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

February 5, 2018

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

Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff

February 5, 2018

Fire and FuryIn the interconnected world of 2018, it’s difficult not to be invested in American politics even if you are, like myself, non-American. Most of us have friends and loved ones who are Americans or live in America, and we care about things like them having affordable healthcare and being able to go to the cinema without being gunned down by radical white terrorists. Then there’s America’s nuclear arsenal, which, while not much of a concern under someone as level-headed as Obama, starts to look a bit worrying when the nuclear codes are passed on to someone with the grace and self-restraint of a spoilt toddler whose last piece of birthday cake just got smashed on the floor.

So, even though we’d really rather spend our free time on more fun things than thinking about Donald Trump, like shoving hot needles under our nails, I joined in with the many non-Americans in my circle of friends who had to read this book.

I held fire for a few days while I waited to see what level of credibility to lend the book. To start with, Michael Wolff has more credibility than most of Trump’s administration (a bar admittedly set so low that an ant couldn’t limbo under it), with a background of writing for respectable publications like the Guardian, and personal testimonies that while he’s not necessarily a nice person — being willing to cross lines about what’s on and off record that some reporters consider more sacred — he is one who brings the receipts. So far, the response to the book leaves me inclined to consider it a relatively trustworthy account. While some people, most infamously Steve Bannon, have apologised for what they said in the interviews with Wolff, there have been no real denials of its content, and eyewitness accounts of Wolff’s level of White House access and the veracity of conversations such as the Bannon-Ailes dinner with which the book opens.

The picture that Fire and Fury paints is not a surprising one, if you’ve been attentive to the last 12 months of media coverage, but the ungilded truth in its entirety is a pretty nauseating thing to behold. Donald Trump isn’t merely the stupid and amoral person he comes across as in his tweetstorms and what might charitably be described as speeches. He appears to be possessed of severe mental deficits. He does not read, not even one-page briefings, and has several of his own staff convinced that he is at best semi-literate. If something needs to be brought to his attention, White House advisors have to find a way to present it to him in a visual format that won’t take too long or offer him too many facts that might bore him and cause him to switch off, as he does even in meetings with other world leaders. Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria utterly disinterested him — and he grew quite annoyed at people constantly bringing it up with him as though he were supposed to care — until Ivanka made him a video consisting mostly of footage of Syrian children foaming at the mouth.

He displays many signs that will ring a bell for people familiar with the early stages of dementia, such as oddly-directed paranoia — his terrible diet of fast food is allegedly because he uses food that was prepared before anyone knew he was coming to avoid poison — and constant, worsening repetition of the same stories. His address to the CIA upon the confirmation of its new director is something that has to be beheld in detached print in order to fully appreciate the diseased nature of the mind from which it sprang.

What’s truly impressive, in the way that a train derailment or plane crash is ‘impressive’, is how utterly he has disabled the normal structure of Washington despite barely understanding it. If he had instituted a proper chain of command underneath him, then perhaps the gears of government could still turn despite being presided over by the court jester, but instead he has created an environment where people without official job titles are in charge of the same things as people with traditional positions in the command structure, and therefore no one is in charge of anything. Trump’s White House is a warped popularity contest in which advisors have to try to compete for his incredibly limited attention span (after watering down whatever they wish to convey enough for his simplistic understanding), when they aren’t attempting to wrest parts of their job function back out from the grasping claws of whichever West Wing faction opposes them. At the time of writing it seems the West Wing was largely split into the Bannonite and Jarvanka factions, but with Bannon having fallen out of Trump’s graces as all non-family members eventually do, who knows where the fault lines lie at this point?

Because one wonders why anyone who isn’t a Trump or married to one would ever take a job in this White House. Everyone will fall out of Trump’s favour, it is abundantly clear. Everyone. Because Trump redefines incompetence, things will continue to go wrong for him, but he is incapable of even comprehending the idea of taking responsibility for those failures, ergo there will always need to be a rolling road of scapegoats on whose shoulders the blame can be placed before they are disposed of, leaving Trump to spring unhindered back into the belief that he is a very stable genius who is doing a fabulous job and just keeps being let down by his gosh-darn awful team.

At times the depths of his ignorance are so profound that it’s almost tempting to ascribe a level of innocence — although he clearly needs to be removed from office, maybe we shouldn’t hold someone entirely responsible for what comes out of their mouth when they’re clearly in the early stages of dementia? — but those temptations are soon enough quashed by gems like this, reminders of his sleazy and deeply amoral personality that go back decades:

Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise… And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.

Unfortunately, it appears that someone in the White House wised up (relatively speaking) and revoked Wolff’s access prior to the Russia investigation getting particularly interesting. It’s around that point that the book turns from a nuanced look at the interior runnings of the White House, drawn from many sources, to a fairly one-note presentation of Steve Bannon’s every thought, flavoured with a bit of bitterness from Katie Walsh. Although I would suppose it became difficult to get other sources at this point, Wolff indulges Bannon a bit too much in providing a platform for his remarkable hyperbole. Mike Pence is also largely absent from the book, with one of the few mentions of him being of what a tight ship his staff run compared to the utter mess of Trump’s staff; I guess they were seasoned enough to be comparatively unwilling to leak, but it does give an impression — a thoroughly false one, I’d wager — of the VP as off in his own innocent little land.

