Review: A Natural History of Dragons (Memoirs by Lady Trent #1), by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of DragonsIsabella is born the only girl out of six children to a gentleman’s family in the unfortunately dragon-free country of Scirland. It’s unfortunate for Isabella, at least, who develops an obsession with the creatures from a young age, poring over books about them snuck from her father’s library. Aside from the little insect-sized sparklings she collects, and one carefully contrived and dangerous encounter with a wyvern, she seems unlikely ever to be able to study them the way she would like, and she tries to set aside her longing for the proper life of a gentleborn lady, a new marriage, and the prospect of motherhood. But when an opportunity arises, with a little nudging from Isabella, for her husband to join an expedition to study the rock-wyrms of Vystrana, she simply can’t be left behind…

A Natural History of Dragons is written as the first in a series of memoirs from Isabella in her old age, looking back over her life and her contribution to the study of dragons, which we know from the start will grow to be a substantial one. Elderly Isabella has a different tone from her younger self — a sense of self-prepossession, dry wit, and tinges of regret. She obviously has little remaining patience for the society that used to hem her in, and she sets out her memoirs in a style that is conversational and engaging. It requires a little suspension of disbelief, that she can so precisely record conversations held after so many years, and it does assure us that Isabella at least will survive to old age, but I do so enjoy this structure.

The world herein depicted is an obvious pastiche of our Victorian Earth, with Scirland standing in for England, Falchester for London, and so on. I am generally appreciative of the decision to use a secondary world instead of an alternate history when inserting large fantastical elements into one of our historical periods, at least if it’s done well such as by authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, because it frees the author from dealing with historical personages and allows the story to twist and wind in more unexpected directions. I am not so sure it’s done well here, as there’s little actual sense of world-building beyond the slapping on of new names, but I can appreciate that the author is limited in her presentation of this as one character’s memoirs, whereas Kay is usually dealing with multi-POV epics.

I enjoyed the approach to dragons as a scientific subject. Obviously, it still requires us to handwave the fantastical assumption that beasts like that could fly or breathe ice, but aside from that, these creatures are not magical or sapient, they are huge ecological unknowns in a world where devoting oneself to scientific discovery is a worthy lifelong gentlemanly pursuit. In a way, I wanted them to be a bigger part of the story than they actually are. They play a huge role in terms of the motivations of just about everyone we encounter, friendly and villainous, but I found myself rather strangely enraptured by the scientific nitty-gritty of examining them, rather than the human machinations that surround them.

Another thing that A Natural History of Dragons borrows from Victorian times is the paternalism. Happily, the man that Isabella marries, Jacob, is actually a good one, particularly by the standards of his time, but it still induced a bit of tooth-grinding every time Isabella sought her husband’s permission, or was pushed to do so. Still, while I am resistant to the idea that secondary world fantasies which borrow from our history must also borrow some of its worst attitudes, I didn’t mind seeing it here, because the glimpses we get of future Isabella through her writing of the memoirs suggests that being one of the many driving forces behind the gradual changing of those attitudes will be an important aspect of her story.

It’s not without a couple of issues, one of which is uneven pacing. I found the middle of the book quite slow, although I enjoyed the writing style so much it wasn’t particularly bothersome until reaching the comparatively hasty ending. Isabella’s emotional responses to things are front and centre for most of the story, with her doubts, her frustrations, and her love laid bare. But when a particularly emotional event occurs for which her emotional perspective should have dominated, it’s surprisingly underserved. I suppose one can handwave it away as the decision of older Isabella not to linger on that moment in her memoirs, because any writer detailing their own life will choose to emphasise some moments and sweep others under the carpet — but these aren’t really memoirs, and it was an authorial choice that doesn’t really serve the reader.

I also feel that one of the important things about mysteries in fiction is that of the multiple possible explanations, the one that’s true ought to be at least as interesting as the ones that aren’t. I felt a bit underwhelmed by the ultimate truth of the situation in Vystrana and of its rock-wyrms’ behaviour, because it just wasn’t as compelling as the other possibilities.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable light read which flew by for me despite some quibbles. It finished in a place which suggests the second book in the series will be even closer to my interests, and I’m excited to move on with the series.

4 stars

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Review: The City of Brass (Daevabad Trilogy #1), by S. A. Chakraborty

The City of BrassNahri is an orphaned con artist eking out a living on the fringes of 18th century Cairo, charming rich men into fake cures for illnesses they don’t have and relieving their estates of easily-missed trinkets and baubles. She has a side line in performing fake zars, ceremonies to cure those afflicted by djinn or at least temporarily relieve their spirits — but during one such fake zar, when she improvises with the nameless language she’s known all her life, she calls down something very real. Soon she and the ancient daeva warrior Dara will be fleeing Cairo, and the ifrit hunting Nahri for her ancestry, to the city of her djinn ancestors — Daevabad, where she will be valued as the last scion of a powerful bloodline. But Dara’s welcome is likely to be a lot less warm, and Daevabad is wrapped up in intrigues in which Nahri’s abilities and ancestry will prove a linchpin, if only she can come to terms with either of them.

