The Magicians, by Lev Grossman


Quentin is a genius, and he’s pretty depressed. Life lacks color for him, and he immerses himself in a children’s book series about Fillory, a land filled with magic, as a form of escape. Imagine Quentin’s delight when he finds out that magic is real, there are colleges that teach it, and he’s been accepted into one … but disillusionment isn’t far behind no matter how many dreams come true for Quentin. The Magicians has been described as a mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books, but for adult audiences, and the author does not hide the fact that he’s borrowing heavily from those two series.

I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a couple of years after it came out, and I came away from it feeling pretty grumpy. I wasn’t sure why it had that impact on me. At first, I thought it was the general ickiness of most of the cast, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of books without likeable characters. I had lunch with a friend who also disliked the book, and we talked about it for a bit, but I never reached a satisfying resolution to my lack of appreciation for a story recommended by people whose book opinions I value (including my sister).

A couple of months ago, a group of friends and I decided to start a book club, and as I tried to come up with a good first book that would have some appeal to a wide range of people, I suggested The Magicians—in part because I thought that I should give it a second chance. My first reading of it was at an unsettled time in my life, and I’ve had more than a few instances where I’ve enjoyed a book more after a second reading.

The verdict after this reading? Yes, I enjoyed it more this time, in part because I was able to adjust my expectations away from a universe as magical as the ones found in the Harry Potter and Narnia series. This second go also gave me the opportunity to zero in on what was so off-putting the first time around, and the problem is largely with me. One of the reasons I read books from the fantasy genre is to be entranced by a whole new world—or an interesting new riff on the world in which we’re living. Because it borrows so blatantly and unapologetically from previously established worlds, The Magicians didn’t offer me the level of escape and diversion that other fantasy novels do. Every storyline is a distorted view of worlds I already know thoroughly and love, and it was jarring the first time I read it. (For the record, I also didn’t enjoy the Bizarro World storylines that DC put out, so at least I’m consistent.)

What did I like this time? Well, I appreciated Lev Grossman’s willingness to do a deeper character study than is often found in this genre. Although some members of Quentin’s crew are teen movie stereotypes (and icky), Quentin is more than just the typical brooding, brilliant teen/young adult. And I liked the shy-but-strong Alice quite a bit. It’s also a positive that Lev Grossman can write well, of course, though I was often bored during the action scenes.

The Magicians ends where I’m sure book 2 begins, and it left me intrigued enough to be tempted to continue the series. However, this may end up being an instance where I watch the tv show instead.

How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

What if your life expectancy were measured in terms of centuries rather than years? Would it be a blessing or a curse? How would it affect your relationships, your choices, your enjoyment of life?

These are the questions with which How to Stop Time wrangles through its protagonist, Tom Hazard. Tom has been alive since the sixteenth century. His development was normal until puberty, when the ageing process slowed markedly: outwardly, he aged one year for every 15 he lived. The condition comes with a heightened immune system, providing extra protection from diseases. So although Tom isn’t immortal, in many respects he may as well be. He’s over 400 years old, but he looks like a robust 41-year-old.

Tom’s condition is rare, but not unique. There are others like him around the world, and a secretive group has formed to offer support and protection, though its assistance comes with a price. Among other requirements, he must never fall in love. This is not a problem for Tom; his wife, Rose, died during the Black Plague, and even the centuries since haven’t dimmed his love for her. But his emotional isolation is about to be tested as he returns to live in a city brimming with memories of Rose and meets a charming French teacher who draws him in, despite the danger.

This poignant story is dotted with glimpses of history—William Shakespeare plays a key role, as do Captain Cook and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—but these mainly serve to provide an entertaining structure for a fantastical romance, and for thoughtful, wry philosophical musings on what it means to live.

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

Image result for who fears death

In post-apocalyptic Africa, there are two peoples: the dark-skinned, oppressed Okeke and the lighter-skinned, dominant Nuru. Our heroine, Onyesonwu—whose name means “Who fears death”—is born a mixed-race Ewu, conceived in a rape during a genocidal raid on her mother’s village. The rape was intended to create a powerful sorcerer, and it succeeded, though not quite as Onyesonwu’s evil magical father had intended. Emotional, passionate, curious, strong, impulsive, and fiercely independent, Onyesonwu is a girl who is no one’s sidekick.

The first half of the book shows Onyesonwu learning who she is while battling prejudice, both as a woman and as an Ewu. At first she tries to conform to the norms of the Okeke village in which she and her mother ultimately reside, but at the same time she begins to exhibit incredible powers that ensure that she will always be an outsider. Eventually she bonds with three other girls with whom she shares a clitoridectomy ceremony, and she grows close to a mysterious Ewu boy named Mwita. Then, when she finally persuades an extremely reluctant sorcerer to take her on as a student, Onyesonwu begins to learn her destiny.

