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Posts Tagged ‘The Magicians’

magicland“Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.”

That was President Barack Obama talking recently to The New York Times about what books mean to him. He reads widely, both fiction and nonfiction, for all the usual reasons: information, enlightenment, connection, comfort. “And then there has been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head.” Hence, fiction.

I am so there these days about being someplace else. And I don’t just want fictional, I want fantastical. Narnia. Middle Earth. Camelot. Fillory. The latter is found in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy and is sort of a mash-up of those famous magical kingdoms and other classic fairy-tale realms. The second season of the TV adaptation of the books begins airing tonight on the SyFy Channel, so I recently reread the third book, The Magician’s Land, to get ready. I’m not sure it will make any difference. The TV series is itself a stylish if choppy mash-up of Grossman’s books, changing some characters and events. The first season was disconcerting at times, but I still liked it. Fillory forever!

bearIf you’re looking for deep-winter magic, Katherine Arden’s richly imagined first novel The Bear and the Nightingale (Random House, digital galley) is all once-upon-a-time in medieval Russia, where a spirited heroine embraces the old myths. Vasya Petrovna, whose mother died at her birth, defies custom, her stepmother and a young priest so as to save her village, which has turned its back on the traditional spirits of the house and woodlands. Arden casts a spell with her lyrical writing, evoking Russian fairy tales and folklore, putting her own spin on the chilling story of the blue-eyed demon Frost.

wintersongS. Jae Jones sets her first YA novel, Wintersong (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in 19th-century Bavaria, drawing on German legend, Greek myth and Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “Goblin Market.”  It’s narrated by 19-year-old Elisabeth, the innkeeper’s eldest daughter, who has always looked after her younger siblings, including a musically talented brother and a beautiful, foolish sister. When the mysterious Goblin King chooses the sister for his bride, Elisabeth, who is strongly attracted to the eldritch stranger and who composes music, sets out to rescue her. Read the book as a fairy tale or as romantic fantasy, but by all means go back and reread Rossetti’s poem, still as irresistible as the luscious apples and quinces hawked by the goblin men.

hangingPerhaps urban fantasy is more to your liking, in which case you probably know Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. Like its predecessors, The Hanging Tree (DAW, digital galley) is another wild and witty paranormal police procedural. Police officer and junior wizard Peter Grant and his mentor Nightingale investigate the overdose of a teenage girl, who may have been practicing illegal magic. The case swiftly involves them in the lives of the river goddess Lady Tyburn and her extended family, as the villainous Faceless Man has returned. This is the sixth book in the series, and it’s rife with references to current pop culture and past books. Aaronovitch, a screenwriter for Doctor Who, neatly straddles the real and unreal worlds. More, please.

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I once wrote a column about imaginary places that would be interesting choices for summer vacations: Neverland, Treasure Island, Oz, Middle-Earth, Avalon, Wonderland, Narnia. The latter was my favorite because of the thrill of pushing aside stuffy coats in the wardrobe to walk into a snowy world infused with magic. Narnia remains high on my list, but right now I’d like my passport stamped for Fillory. Oh, and while I’m there, I want to be a reigning monarch and ride a horse named Dauntless.

That’s what Quentin Coldwater is doing at the beginning of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, the sequel to  The Magicians, my favorite fantasy of recent years. In that first novel, Brooklyn teen Quentin Coldwater matriculated at Brakebills, a secret, Ivy League-like college of magical pedagogy, where he learned real magic while fooling around with a select group of friends. All had grown up on a series of children’s novels about a magical land called Fillory — a sort of mash-up of Narnia, Middle-Earth and classic fairy-tale realms — and, after graduation, they discovered it was a real place. Adventures ensued, but so did tragedy, and Quentin returned to New York.

The Magician King begins two years later in Fillory. Quentin, two more Brakebills grads, and his high school friend Julia, who had to acquire her own magical powers after being rejected by Brakebills, have assumed the four thrones of Castle Whitespire and discovered that ruling over Fillory is a bit, uh, boring. But then Quentin and Julia sail to the Outer Island, hear the story of the Golden Keys and embark on a perilous quest that eventually finds them far from Fillory and struggling to return.

Interspersed is the backstory of Julia gaining her fierce magical powers, which are stranger, and perhaps stronger, than that of Brakebills. This becomes apparent when ancient forces threaten the portal Neitherlands, and the fate of Fillory hangs in the balance.

Dreams do come true, but not without great cost. Hearts are broken, hopes quashed, sacrifices demanded. Happily- ever-after is for fairy tales, and despite its fantastical flourishes, The Magician King is not a fairy tale. It’s an involving literary novel about what comes next after you’ve made the third wish and gotten what you thought you wanted. It’s sometimes thrillingly dark and dangerous but also frequently funny, filled with pop culture references and asides. Narnia is invoked, as are Harry Potter and Monty Python. Quentin and company refer to a diplomatic monarch as Fillory Clinton.

Early in the book, a character notes the things one likes about magicians; they are “disgustingly bright and rather sad and slightly askew.” Real. Like magic. Like Fillory.

Open Book: I bought the e-book version of The Magician King by Lev Grossman (Viking) as soon as it went on sale last week, downloading it in the middle of the night. Then I decided to reread The Magicians so I could spend as long as possible in Fillory. Now I am going through a box of old buttons. Fellow readers will understand.

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I’m not ready to close the book on 2010, or any other year for that matter. Perusing others’ year-end best lists, I’m gratified to see many of my own favorites (Tana French’s Faithful Place, Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, Emma Donoghue’s Room) and that President Obama is reading John le Carre and David Mitchell. But mostly I see all the books I’ve read but still haven’t written about, plus all the ones I want to read, including the lovely stack from Santa and friends.