I really love stories about djinn. I don’t know why they hold such fascination for me, but just seeing the word in a book’s description is enough to sell me on it, so I came into The City of Brass already favourably disposed since it was so deeply rooted in that mythology. And I’ll say one thing for this book: The research and world-building is really well done, and I was riveted by the way the author writes djinn society. Daevabad has an elaborate social background split between those who identify as djinn, and have embraced Islam, and those who still consider themselves to be part of the older society of daeva and their fire-based religion. Each side is split into multiple factions, tribes, and families, all with powerful motives, and they are all shrouded in moral ambiguity, with a balance of sympathetic aims and crimes that can’t be condoned. It’s impossible to point to one side and say ‘It would clearly be best for society if they won’ — as with most of these situations in real life, a true resolution would require a lengthy and delicate balance of compromises that’s unlikely to be achieved due to the strong personalities involved — and so the politics feel rich and alive.

I can forgive the book a lot for that incredibly compelling world-building, but there is a fair bit here in need of forgiving. Initially, I really took to Nahri as a character. She’s in a dangerous position in society, an Egyptian woman alone and without a support system in a city that’s changing hands from one foreign invader to another. She’s got ambitions for herself that society wouldn’t support even for a well-bred woman, which she is not — she wants to train as a physician. And she doesn’t bow to or complain about those limitations, but instead uses the society she’s trapped by against itself to escape her circumstances.

Unfortunately, Nahri changes into a very different character as the story progresses. Her wily nature and intellectual curiosity are lost, and she becomes a constant complainer with no respect for or interest in the new religion and cultures around her, or the people who could teach her so much. The only things she’s interested in are Dara and Alizayd, a prince of the now-ruling family who are traditionally her ancestors’ enemies, whom she befriends under somewhat false circumstances.

A lot of page count is spent on Dara and Ali, who are two of the least likeable of the secondary cast. Dara is demanding and controlling, with supremacist views about daeva that ought to render him incompatible with a partially-human woman like Nahri if she had the sense she were born with, and a hankering to restart old wars. Ali is a religious zealot who goes through an awful lot, including being torn between his family duties and his ties to a rebel group with more violent aims than he realised, and manages to grow from absolutely none of it, still convinced that he and his religion are in the ultimate right and observing few shades of grey in the massively complex political situation that surrounds him. His only redeeming feature is his sympathy for the shafit, the part-daeva and part-human underclass of Daevabad society.

Debut blues afflict the pacing, which takes an extraordinarily long time to get to Daevabad and the meat of the story, and therefore necessitates a rushed ending in which it can be hard to keep track of the action during one climactic battle. I didn’t mind the slow beginning as much, because Nahri was still an appealing character to follow then, Dara was still mostly an exposition fairy delivering sermons about daeva society, and I liked watching their relationship and her understanding of their world unfold. Towards the end, however, I was having to reread a section or two in order to understand things, such as the transition of a power that I thought only one person could hold.

Despite the problems, this was a page-turner, and Chakraborty’s take on djinn is so well-conceived that I would be compelled to read on if only for that. I do agree with some of my friends who concluded that the issues are not unexpected of an ambitious debut novel, and hopefully in the sequels the author will retain tighter control of her characters and their trajectory. I would still recommend this to anyone with an interest in seeing creative and well-researched Middle Eastern fantasies, if they are willing to be patient with first novel hiccups.

3.5 stars

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Review: The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang

The Poppy WarFang Runin is a war orphan, one of many left without a home after the Poppy Wars between the Nikara Empire and the Federation of Mugen. The Nikara Empire orders all families with fewer than three children to take the orphans in, and so Rin is raised in the loveless environment of two opium dealers’ home. When she is 14, they arrange for her to be married off to an import inspector, an older man with multiple divorces already under his belt. It’s the perfect arrangement for everyone but Rin — so she makes a desperate grab for an unlikely future, the military academy of Sinegard, the only academy which doesn’t require money she doesn’t have. It just requires her to excel at the imperial exams for which most successful students, the children of Warlords and the wealthy and politically connected, will have spent their whole lives studying.

She’s an outlier at Sinegard, mocked and berated at every turn, but at least she’s an outlier with control of her own destiny, and she’s determined not to relinquish it. Soon she and her classmates will be thrust into a more violent future than an orphan from an impoverished and isolated part of Nikara could have anticipated — the Second Poppy War was a scant victory in Nikara’s favour, and the Third is soon to come crashing down on them.

I was excited to read The Poppy War, as it contained a number of elements that appeal strongly to me. I like fantasy that draws its inspiration from cultures other than the west. I like fantasy that riffs off of historical events, allowing perspectives on them that would be limited by the need for strict historical accuracy if the actual places and people were used. I like coming of age stories in school settings, perhaps because I left school at the age of seven and I get to do a bit of living vicariously without having to personally experience all of its downsides. It ended up disappointing me in a number of ways, but not so much so that I wasn’t able to derive any enjoyment from it.

