Monday, September 15, 2014

Review : The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

"It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.”
            --Lev Grossman, from The Magician’s Land

Unless you’ve been caught in in an enchanted sleep for the past several years (or just don’t pay attention to book news at all, I suppose) you’ve heard of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. “Harry Potter for adults,” it’s been called, as well as both a deconstruction of and loving homage to The Chronicles of Narnia and other classic works of genre fantasy. It’s achieved widespread critical acclaim and popular success. It’s also received the most polarized reviews I’ve ever seen on Amazon and GoodReads. Grossman’s series is a collision of literary tropes with genre fantasy tropes, all told with snarky verve and crackling Whedon-esque dialogue. Some people can’t stand these books. I love them.

I LOVE them.

I finally finished reading the last installment of the series, “The Magician’s Land,” this weekend. And it was the first time that I’ve ever deliberately slowed my reading, turning back to re-savor passages just to put off the inevitable end. “The Magician’s Land” is a beautiful work, a grand and optimistic and true ending. Taken altogether, the Magicians books trace the satisfying character arc of Quentin Coldwater, a character who started off as a self-absorbed, bitter, confused and often unlikeable teen, and who matures, finally, into a thoroughly decent, functioning adult human.

That might not sound like much to some people. But it’s a lot.

Behind all the playful jokes and flights of fancy, the humor and zillions of hip, pop-culture references, The Magicians trilogy is telling a profoundly serious story, and it’s doing it with the forms and language of fantasy. How does a person grow up in our contemporary world? How do we find meaning, how do we confront and move past trauma (because we all have trauma); how do we learn to look past ourselves and care for others, how do we deal with the inevitable disappointments and setbacks of life; how do we come to accept our own limitations, to be resilient, and to survive without bitterness?

How do we grow up? How do we stay grown-up?

In the first book, The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater and his friends are far from grownup, even after they’ve graduated from Brakebills, their Ivy-League college for magicians. They drink, do drugs, and hurt each other. They’re all adrift. They’re all good-looking, brilliant, rich (thanks to a generous stipend provided to Brakebills graduates), and they’re freaking gifted magicians. But they’re also all damaged people, and magic can’t fix that. Even traveling to the magical land of Fillory, the Narnia stand-in which is the land of Quentin’s dreams, a world which he first discovered in the pages of a children’s book and which he had thought just a story—even Fillory can’t make Quentin happy. And Fillory turns out to be far more brutal and dangerous than children’s literature suggested.

By the second book, “The Magician King,” Quentin is beginning to mature and take on responsibility. At that book’s end, he takes responsibility for what happened to his old friend, Julia (even though it wasn’t all his fault) and he sacrifices himself for her. As a result of that sacrifice, he loses what he thought he loved best—Fillory itself, the magical land of which he become king.

The last book brings us full circle. Having lost seemingly everything, Quentin returns to Brakebills and take up teaching. He soon loses that job, too. But even at the seeming bottom of his life, there’s a new calmness in Quentin. He’s grown through loss, and the incessant nattering in his head—the endless doubt and over-analysis and self-recrimination—has quieted. It’s like the difference in Hamlet when he comes back from his sea voyage and battle with pirates. The endless self-doubt is gone. We don’t actually see the moment of change, but we can see that it’s happened. Quentin (like Hamlet) still has more trials and fighting ahead, but there’s a new acceptance, and even serenity, in him. This time, the reader can see that Quentin is actually one resilient bastard.

As are the other characters of this book. Everyone is growing up in the last book, and now we get to hear their stories. Eliot has a couple hilarious chapters. For the first time we hear Janet’s story. She is one angry, broken person, and for the first time we glimpse what has made her that way. We also get to see her live out a thoroughly satisfying badass revenge story which also happens to be heartbreaking.

As the series continues, the books widen in scope and complexity. The first book featured only Quentin’s voice, but the second alternated chapters with Julia, the bitter girl on the outskirts of magic, who had to fight and claw her way to the magical knowledge that was handed straight to Quentin. The third book features so many viewpoints that it can be hard to keep up. A compelling new character, Plum, is introduced. Old characters come back.And this final volume of the Magicians trilogy is fun. Have I forgotten to make that clear? There’s some heavy stuff, yes, but for sheer blessed fun this volume tops all the others. Quentin and Plum turn themselves into blue whales—just for the heck of it! There’s a crime heist with a thrilling flying magic carpet ride. There’s a tender, affecting love story. Grossman lets his imagination fly, and the physical descriptions of Fillory get even stranger and more beautiful as the land nears its seeming end. And near the end of the book, there’s a sharp turn into sheer horror, a cat-and-mouse through a haunted house that had me reading wide-eyed and breathless, thoroughly freaked out.