As tends to happen in fantasy novels, there is a prophecy. Although Onyesonwu does not originally seem to fit the description of the one who will literally rewrite the rules, it soon becomes clear that fate may be wrong about some details. As tends to happen in fantasy novels, a journey must therefore be undertaken, and a fellowship must be formed.

The second half of the book follows Onyesonwu and her posse through five months in the desert on the way to a showdown with her father, who leads the Nuru in attacks meant to obliterate the Okeke. Nnedi Okorafor is a skilled raconteur, but given the buildup, the ending comes so quickly that it feels like an afterthought. And Onyesonwu is hardly an untainted heroine, given the destruction she heaps on two villages along her journey. Indeed, she exhibits—even welcomes—the violent tendencies that Ewu are assumed to possess because of the violence of their conception, which is the reason why Ewu are universally shunned. But then, conception is a central theme of this book, and Onyesonwu’s Ewu lover Mwita, born not of rape but of love between the two races, is a moderating force and a healer.

The book has a hard time settling into a groove. It feels at times like a YA novel, except that Onyesonwu and Mwita (not to mention Onyesonwu’s girlfriends) are constantly having sex. (Although their sex feels like YA sex—lots of reaching for each other, and then….) The story follows a fantasy outline, but it throws science fiction elements into the mix without following the paths they suggest. And though there’s nothing wrong with a little ambiguity, there are a ridiculous number of overly sly hints about how this world came to be, with too many questions left unanswered—including the question of how a Schoolhouse Rock lyric might become embedded in post-apocalyptic African lore.

This is not to say that the book doesn’t have a great many rewards. The author has grand ambitions for her story, most of which are at least partially satisfied. The female characters, Onyesonwu in particular, are fully drawn and thoroughly believable. The storytelling is deft and compelling. And the author uses her tale to ponder a variety of social topics,from feminism to racial inequality, from acceptance of one’s fate to control of one’s body. A reader is left to wonder whether “Who fears death” is a question or a statement, and whether the answer even matters to one for whom dying is just another bump in the road.

Failure to Launch: A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Two pages. That’s how far I got with Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. Obviously, it’s a Failure to Launch record, and the book against which future FtL books will be measured.

I had been looking forward to reading this book, a 2011 New York Times bestseller. It’s apparently about a descendant of witches who, in the course of her scholarly research, finds an enchanted manuscript in the Oxford University library. All kinds of demons, witches, etc. descend upon the library as a result. There’s even a vampire, described on the back cover as “enigmatic,” so clearly he’s a love interest. (Maybe that should have been the first clue.)

Now, I’m a huge fan of fantasy, and I’m willing to put up with a lot for a rousing story: J.R.R. Tolkein’s mind-numbing descriptions of mountain scenery, Terry Brooks’s stilted prose. I even slogged my way through the Twilight series, so you know I have patience and stamina, with more than a touch of masochism.

But Twilight had something that A Discovery of Witches did not.

Good writing.

(Not really, but I thought I’d take a moment to give my sister a heart attack.)

No, both have bad, bad, bad writing, but when I read it, Twilight had gone viral, and I was spending a lot of time with middle-schoolers. I needed to read the book to understand why Edward was supposedly the perfect man. I hate that I felt that way, I resent the time I spent reading that WHOLE SERIES when I could have been reading something good, and I still don’t know why Edward was even in the running to be the perfect man. But I digress.

A Discovery of Witches may have been a New York Times bestseller, but it wasn’t culturally necessary enough for me to fight my way through the bad, bad, bad writing past page 2.  Now, keep in mind, I’m a Midwesterner! I am full of optimism! I always think to myself, maybe if I just stick around for a bit, things will get better! So the writing had to be pretty bad.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what page 1 looks like:

“Dr. Bishop, your manuscripts are up,” he whispered, voice tinged with a touch of mischief.

Voice tinged with a touch of mischief? What does that MEAN?

“Thanks,” I said, flashing him a grateful smile….

He grinned back….The thin gold rims of his glasses sparked in the dim light provided by the old bronze reading lamp that was attached to a shelf.

There’s a lot of grinning going on. And unless the lamp is about to turn into a demon, I don’t care about the sparking of the glasses or the attachment to the shelf. (Actually, I was kind of tickled by the thought of the lamp turning into a demon, and then finding that it was attached to a shelf. But sadly, that didn’t seem to be in the cards.)

My smile widened.