To start with some of the positive things, the historical parallels are really well done. It riffs off of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and doesn’t do it lightly, touching on war atrocities such as the Rape of Nanjing, Japanese biochemical experimentation, and fantasy substitutes for chemical and nuclear weapons. Don’t let the initial school setting fool you into thinking this is a children’s story; it doesn’t flinch from the horrors of war, and the fantasy veneer over the brutalities that really occurred doesn’t detract from the gut-punch of reading about them. From Khurdalain to Golyn Niis, I found it hard to put the book down despite my issues with the writing.

I also appreciated some aspects of Rin as a protagonist. I liked that she made bold decisions for her future without regrets, even when it comes to things like giving up the possibility of children. I had some issues with the flatness and inconsistency of most of the secondary characters, but I enjoyed two of her close relationships. One is with a male best friend (and there is no hint of romance, they both simply understood from the word go that it was a platonic connection, which I also appreciated) who comes from a completely different background, and those differences are sometimes acknowledged and reflected upon but don’t become between them. The other is a rivals to friends connection which is something I am usually sceptical about it, but in this case it’s very well implemented.

I also thought that the way the gods were portrayed made for an interesting change from the gods as characters unto themselves that I’m used to from secondary world fantasy. The gods aren’t really personalities; they’re something too primal and elemental for that. They’re forces, and they will seek at any turn simply to embody their nature. A god of fire and vengeance doesn’t want fire and vengeance, it is fire and vengeance. The human who channels it is the one who wants, and no matter how broken those desires, it is only too happy to fulfil.

Unfortunately there were more in the way of things that held me back from loving the book as much as I wanted to. There was a lot of promise here when it came to world-building, but it failed to ever gel. Nikara is obviously meant to be a vast and complex nation, but it felt empty, a series of set pieces that Rin moves through, without any clear vision of the bigger picture. My sense of place was also constantly disrupted by the casual modern slang strewn throughout, especially in the first half. When the dialogue is littered with gems such as ‘Your folks are assholes’, ‘Aw, shut it’, ‘We’re here to fuck people up’, ‘Yeah, yeah. […] You don’t need Seejin, kid.’, I feel like I’m reading about disaffected American teenagers who are all about to start calling each other dude, not a Chinese-inspired secondary world of indeterminate but apparently pre-firearms technological progress.

As much as I really wanted to like Rin, and to root for the underdog, she was a very difficult character for me to grow attached to because she’s so damn inconsistent. At first I was irritated with her for constantly getting into easily avoidable trouble and mouthing off to people who could make the fate she fears so much — being sent back home — come true, but that kind of self-sabotage is at least pretty realistic for certain teenagers. After Sinegard, however, she became a chess piece moved around by plot. She also does the most ridiculous things in service to a crush, supposedly because she’s so approval-driven — but there are people whose approval or lack thereof mattered at least as much to her future, and she never fell in line with them. She’s supposed to be someone who is so stubborn and so driven that she’ll mutilate herself rather than give up on what she wants, but she is suddenly meek when the plot requires it.

The funny thing is that we’re supposed to buy that she is blinded by vengeance at times, but she is perhaps the character in the book with the least motivation to take it — other than as a small child who can’t remember anything of what happened to her people, all of the folks she’s surrounded by have lost, or suffered through, so much more.

We also have a tired example of the vague and mystic mentor who could probably sort most of this mess out if they were capable of an honest conversation, and never really gets a good reason why they can’t. I’m okay with characters who have human foibles but there’s a fine line between that and idiot plotting, and this book goes hurtling over that line too many times. Aside from Kitay and Nezha, all of the characters could have used more fleshing out and a good deal more logical consistency.

In the final third of the book, the pacing falls apart as Rin and her compatriots are shuffled rapidly around to set up the next book, and some plot holes, such as how a character who betrays them had the knowledge to do so, are left unfilled. Everything after Golyn Niis is where the book really turned from something I had issues with, but was still pretty captivated by, into something I just wanted to finish so I could move on to my next read.

Despite my issues, I will be picking up the next book, as I am bearing in mind that this is a debut and there is still potential for the series as a whole to grow more polished. And there are elements to like here, ones which kept me turning the pages quite avidly for a while. It just didn’t live up to expectations, perhaps in part because it was excessively burdened with them.

3 stars

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Review: The Tall Man, by Phoebe Locke

The Tall ManWhen Sadie was a little girl, she and her friends wanted to be special. The Tall Man could make them so, they thought — he gives gifts to his special ones, and others he takes away. But sometimes he needs help. When Sadie was a woman, she had a daughter, and for a while the whispers from the darkness retreated. But the Tall Man comes for daughters, and she knew she had to lead him away from Amber. Now Amber is a young woman, and the centre of macabre celebrity after walking away innocent from a murder trial, the images of her bloody hands and clothes still fresh in everyone’s eyes. But who did she kill, and why, and did the Tall Man really make her do it?

I know nothing about the Slender Man internet legend except for what’s written in the Wikipedia article, since I don’t really frequent the corners of the web where it was developed and propagated. I would guess that the homage to Slender Man is why most readers would pick up this novel, but I bought it because I saw it mentioned in The Guardian and I am interested in stories about children who kill (also, it was on sale for 99p). Another lifetime ago I was interested in pursuing criminal psychology, so the particular ways in which a mind breaks in order to commit cold-blooded murder, and how we can prevent that from happening, are real areas of interest to me and it’s particularly fascinating when dealing with children, to whom we ascribe so much (sometimes misplaced) sense of innocence.