There’s an apocalyptic final battle and the fate of Fillory hangs in the balance. . . but it was never about Fillory, not at all. Some readers have complained about how thin the world of Fillory felt in the first two books, how it’s just a jokey Narnia pastiche. Despite the increasingly detailed wonders, it still feels a little thin at the end. But Fillory was never really important, not for itself. It was only ever important for what it meant to the characters we’ve come to love. The battle isn’t for an epic fantasy land of dwarves and pegasi and hippogriffs and giants. In the end, this is about the single, individual battles for a human’s soul.

This book is also a reminder, and demonstration, of what fantasy literature can do. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Lev Grossman wrote this:

“For me fantasy isn’t about escaping reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed.”

That’s what he’s accomplished in The Magicians trilogy. There’s a scene at the end that encapsulates it all for me. After all he’s been through, Quentin is reminded of the little boy he once was, who read a series of fantasy novels about an imaginary world and fell in love with them. He’s spent the rest of his life dealing with the fallout of that love, trying to come to terms with fact that the imaginary world he read about is nothing like Earth, nothing even like the real Fillory that he eventually encountered and came to rule. The Magician’s trilogy can be read as a critique of that love, of all of us who have ever gone through the wardrobe and wished to never ever come back. But at the end of the Magician’s Land, Quentin does a surprising thing: he is able to symbolically integrate his innocent, child-like love for Fillory with his new adult life that now moves past Fillory. It’s a beautiful moment that couldn’t be conveyed other than with the fantastical images employed. It’s an example of how an author can use the tools of fantasy, its armamentarium of literal symbols, to achieve an effect that no realist author can.

And it’s a moment that affirms what reading does. People, especially fantasy geeks, often use reading as an escape. And it can serve as an amazing, miraculous escape—the best one I’ve ever known. But when done wisely, it can also bring us home.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Last publication for the year: notes on "The Berry Girl"

When it rains, it pours. Or something like that.

My last story for 2014 came out this week (same week as "Congress of Dragons.") This latest one is "The Berry Girl," up at Lakeside Circus. A podcast should be coming out soon. It was released just as summer ends, which is fitting as the story is an ode to summer.

STORY NOTES (possibly mild spoilers below!)

I wrote this story last year, in the thick of summer. The new raspberry bush in our front yard was giving us its first harvest. Every day my youngest daughter checked the bush for ripe berries. It was her greatest delight to pick the berries, bringing them one or two at a time into the house in a little yellow bowl.

One morning I was in the shower when my little girl entered the bathroom. She slid open my shower door to proudly show me her harvest--her bowl full of ripe berries. And she sang, "I am the Berry Girl! I am the Berry Girl!"

So I sat down to write a story about a Berry Girl.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Worth reading: review of One Throne Magazine, Summer 2014 issue

There’s so much good reading online these days. My reading (and writing) leans toward the speculative fiction genre, and I struggle to keep up with the journals in that field. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Apex, Strange Horizons. . . The list goes on. Aside from clicking to Brevity when a new issue comes out, I rarely look at “literary” or non-genre journals.

But a little while ago, one of the editors at One ThroneMagazine e-mailed me asking if I would consider reviewing his magazine. Just before Labor Day weekend, I finally read the Summer 2014 issue straight through. I’m glad I did. 

First off: the layout of this magazine is gorgeous. It is a slick, professional-looking online journal, and lavishly illustrated. Each story and poem is accompanied by artwork, and I was surprised at how well the pictures went with the text. I found most of the illustrations intriguing and lovely on their own, but when combined with powerful prose or poetry something truly resonant occurs.

The Summer 2014 issue features three pieces of fiction, one flash-fiction piece, and eight poems. The pieces are diverse in content and style. While many of the poems center on love and relationships, there’s a great range in tone and approach. The first poem, “This City, She Loves Me” by Mary Carroll-Hackett, is a wonderful, sexy, sultry, bluesy piece. “Desert” by Lesley-Anne Evans also takes on love, but in a bleaker, lonely register. “Adagio” by Sarah Feldman also addresses the pain in relationships and love, and “The Web” by Emma Paulet speaks of overt violence in this context (this last poem feel a bit too overt to me, but eh, that’s my personal taste). Switching things up, “Dog Years” by Ryan Favata is a charming, whimsical piece reminiscent of Billy Collins. Other poems take on other topics and themes. I’d like to note that “Dog Years” and another poem, “Many Things Live Backward,” are listed as first-time publications for both writers. Congrats to both, and it’s nice to see a journal taking on the work of new writers, as well as established ones!

