills, that accepted her friend Quentin, Julia went through a difficult period of anger and depression, along with intermittent attempts to learn magic on her own, a path that ultimately brought her great pain even as she succeeded.
That pairing – triumph and tragedy, elation and pain – underpins both of the books in the series so far, something Grossman spells out more explicitly this time around when Quentin, setting off on an inexplicable sailing expedition within Fillory that lands him back on Earth when that’s about the last thing he wants, is told that becoming a hero can include tremendous sacrifice. This quixotic mission, which Quentin can’t even fully explain to himself other than to say that he feels like he has to do it, takes Quentin, Julia, and their crew of Fillorians to the barely-known Outer Island, and eventually beyond it to After Island and eventually to the End of the World, all in search of a set of Golden Keys that will save the known universe from the wrath of the gods, apparently themselves magicians of a higher order (although Grossman leaves their true nature somewhat unclear, likely wishing to avoid delving too much into the metaphysical) who wish to end the use of magic by mortals.
Grossman created and developed a strong set of characters in the first book, much as J.K. Rowling did when setting up the universe of Harry Potter in the first book in that series. In The Magician King, however, the only development we get is Julia’s through her history, as none of the few new characters we encounter is around for long enough to get that kind of development. I think ultimately that’s what made this feel like the second book in the trilogy – the story was still compelling, just a touch less so than the first book’s, but the character development and growth is largely absent. Quentin’s progress is halting until the book’s climax, and the others are just along for the ride.
That climax might not sit well with readers who loved the first book, but I think Grossman made a wise choice in how he wrapped up the story, at least for now. A big part of the first book’s appeal to me was in how Grossman would create a situation that would feel familiar, often directly recalling something from one of those great fantasy series I mentioned above, but would subvert it through an unexpected or unorthodox resolution. The Magician King is no different – very little is expected here, as triumphs can turn into tragedies in the space of a few sentences. There was one specific aspect that I would have preferred to see Grossman omit, an act of sexual violence that was horrific not just as it was described but for the way the act thoroughly debased the character who was victimized. Rape and sexual assault are valid tools for the fiction writer but should only be deployed when absolutely necessary. This time it wasn’t.
I think The Magician King will stand much more strongly when we get the third book in the series, given how many open questions remained at the book’s conclusion. It isn’t as thin as The Two Towers or, crossing genres, The Empire Strikes Back, stories that seemed to exist primarily as bridges from part one to part three. This book could easily stand on its own if we didn’t have quite so much of the Julia sideline in it. If you enjoyed The Magicians, this is a must-read.
* I’ve also read two other books recently in series I’ve enjoyed, Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died A Lot and Alan Bradley’s I Am Half-Sick of Shadows. Fforde’s book, the seventh in the Thursday Next series and likely the second-to-last as well, follows the literary detective, still recovering from the assassination attempt from book 5, reentering the workforce in a reduced role, even as Goliath Corporation is as determined as ever to figure out her secrets and probably kill her once they’re done with her. Their plans involve sending out synthetic Thursdays that look and sound like the real thing to try to con her friends and family into revealing confidential information. At the same time, the town of Swindon is grappling with news that the Almighty’s recent series of smitings will reach their town in a matter of days, a problem that Thursday’s polymath daughter, Tuesday, is trying desperately to solve. The story is clever, as always, but I have noticed over the last three books that they’re becoming much less funny. The old jokes are wearing off and Fforde seems to be struggling to replace them. Fforde’s site indicates we won’t get book eight, which I think will be the end of the series, until at least 2016.
* I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the fourth book in the Flavia de Luce series, has nothing to do with MLB’s postseason, but is another murder mystery involving the world’s most precocious prepubescent amateur chemist and detective. This time around, the murder occurs at Buckshaw, the estate of Flavia’s father, as half the town is snowed in during a charity performance by members of the cast of a film being shot at the house that week. There’s a surprising lack of chemistry in the main story here, as Flavia largely figures it out by deduction and old-fashioned snooping, although we get far more insight into the character of Dogger and hints of thawing from Flavia’s sisters, which I hope will continue in the next book, Speaking from Among the Bones, just recently out in hardcover.