The Tall Man weaves back and forth in time between three eras: Sadie’s childhood, Sadie’s abandonment and then resumption of motherhood, and the present day where a film crew are trying to make a documentary about Amber, with her limited co-operation. I tend to like books that switch back and forth in time, but while it did a moderately good job of heightening the suspense here, it also served to help drag out an already bloated story.

This is a book that relies mostly on keeping the reader in the dark to preserve the illusion of plot, which would otherwise be substantial enough to justify a short story. I wouldn’t necessarily mind if the reveals were worth the page count, but I suspect they would have felt anticlimactic even if I hadn’t guessed them a fair way beforehand by paying attention to the gaps in reader knowledge that the narrative seemed structured to preserve. Further padding is added by lingering over the personal relationships of the documentary crew in Amber’s story, threads that are all going to be summarily abandoned without resolution once the Sadie/Amber/Tall Man mystery is concluded. Even their family relationships get short shrift in the end, really.

If anyone, like me, was hoping for some interesting psychological commentary on the children who kill for the Tall Man and why, be prepared for disappointment in that regard as well. Locke seems too concerned with dragging out the mystery of whodunnit and what they dun until the last moment to do any delving there. In thrillers with potentially supernatural elements, it’s often good not to shine too bright a light on the supernatural lest it become mundane, but your humans need to withstand the believability test, and these humans have too many pieces chopped out in the service of keeping the reader guessing. Sometimes Locke also heavily implies menace where there is none to make you wonder if a character you were starting to sympathise with is really evil, which in the end makes the characterisation cardboard thin as consistency is sacrificed in favour of plot (using that term generously).

On a technical level the writing is mostly very polished for what I thought was a debut, so it makes sense to discover that Phoebe Locke is a pseudonym for a writer with a number of publications under her belt, Nicci Cloke. There were some attempts at florid prose that fell flat, such as a dinner scene where poor phrasing makes it appear that the mushrooms are ignoring Sadie’s parents.

On the whole, it was a quick, light read which had some spooky scenes and kept me turning the pages, and it was worth the 99p I paid for it. But the more I reflect on it, the more it falls apart. It’s not going to be something I recommend to anyone, and I can’t say that it’s turned me on to either Locke’s work or the Slender Man.

2.5 stars

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Review: Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin

LaurusI picked up this book knowing almost nothing about it, except that it was the monthly choice of one of my book clubs. I didn’t even read the blurb. I read a lot of Russian literature when I was 18-19, when it suited the gloom of adolescence (and when its availability on Project Gutenberg suited the empty bank account of adolescence), and I figured that Laurus would likely treat me to more of the same edge and moral ambiguity I recall from that period.

Instead, this book beautifully captures an entirely different side of the soul of Russia. Arseny, whom we will also know as Laurus and Amvrosy among his many other names, lives in a time and place where the worldview and moral code are as alien from my own as any fantasy culture, but his gentle soul reaches across the ages to move me anyway. His is a story of redemption, in which he never shies from or makes excuses for what he did wrong, but carries his burden until it drowns out the world. There is a terrific sense of disembodiment in the prose, a space between the reader and Arseny’s world just as there is a growing space between the world and Arseny. It felt sanctified, even to a reader who does not share his religion or anything resembling it.

In some ways, I am a poor choice of audience for this book, as it’s a clear homage to the hagiographies of Christian saints, and I am a Buddhist whose limited interest in Christian sainthood and mythology is purely academic. I did struggle in places with the matter-of-fact way in which the supposedly divine or demonic is presented, and I found that treating much of it as the potential result of a traumatic brain injury — something which, along with untreated mental illness, I consider a likely candidate for the historical phenomenon of ‘holy fools’ anyway — aided in my suspension of disbelief, though it lent a mournful feeling to passages of the book that I think were more humorous for other readers. Oddly, the more I treated the mysticism as ambiguous, the more I was able to accept it as mysticism.

The most compelling part of the story for me was its temporal shenanigans. From the very beginning it’s unrooted in time, from little anachronisms like plastic bottles in the snow to styles of speech that vary from Middle English to ‘well, like, you know’ 21st century slang. Later on it starts to incorporate flashes of other lives from other times altogether, some peripherally related down the ages to the lives of Arseny and his companions, some just glimpses across the thin fabric of time to the same space. By the end of the novel, concepts like before and after have almost ceased to matter. Time is just an illusion we use to make an overwhelming amount of information possible to process, and in letting it go, we get back all of the things time has stolen. I think this is the most powerful aspect of Laurus for me, the fact that something which is incredibly congruent to my worldview as a Buddhist comes from a portrayal of a medieval morality so foreign to my own. A common thread of humanity.