 Just yesterday I finished Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy, which was very good, and came out six months ago. It’s the 19th in the Inspector Alan Banks series, which is hard to believe. Was In a Dry Season really 10 books back? I’d like to reread it if I can find my copy. I’m always looking for books lost in my own house, and while searching for them, I inevitably turn up others I’d like to reread — or never read in the first place. A constant chorus seems to emanate from the shelves and stacks: Pick me! I’m next! Over here!

I’m on vacation at my mom’s but can’t escape the books begging for attention. In fact, my bed is shoved up against a bookcase on one side, and I fall asleep — and wake up — eye-to-eye with a shelf of Maeve Binchy novels, a couple of Barbara Kingsolvers and some Tony Hillermans. All read and read again, still enticing. I turn my head, and the TBR stack of new volumes threatens to topple off the nightstand.

Susan Hill understands. The prolific British author, best known forThe Woman in Black — although I love her Simon Serrailler crime series — also loses books in her house. It’s why she wrote Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. Looking for one elusive volume, she turned up a  dozen more she’d forgotten about. So, swearing off new books for the most part and curtailing her use of the internet, she decided to “repossess” her own books. She writes:

“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.”

Her books also turn out to be a map of her own life, and her reading journey becomes a memoir. For fellow bibliophiles, the result is as hard to resist as the title — charming, anecdotal, opinionated. The temptation to quote is endless. “No matter what the genre, good writing tells.” And, “Ah here is Muriel Spark, sharp as a pencil, cool, stylish.”

She is talking about Sparks’ novels and stories, but Hill has led a literary life, and her descriptions of her encounters with older, famous writers are just as pointed. Edith Sitwell is haughty and terrifying, but the “small man with thinning hair and a melancholy mustache” who accidentally drops a book on her foot in the London Library offers “a small flurry of exclamations and apology and demur.” As she returns the book, she finds herself looking into the watery eyes of an elderly E.M. Forster. “He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable and I have remembered everything about him for nearly 50 years.”

She notes that knowing about a writer’s life is rarely necessary to appreciate their works but makes an exception, at least for herself, where Dickens and the Brontes are concerned. As for her own life, she has published books by other authors and found it an enjoyable sideline. She loves the feel and shape of books, the smell of them, the sound of pages being turned. She’ll put money on books — real books, printed and bound — being around as long as there are readers.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, I had the ambitious idea of giving away at least one of my old books for every new one I brought home. I would even chronicle this pruning of my collection in occasional posts, “Going, going, gone.” I think I did this twice before realizing the futility of my donating books or releasing them into the wild in any organized fashion. I always have a give-away box going, but it contains mostly recent acquisitions in which I’ve lost all interest. Rarely can I survey my shelves, stacks, piles, bins, carry-alls, table-tops, etc. and see a book I think I might not want to re-read — or get around to reading for the first time. Just reading Hill’s memoir has reminded me of at least half a hundred of which I already have copies.

So that’s my plan for 2011. Not to stop reading new books; I know my limits — as well as what’s on the horizon that looks wonderful. I’m already counting the months — eight — when the sequel to Lev Grossman’s  The Magicians is supposed to be published. But I am going to make a concerted effort to “repossess” the books I have, to indulge in the companionship of old friends, to acquaint myself with new-to-me volumes. I’ll let you know how it goes, and how often whimsy wins out over the call of the current. As soon as I get home later this week, I’ll probably start with Forster. Howards End is in the white wicker chest beneath the bedroom window. I think.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (Profile Books) when it was published in the U.S. in early November. It moved to the top of my TBR stack about a week ago.

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I’m going to wait on butterbeer. My Theme Park Ranger pal Dewayne assures me it’s kind of yummy, but I can’t imagine that it’s good enough to make me stand in line when the the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens June 18th at Universal Studios here in Orlando. Snow may be glistening on the turrets of Hogwarts, but it’s going to be crazy hot and crowded for months to come. So on the advice of friends who work there (and will not tell me ANY secrets because then they would have to kill me), I’m going to wait for winter — in some undetermined year — to visit. Maybe by then there’ll be diet butterbeer.

Meanwhile, I’m returning to Fillory, the enchanted kingdom at the center of one of my favorite books of recent years, The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Out in paperback now, it’s Harry Potter writ dark for adults who also are familiar with the transporting worlds of C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin and Lewis Carroll. Also, assorted fantasies, fairy tales, comic books, graphic novels and video games. Yet Grossman’s alchemy creates its own kind of magic.  Real magic.

After reading The Magicians last year, I’m pretty sure Fillory exists. You may think that it’s made up, like Narnia, and if you just find the right wardrobe, there’ll you be. Kid stuff. Well, that’s what Quentin Coldwater assumes before he walks down a Brooklyn alley and finds himself in upstate New York at Brakebills College, the Ivy League of modern sorcery. There’s drugs and drink and sex, and lots of  lying around and talking, because this is college. But the curriculum is difficult and dangerous. It’s more than smoke and mirrors and memorization, which can be boring. As Quentin and his classmates learn, you have to merge with magic. But to what end?

Ah, there’s the rub. What’s a young sorcerer to do in Manhattan these days? Find Fillory, of course — providing this mythic land exists outside the pages of a series of children’s books.

I’m following Quentin. I suspect a sequel’s in the works. That’s because borders.com is featuring a new short story by Grossman, “Endgame.” It stands on its own, but the end sounds like a beginning. Hope so.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (Viking) when it came out in hardcover. I also have a copy of Grossman’s first novel, The Codex, which is different and good.

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