More smiling? Did I mention that I’m a Midwesterner? We smile a lot, but we don’t dwell on it THIS much.

Sean looked at me shyly and tugged on the call slip, but it remained where it was, lodged between the cover and the first pages. “This one doesn’t want to let go,” he commented.

Maybe if he stopped looking at her shyly and looked down at the call slip, it would come out. And did we need to be told explicitly that he commented? Isn’t that what the quotation marks were for?

Muffled voices chattered in my ear, intruding on the familiar hush of the room.

“Did you hear that?” I looked around, puzzled by the strange sound.

“What?” Sean replied, looking up from the manuscript.

Wait! Wasn’t Sean looking at her shyly? When did he start looking down at the manuscript? And why are muffled voices a strange sound in a library? Did we even NEED the words, “puzzled by the strange sound”?

Okay, maybe you’re thinking that I’m being a little too harsh. Maybe I was in a bad mood that day, maybe I needed a nice soothing romance or a Jack Reacher novel to take the edge off. I had the same thought. After all, this is a New York Times bestseller! If that many people bought the book, I must be missing something—Twilight notwithstanding! Why, People magazine had called it “an irresistible tale”!

So I set it down and picked up a nice soothing romance, and the book sat on my bedside table for months, bookmarked on page 2.

But when I finally picked it up again, taking care to be in a forgiving mood, nothing had changed. There was still all of that smiling, and looking up without looking down, and sentences spoken with concerned frowns and prim disapproval and smothered sighs.

I opened the book randomly to other pages. Maybe things got better? After all, authors sometimes over-write the first few paragraphs, trying to make a good impression.

Things didn’t get better.

I lifted to my toes. He bent his head. Before our lips touched, a tray clattered on the table.

“That’s it; I’m outta here,” I remarked gruffly with a disappointed frown while stiffly flashing a look over my shoulder to my extreme right. The pale globe of the lamp on my bedside table taunted me with its jaunty brightness, contrasting with the dank darkness of my disenchantment.

And so A Discovery of Witches, Book One of the All Souls Trilogy, was moved to my Failure to Launch pile of shame, with a scrap-paper bookmark in permanent residence on page 2.

What’s in YOUR FtL pile?

Age of Myth, by Michael J. Sullivan

age of myth


AGE OF MYTH is the first book in The Legends of the First Empire, a new series by Michael J. Sullivan. It begins with an excerpt from “The Book of Brin” which sets the story in a land populated by Rhunes (men), and references the gods who live across the river from Rhuneland. Those gods are called Fhrey, and the first chapter describes the death of one of the supposedly immortal Fhrey at the hands of a Rhune named Raithe, who has a bit of help from Malcolm, a Fhrey slave.

In many ways, AGE OF MYTH is your standard epic fantasy. The Fhrey are a very powerful and long-lived race reminiscent of elves in other tales, and some of those Fhrey have learned to harness magic which has led them to view themselves as far superior to everyone else. The news of Raithe killing one of their own reaches Lothian, the fane (leader) of the Fhrey, and that news coincides with information that a member of the Fhrey warrior class has decided to desert his station and take others with him. Thus, Lothian is forced to address both threats, and Arion—one of the magic-wielders—is sent to deal with the problem. Arion heads to Dahl Rehn where the deserter and Raithe have both ended up. Dahl Rehn is a village populated by some great female characters. Persephone is married to the leader of the village and she is his most trusted adviser; Suri is a young mystic who lives in the forest but has ventured to Dahl Rehn with a warning of trouble to come; and Brin is the author of “The Book of Brin”—excerpts from which are found at the beginning of each chapter.

AGE OF MYTH is a tightly written story with action, adventure, wit, and compelling characters. Although the story itself isn’t all that different than others in the genre, the writing, strong women, and flashes of subtle humor help the book shine a little brighter than the standard fantasy offering.

As I noted, I was quite pleased with the power of the female characters in the book. Arion, Persephone, and Suri are obviously stars of AGE OF MYTH, and other women like Tura and Fenelyus provide a strong historical backbone of the story. Many of the males from all the races depicted are despicable and conniving creatures, but Raithe and his sidekick Malcolm are witty, brave, honorable, and fun, and I found myself looking forward to the sections of the book where those two contributed to the action.

The world in which all of these great characters reside is well constructed, and I’m sure that’s owed in part to the fact that AGE OF MYTH is set in the same location as some of Sullivan’s other books.

Another positive to the book is the ending. Some authors struggle to put together an ending that both satisfies and tantalizes when writing a series, but Michael J. Sullivan does it when bringing AGE OF MYTH to a close. I’ve recommended this book and Sullivan’s writing to many, and I look forward to reading more by him.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.