Laurus won at least one award for its English translation and although I cannot compare it to the Russian original, I feel that award was well-deserved. Not only is the liquid and ethereal prose a large contributing factor to the overall mood, but the varied use of English from different eras is a very clever way to reproduce the intent of the original Russian anachronisms. I’m not as good as I should be about paying attention to the names and pedigrees of translators, but Lisa Hayden will be joining Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky on the list of people bringing Russian literature to an English-speaking audience whose translations will be an auto-buy for me.

I’m actually immersed in Biblical studies at the moment as background for part of a course on the history of world literature, and it’s fascinating to me that I am more enraptured and more moved by this story of a saint who never existed than I have so far been by any of the ones who supposedly did.

4.5 stars

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Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh, by Anonymous

The Epic of GilgameshThis was my first stop in a course on the history of world literature. It’s a lot more entertaining than my second stop, which is the Bible.

So far all of the ancient world epics I’ve read have been concerned with the relationship between humanity and the gods, so it’s really interesting to me that perhaps the oldest surviving piece of great literature we have is so humanist. The gods are there, but it’s not about them. It’s concerned with what must be humanity’s oldest fear, the fear of death, the thing that separates us from the animals which have no conception of their own mortality. And it presents the answer to that fear not as bowing before any gods or begging them for a good afterlife, but as living your mortal life to the full, enjoying all the experiences for which humanity was intended, and creating a legacy to leave behind.

The titular hero, who is only a hero in the original larger-than-life sense and not in the later what-a-good-person sense, is pretty thoroughly unsympathetic until the loss of his boon companion cements that fear. That’s the common thread of humanity that then links him to us in our air conditioned towers, across an almost inconceivable stretch of human development.

Poetry always loses a little more in translation than prose, but even in translation you can feel the structure and get lost in the rhythm of ancient epics like The Iliad and Beowulf, at least if it’s a good translation. Unfortunately, that’s something that’s kind of been lost with The Epic of Gilgamesh due to its fragmentary nature, independent of any merits of the translator. The battle against Humbaba is almost entirely lost, and such a vast lacuna no doubt contributes to the lacklustre feel of the first half of the epic compared to the more humanistic and powerful second half. Getting the most out of this poem is going to require patience for being repeatedly thrown out of the narrative by gaps, some of them partially filled by alternative versions of the text recovered from different places, some not.

I read this in the Penguin edition translated by Andrew George, which is very comprehensive, enough so that I might recommend a little skim-reading to those less completist than I. While the Sumerian poems in the fifth chapter are a really interesting and informative addition to the standard text, the few chapters worth of Babylonian fragments that don’t really add very much that wasn’t already incorporated into the gaps in the main text as part of this translation make for a tedious read.

The fact that the Bible borrows substantially from many cultures that predated those of its chroniclers was not news to me, but I was fascinated by just how precise the borrowing of Noah’s story from Ut-napishti’s is. It’s not just the flood and the circumstances that motivate the gods to bring it about, but the ark constructed to divine specifications, the animals aboard to reseed the earth with their species after the flood waters recede, the birds released to find land when the flood waters begin to recede… There’s an ancient scribe with an excellent case for a plagiarism suit here, when Disney inevitably expand our copyright laws to 4,000 years plus life of author.

4 stars

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Review: H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, by H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete FictionHaving grown up quite fond of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, I have read bits and pieces of Lovecraft’s Mythos fiction throughout my life, but before I dive into some of the Mythos-related works on my to-read pile, I wanted to make a concerted effort to follow its progression from start to finish. This lovely leatherbound tome represented an excellent opportunity to see Lovecraft’s evolution as an author, although it’s a hefty beast that left my wrist complaining for weeks.

It’s no secret to fans of weird fiction that Lovecraft held some reprehensible views, being remarkably racist, anti-semitic, and generally xenophobic even by the standards of his time. My previously disjointed experience of reading his fiction had left me with the impression that this wasn’t an attitude that heavily pervaded his Mythos work. I thought the worst of it was channelled into his more prosaic works, like the execrable nonsense that is ‘The Street’, a rant against multiculturalism thinly disguised as a short story. Unfortunately, that was a mistaken impression, and these attitudes are on display in many of his Mythos stories. A number of them are themed around the dilution of a bloodline by outsiders, resulting in their degeneration into anything from simplistic cannibals to warped aquatic monster hybrids, all of them thin stand-ins for the immigrants and people of colour Lovecraft feared.

And yet there is something compelling to me about the Mythos, despite its author. The majority of the fiction I read is either humanist or concerned with humanity’s relationship to spiritual or deific forces. It’s hard to escape an anthropocentric viewpoint. I appreciate the way that Lovecraft confronts humanity’s cosmic insignificance, even if he did it out of fear instead of intellectual curiosity. We tend to feel, and so we tend to write, as though the end of humanity will be the end of all things, but we’re just one species on one planet, and when we’re gone, that planet may recover from our depredations, life that isn’t human will go on, and other planets will spin under alien suns. I believe it’s a good thing to come to terms with, because we have to decide to find meaning in the impermanent, and fiction is a great lens through which to do so. That said, this perspective does significantly lessen their impact as horror stories, which Lovecraft’s sometimes overwrought tone aims for.