The eclecticism seen in the poetry selection carries over to the prose. “Voracious” by Ilana Masad is an eerie little piece that hovers on the border of speculative fiction—slipstream, perhaps? “Abi |Abbey Abbie Alexander” by Matt Jones is an anguished story of grief. “Wonderful” by Jenny Wales Steele is a sly tale of black humor and two very, very naughty children (the accompanying illustration--of angelic-looking children playing in Victorian garb—is perfect).

But the stunner of this issue is the long prose piece by Timothy Ogene, “Notes from a Discarded Memoir.” Although labeled as fiction, this piece indeed reads like memoir--a non-linear, episodic memoir. An unnamed narrator relates his memories of growing up in in the city of O, Nigeria, in a crowded set of buildings known as “the blocks.” This piece is, simply, devastating. It is an unsentimental depiction of urban poverty. The narrator viscerally evokes the smells, the squalor, and the physical discomforts of his childhood.

“Burst pipes were left unfixed. The zinc roofs leaked like baskets. When the walls or floors cracked, they were patched with a mix of cement and sand. No one complained. My parents never complained.

The cardboard ceiling bulged with dirt and dust, including rat excrement collected over time. Septic tanks overflowed into clogged drainages. And when it rained, the drainages surged and became rivulets that stopped at our doorsteps.”

There is a horrific description of the pit latrines, and the recounting of a child’s almost unbelievable fate in such a latrine.

Yet despite such specific, searing details, “Notes from a Discarded Memoir” is more than a voyeuristic look at African poverty. The fears and loneliness expressed by the narrator evoke the universal anxieties of childhood, when all of us (even the most coddled) were ultimately powerless and at the mercy of adults. The children in this narrative grapple with dread mysteries in a way that I think must be universal to children. When his parents are asleep, silent, in the next room, the narrator wonders in terror if they’re still alive. An elderly neighbor (who to the reader’s eyes appears utterly harmless) is a figure of utter dread to the narrator’s sister. The children suffer petty injustice when they are beaten by a prefect for being late to school. A man with a macabre sense of humor tells the narrator a story that gives him nightmares.

There is little of lightness in this story. By the end, it is clear that books and education will be the narrator’s escape from this place. As an adult, he has no desire to return to the dilapidated “blocks” of his childhood. Yet he knows that he is forever marked by them.*

In summary, One Throne Magazine offers up a range of fine prose and poetry. Some pieces spoke more to me than others, but the ones that did hit me, hit hard. The editor who e-mailed me suggested that this journal would be of interest to someone who likes beautiful writing, and indeed, all the pieces—even the ones that didn't resonate much with me—were beautifully written. It is also worth noting the diversity of writers featured. The Summer 2014 issue included writers from Nigeria, Israel, South Africa, Canada, and the United States; the issue also included a mix of new and established writers.

At the start of this review, I mentioned that I don’t generally read “literary” or non-genre magazines. While One Throne Magazine has the appearance of a “literary” magazine, it apparently does not turn up its nose at speculative fiction. The “About” page states that the journal aims to span genres, “running the gamut from elegant prose and poetry, to plot-driven stories, to speculative fiction.” It will be interesting to see where this journal goes in the future. If this issue, and particularly if  the selection of Timothy Ogene’s work is an indicator, I think this journal will go to very interesting places indeed.

*After reading “Notes from a Discarded Memoir,” I immediately googled Timothy Ogene, as I do with all writers I admire. He has written thoughtfully on the dilemma faced by African writers when trying to write honestly of their countries—and in particular, of the concern that a story about African poverty feeds into stereotypes and into the perception of a “single story” about the continent. His essay on this, “The African Writer’s Dilemma,” and an interview with him at The Missing Slate are both well worth reading.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New publication at Mirror Dance!

I wrote a story about dragons.

Because, hey, dragons.

If you want to know more, head on over to the current issue of Mirror Dance, a lovely magazine put together by award-winning writer Megan Arkenberg. My story is "Congress of Dragons," and it's the first piece I've ever had that is accompanied by an illustration. I'm thrilled by the artwork that Megan selected. I think it catches the mood and fits very well. I never thought to see my character, Erran, like this, and I actually love it that the dragons aren't depicted.

I haven't had time to do more than skim through the magazine and read the first story ("The Frost Queen Requests Your Support" by Aimee Picchi--an unusual take on a frost queen story, with prose as sharp and gorgeous as ice), but as always the entire thing looks sumptuous. I'm looking forward to settling in with this one. Thanks to Megan for reading and publishing my story, and for the work that she does in putting together all these stories.