It’s understandable, given the time-sensitive nature of the book, that editing wasn’t as thorough as I would normally expect of political non-fiction. I can forgive things such as Steve Bannon making a ‘pubic appearance’, despite the mental image that absolutely no one wanted, and despite the intense public scrutiny, few factual errors have so far been highlighted (misidentifying a person who was at the Four Seasons at the same time as Ivanka is the only one I’ve seen that isn’t a typo or misspelling, but given it’s not someone she actually spoke to, it’s hardly damning). However, even as a person who loves to abuse a subclause, I have a difficult time parsing sentences like this:

In nearby Alexandria, Virginia, Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, which is sometimes described as a “white supremacist think tank,” who had, peskily for the White House, adopted the Trump presidency as a personal victory, was organizing his trip to CPAC, which would be as much a victory march for him as it was for the Trump team.

Please stop torturing the commas. They’re your friends.

Whatever its technical faults, the first three-quarters of Fire and Fury should be one of the most important publications of 2018. I cannot imagine a book this damning being released about a British, or Canadian, or Australian leader which would not significantly impact their ability to stay in office. Unfortunately, due to the structure of the American political system and the incredibly polarised nature of its current voter base, it’s unlikely to have the impact that it ought. The people who need to read it will not; the people who are reading it already know it. And, as the book itself highlights, everyone working with Trump is already painfully aware that Trump is not competent to fill the office and should be removed via 25th amendment — but he won’t be, because Trumpism has grown beyond its imbecilic founder, and there’s no shortage of people who think they can continue to work his strings without getting burned by the fire and the fury.

3 stars

Review: The Fall of the Readers (The Forbidden Library #4), by Django Wexler

February 5, 2018

The Fall of the ReadersWith Geryon trapped in the Infinite Prison, Alice has marshalled the other apprentices and the library creatures at his estate to fight back against the old Readers. Even with the aid of Ending to push back the Readers’ creatures who invade through the Library, they are hard pressed to hold their ground, and Alice knows it’s only a matter of time before attrition takes its toll. Together, she and Ending concoct a plan for Alice to seek the Great Binding that holds at bay a creature who could destroy the Labyrinthines, which the Readers use to keep them under their thumb. If Alice can take control of the Great Binding herself, she can free the Labyrinthines from the Readers’ influence and take away the source of their power. But if she isn’t powerful enough to hold the binding, she’ll die, dooming magical society to live under the Readers’ cruel ways — and in the quiet of her mind, the Dragon’s voice warns her that his sister cannot be blindly trusted…

When The Palace of Glass was the first book in the series to feel like it really had forward momentum, I worried that trying to wrap this story up in only four books was going to feel very rushed. I’m happy to say that Wexler pulled it off better than I expected, although The Palace of Glass remains the series’s peak.

Alice has been a weak point throughout, with her stunted emotional range, but in The Fall of the Readers (these passive titles are making me twitch) this is much improved. She wrestles with the leadership role she’s been thrust into and the fact that making battlefield decisions means taking charge of lives, some percentage of which, no matter how well you command, are going to be snuffed out. There are some revelations about Alice’s history that perhaps also make her earlier emotional detachment feel earned, and are cleverly foreshadowed, such that I was a little ashamed not to catch the twist until just before its reveal!

The secondary cast also remains delightful, but didn’t get quite as much opportunity to shine as in The Mad Apprentice and The Palace of Glass. I felt a little too much time was devoted to the fairly bland Isaac and the flourishing of the romantic connection that’s been hinted at throughout the series, which isn’t something I’m really interested in seeing with children this young, and I would rather have had a little more Dex or something instead. Ashes still gets to dominate the show with his wonderful prissiness and snark, though.

A complaint I levelled at the first couple of books was the lack of truly fantastical elements given the premise. This was something The Palace of Glass did a great job of addressing, with its fire sprites and haughty turtles and the general feeling that the Library was attached to whole worlds, not just set pieces. I guess the fourth book is a little bit of a step back in that regard, because it has to keep up quite a pace and there’s not as much time to make the weird and wonderful things it visits feel as alive as places like the fire sprite world, but it’s still a significant improvement on the first two, with moments such as dancing skeletons on alien landscapes and inventive fights against rock elementals.

In the end, Wexler did an impressive job of wrapping up all the loose ends. I really expected to be hankering after a fifth and maybe even a sixth book to feel like things had been properly wrapped up, but it turned out not to be needed, and I set The Fall of the Readers down content that all I need to see of Alice’s story has been told. I might wish he had taken a slightly different route getting there, one that allowed a deeper appreciation of all of the colourful places that the Library could take us, but I’m pretty content to be left without questions, just satisfaction. I think there might be room for other stories in this world, perhaps to see what kind of society the next generations ended up with, but I’d be equally okay with the author just leaving it here and going on to explore other things. The series as a whole was a fun, light read that recovered well from its early flaws, and I’m looking forward to checking out Wexler’s adult fantasy series.

4 stars

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