I appreciate that Lovecraft’s alien threats aren’t threats because they hate humanity or because they are uniformly evil, but because they generally have about as much interest in us as sapient beings as we have in the emotional landscapes of cows. Quite a few of the bad things that happened to people in these stories only happened because they went poking around in the forgotten places of the world that had clearly already welcomed life antithetical to theirs. Just as we insist on wading into waters that we weren’t born for and then complaining that there are sharks; the belief that we have an unassailable right to exist unchallenged in every corner of the planet makes us an entitled species.

Lovecraft is obviously a big fan of Lord Dunsany and several of his more dreamlike works are homages; clumsy ones to begin with, but polished and compelling by the time he reaches ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’, which is likely my favourite work in the whole substantial volume. In a way, I think some of these works reflect a certain lost potential — Lovecraft was seemingly at his best when he wrote from wonder rather than from fear, but he did so much more of the latter. Still, it’s unsurprising that the minds of bigots will be limited by fear.

I think that for the casual reader, this volume might be too complete. Progressing as it does from the earliest stages of Lovecraft’s career, you’re stuck with a good couple hundred pages of his youth’s work, with its stilted prose, lack of subtlety, and painfully overwrought endings. By the time the book reaches the good stuff, I expect a lot of readers would have put it down and wondered why on earth everyone keeps talking about this Cthulhu thing. I’d be more likely to recommend a compact tome of the best Mythos works to most readers, but I’m glad this edition exists for completists like myself, as it was illuminating — albeit sometimes in unfortunate ways — to take in the full scope of his work. I will probably never reread it in its entirety, as there’s too much here that is simply distasteful and of little continued value, but there are many good bits to pick at, and pick at them I shall.

Lovecraft’s most valuable legacy is simply the foundation that he laid upon which so many others have built. There are many excellent Mythos works in the world, and few of them were written by him. I don’t know if that would have pleased him or galled him, but given who he was as a person, I am okay with not caring.

3 stars

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Review: The Magician’s Land (The Magicians #3), by Lev Grossman

The Magician's LandThe first time I read this book, I felt a little bit disappointed with it. I think it’s because it’s something of a disjointed experience; at times, not a lot happens, and at times the things that happen don’t really add up to much. That was true of the first book in the trilogy too, but that had a really strong underlying message, whereas the message here is a lot simpler: Quentin has figured out how to be okay, even in the face of losing everything. He’s got the hang of happiness, even when it’s a muted kind of thing pieced together out of the shards of a broken life. He’s done. The biscuit’s baked.

I appreciated it better on rereading. Quentin’s made a lot of bad choices, and some good ones, but even when he’s made good choices he’s often done it for poor reasons. The good that we do is still good even when we do it with questionable motives, but it’s refreshing to see him actually make hard choices for no reason other than his moral code, and the fact that he’s finally realised that being a hero doesn’t necessarily mean being the star of the show. In the process of letting go of everyone, he might just have figured out how to actually let them in.

It’s also interesting to see Quentin through the eyes of someone younger, to whom he’s a mentor figure. From her perspective, yes he’s kind of a fucked up person, but he’s trying to do something that matters and she’s excited to be a part of it. Because that’s another thing Quentin’s finally grasped: Magic doesn’t hand you purpose, but there’s a thousand good uses it can be put to, so when you’ve been handed this power and responsibility, what kind of difference are you going to decide to make to the world(s)?

The secondary cast got a lot more attention here than in the previous books, and I appreciated the growth. Plum, Quentin’s protégé, is of course new, but manages to squeeze some interesting backstory in, but what I really appreciated was the growth of Eliot and Janet from amusing but damaged lushes into fully realised people. Eliot has found his place, has found a responsibility to gladly shoulder, and it’s one that he’s willing to fight for, albeit in uniquely Eliot ways. Janet lets her icy façade drop for long enough to show us how a sojourn in the desert while Eliot and Quentin were busy saving the world broke and reforged her. It’s surprisingly touching, and it’s a rare instance where I don’t really mind a character serving as exposition fairy.

There are still some issues with the pacing. The flashbacks to Brakebills worked well for me despite narratively just serving as setup, because they show how Quentin has mastered the art of contentment in trying circumstances, but there was honestly far too much detail on the subsequent heist sequence given that we’re never going to see most of the characters from it again. The sudden switch to Fillory and what’s going on with Eliot and Janet is rather jarring as well, and it would have been better if the Fillory stuff had been interwoven with the Earth chapters earlier in the book, and been a bit more spread out.

The one big disappointment that remained for me on rereading was the handling of how Quentin and Alice’s story and Quentin’s loss came full circle. Firstly, I felt it undermined part of the point of the book, and indeed the entire trilogy, which is that there’s no one magical thing — including magic itself — which is going to provide you with happiness. Alice was one of the things that Quentin used to try to fill the holes in himself and in his life, and his loss of her represented the first point at which he started to grasp that lesson, although obviously it took other losses for him to complete that journey. The decision Grossman made about how to conclude that story arc really sapped some of the power from that message for me. Secondly, this storyline was definitely one of the worst victims of the disjointed pacing. In the haste to wrap it up and get back to the Fillory plot, it made magic, and niffins, and the gap between those and the material world feel mundane. This should have been a lengthier story of tentative rediscovery.

So it still has its flaws and I can’t claim to love it quite as much as the previous two books, but I do love it. Taken as a whole, this trilogy is a profound story of depression, escapism, grief, wonder, and adulthood, flavoured with some delicious dark humour. It will remain among my all-time favourites for many years to come.

4 stars

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Review: The Magician King (The Magicians #2), by Lev Grossman

The Magician KingQuentin and his friends have settled into their roles as the kings and queens of Fillory, into lives of indolent purposelessness — it turns out Fillory pretty much runs itself — and the gaping hole of grief left behind by Alice. Quentin, as usual, hunts for ways to fill it, and when you live in a magical land, what better way than a quest? This is a slightly better Quentin than we’re used to though, not yet stripped bare of his entitlement and bad emotional habits, but softened into a more empathetic figure by the reality of loss.

The quest pays its share of homages to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but this time around the story is less concerned with deconstructing our childhood fantasies than it is with gradually robbing Quentin of all of the crutches he’s used to avoid dealing with his depression and grief, and taking responsibility for his actions. Woven between the modern-day Fillory chapters are flashbacks to how Julia fared after her rejection from Brakebills, and her magical education is a blistering contrast to Quentin’s tale of privilege. She fought tooth and nail for every scrap of power and knowledge, and his role in setting her on the path that took so much from her is one of the responsibilities Quentin finally has to acknowledge.

The Magician King is a more fantastical book than the first, and unlike The Magicians we aren’t viewing these fantastical elements solely through the perspective of a clinically depressed protagonist who can’t take any wonder from them, so at times it feels more upbeat than its predecessor. It still doesn’t paint a patina of romance over the fantasy, though. Quests don’t guide you on your way to your happily ever after; quests mean that people die, and it’s neither meaningful nor glorious, it’s just death, and at the end your reward is perhaps to put right what you broke in the first place, to do the right thing even if it takes everything.

I felt the relative lack of character growth in The Magicians was a pretty realistic and solid portrayal of how depressed people function, or don’t as the case may be, but I can understand why it was so frustrating for a lot of readers. The Magician King delivers the payoff. There’s little of the old Quentin left by the time we say goodbye on an almost literal cliffhanger. The premise of the first book is neatly summed up in one of his hard-won realisations:

Everything was chance and nothing was perfect and magic didn’t make you happy, and Quentin had learned to live with it, which it turned out that most people he knew were already doing anyway, and it was time he caught up with them.

Julia still walks the more interesting path of the two, though. It’s funny how the character whose immediate situation after the Brakebills rejection is so deeply fucked up is also, in some ways, the character who has it the most together. She understands that Quentin’s unrequited love for her and any bitterness it engenders is his problem, not hers. She refuses to be gaslit by Brakebills. She understands her own value and potential in the face of crushing circumstances. Her initial magical growth is really hard to watch because in some respects, I wanted to cheer her on for having the strength to repeatedly reject her perceived reality rather than allow a privileged institution’s attempt to assert itself as the sole authority over her future, but it’s more like watching a junkie tear their life apart in search of their next fix than some proud uprising against the Man. She’s a faster learner than Quentin when it comes to understanding that there’s a point where you have to look at your life, say it’s enough, and supply your own happiness, but they both bring about their own tragedies in getting there.

I think for people whose issue with The Magicians was Quentin’s lack of growth and the lack of a counterpoint to his privileged viewpoint, The Magician King would be a substantial improvement. It has a stronger narrative structure, more dark humour, and a more compelling variety of characters whose struggles do a lot to put Quentin’s in perspective. It’s probably still not going to convince you to love the series if you didn’t dig the first book’s commentary on escapism, though. For readers who loved The Magicians as much as I did, The Magician King is a worthy successor that journeys out of the darkness and into the light.

5 stars

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Review: The Magicians (The Magicians #1), by Lev Grossman

The MagiciansThis was my second read of The Magicians, and I approached it with a little trepidation, wondering if I would hold it in the same esteem I did on my first read several years ago. If anything, it has risen in my estimation. It’s not only a thoughtful deconstruction of escapist fantasy, it’s also one of the best depictions of depression I’ve ever read. Let’s tackle those points in order.

I think most people, even those who didn’t go on to love fantasy as adults, grew up on some form of escapist fantasy. For my generation it was Narnia, and I remember disregarding Lewis’s advice and hopping into the wardrobe as a small child just to make sure it wasn’t back there. For the younger generation it’s Harry Potter, probably hanging onto lingering hopes of a late acceptance to Hogwarts. There were plenty of less memorable entries in this field too, and they all had one thing in common: A child who doesn’t quite fit the world around them in the way that most intelligent, bookish children don’t quite fit the world around them, who in suddenly finding that they are the chosen one who gets to rule the magical land or go to the magical school, also gets their problems solved. Magic brings them friends who really get them. Magic somewhat makes up for the loss of a family or the existence of a family who doesn’t really love or understand them by bringing them a community that embraces who they truly are. Magic makes them fit without having to change, at least not in ways that require them to have to take the real world as it is and find a way to belong happily in it anyway.

Quentin Coldwater, our unlikeable protagonist, gets that chosen one fantasy in his acceptance to Brakebills and the discovery that the magic he’s always longed for is real. And it doesn’t fix things. Magic, it turns out, is like anything else in life: You won’t get joy out of it if you don’t put some in, if you don’t tough out the hard and tiring and boring parts for love of the discipline, and it isn’t going to make the problems that stemmed from you in the first place simply disappear. People are still people, and ones with magic aren’t any more accepting or loving or tolerant or capable of filling the holes in your soul. Life is still a big confusing mess, and you still have to decide what your purpose is and make it happen, not just sit back and wait for magic to hand one to you.

And it can be hard to be in Quentin’s head as he struggles with this, and on the cusp of realisation, often seizes onto the next thing that he thinks will hand him a miraculous bundle of happiness: Alice! Fillory! But in the midst of all the fantasy trappings, that’s what makes this book so damn real, because that’s how depression works. In fiction it often doesn’t, because people want to see characters grow along a steady trajectory, so they hit rock bottom, and then get a little better, and a little better, until eventually they’re standing in a good place. But in life? You get a little better, and then a little better, and then you self-sabotage all of your good work and end up in a worse place than you were to start with, and then you get a lot better, but only because you’ve grabbed onto a relationship/job/other temporary fix that won’t actually yield long-term improvement, and then you re-acquaint yourself with rock bottom, and then you get a little better…

And as someone approaching their 20th year of that journey with depression, I can say that yes, it can make us pretty damn unlikeable at times — particularly when you’re still a kid like Quentin and trying to figure out who you even are with this crushing weight on top of you. In addition, one of the ways that Quentin copes is by overachieving, which is not my particular thing but is something I recognise from friends’ experiences, and so he’s one of the smartest people in his mundane school and is preparing for an Ivy League education when Brakebills derails him. Suddenly he has to get used to the fact that he is, if anything, below-average in the community he’s now a part of — he came very close to not even getting into Brakebills, and it’s repeatedly shown how much some of his peers like Alice and Penny outclass him. It’s probably not dissimilar from the experiences of a lot of kids who are the best in their provincial areas and have to adapt to being merely part of the crowd at an Ivy, but when academic accomplishment has been pretty much your sole coping strategy for depression, it’s going to make the kind of impact we see here.

Despite the fact that viewing it through Quentin’s eyes can be a dampener, there’s still something bewitching about the Brakebills experience. While Quentin is in his final year and getting impatient to stretch his wings, I already felt strangely mournful for the place. It’s no Hogwarts, but you know that one day Q will regret not making the most of the years he had there, although maybe he can still grow enough as a person to appreciate all the subtle joys that were strung throughout this confusing and tumultuous time of his life.

That’s not to say that Quentin doesn’t experience any growth, although it’s not until the very end that he finally breaks through a barrier of realisation without backsliding. But there’s much better payoff in that regard to be found in the next two volumes of the trilogy, as well as in highlighting how privileged Quentin’s experience was compared to that of characters like Julia, whom we see just a little of in The Magicians. It might seem odd to call such a depressed character privileged, but many of us enjoy privileges in society (like that of being white, or male, or Christian, or whatever our society has deemed ‘default’) that don’t necessarily go hand in hand with a happy existence, and the fact that Quentin has so little self-awareness of all the things he’s benefitted from is a justifiable source of anger at him — one in which Alice speaks for the reader as she finally snaps at him for not really looking at his perfect life, even as she understands better than most, after seeing her family collapse, how someone like Quentin can get lost inside themselves.

By now we’re on the third season of the television show, which didn’t exist when I last read this book, and it’s a very good adaptation which has adjusted some of my perspectives on the novels. Firstly, the show does a better job of emphasising that Quentin’s emotional state is an actual medical condition, and medical conditions require treatment. It also struck me how very, very white The Magicians is this time around — there isn’t a single person of colour among the novel’s main characters, and the show has done such a brilliant job of diversifying the cast with its excellent choices of actors for Dean Fogg, Penny, Julia, and Janet (renamed Margo in the show) that I found myself substituting them in my mind’s eye, despite Grossman’s descriptions, to make my mental images less painfully uniform. Finally, the Beast is so very much more intimidating on the show, both visually (obscuring your face with a cloud of moths has a bit more impact than hiding it behind a tree branch) and in action, that the book version felt a little anticlimactic on rereading.

This isn’t a comfortable book. It isn’t a good light read with which to while away a cold afternoon. It’s biting and it’s sad and it’s worthy of, almost necessitates, deep thought. It’s also likely to be a difficult read for anyone who needs likeable characters to connect to, because it’s going to take until the subsequent books in the trilogy before Quentin and most of his crew can be described that way (and before we are truly introduced to Julia, who is everything Quentin’s not). But it’s a marvellous piece of fiction, and an all-time favourite that I will come back to again and again. Most of the people I know who’ve read it respond like tasters of Marmite — there is either love or hate, with few reports of indifference. I think if you are interested not just in fantasy, but in taking fantasy apart and seeing why it makes us tick, you may have room to love it.

5 stars

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