Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Report: Fantasy Realms

First, happy Doctor Who Day! On this date in 1963, the very first episode of Doctor Who premiered.

I kicked off my Thanksgiving week last night by rewatching the "Turkeys Away" episode of WKRP. That has to be on the list not only of best Thanksgiving episodes or specials ever but also the funniest half hours of television ever. "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly." I still remember when that first aired and I was worried that my dad was going to stop breathing from laughing so hard.

And now, a book report. Normally, I don't do critical reviews of books -- in either sense of the word. I figure that there isn't enough time to talk about all the good books, so why waste time discussing a book I wouldn't recommend? And because of that, I don't really get into in-depth analysis of books. I talk about and recommend books because I figure that people who like the books I write might like some of the books I read, and the discussion pretty much amounts to enough about the plot so you can decide whether or not it sounds interesting, plus what I like about it.

I'm going to make an exception today because I'm dealing with a book that I think might be of interest to my readers but that I can't just recommend, and explaining why it might be of interest and why it may not be what you think it will be requires being critical in the analytical sense, which may involve being negative in places. But I figure that this isn't an author I'm likely to run into, and since the book got the Big Book treatment, the author has experienced enough truly critical (in both senses of the word) reviews that me not being overwhelmingly positive isn't going to make him cry, even if he isn't so bombarded with enough media attention that he still bothers to have Google alerts set up.

The book in question is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Essentially, it's Harry Potter meets Narnia, so you can see why it might be of interest to my readers. To sort of sum up the plot, it's about a bright teenager in Brooklyn who gets sidetracked on his way to his admissions interview for Princeton and ends up going through the entrance exams for what turns out to be a magical college. Ever since he was a kid, he's been obsessed with a series of Narnia-like fantasy novels, and learning that magic is real and going to a magical school is like a dream come true. Life after school turns out to be not so magical, but then one of his friends discovers that those books were actually based on fact, and he finds the way to travel to that magical world.

Except that's not really what the book is about, and if that's what you're reading it for, you'll likely be disappointed. It's not so much a fantasy novel as it is a literary novel that makes use of fantasy tropes to explore a particular approach to life. The first big clue is that describing the plot doesn't actually give a sense of what the book's about -- a sign of a literary novel. Then there's the pacing. There's no real "plot" to speak of, with little conflict or action until late in the novel. The first two-thirds are about the time in school -- think the Harry Potter books without any of the Voldemort stuff, just the going to classes and hanging out with friends stuff -- with just one appearance by the bad guy to hint at the fact that there is something dangerous out there but otherwise with no sense of building toward a threat. Then there's a Bright Lights, Big City style interlude where the newly minted magicians deal with the boredom of the real world by doing drugs and having sex. And then finally, in the last quarter of the book, we gear up to go to the fantasy world and face the bad guys.

But I think the big thing that keeps this from being a fantasy novel is that, as a fantasy, it's incredibly derivative. The author barely bothers to file off the serial numbers of the books he's building on, and it's all based on a fairly superficial reading of the books. In fact, it's almost like his familiarity with the Harry Potter series is from seeing the movies and like he's only just heard of the Narnia books without actually having read them, or perhaps not having read them since childhood. The school is essentially Hogwarts on the Hudson. It's a college instead of a secondary school, but that mostly seems to be so there can be more drinking and sex, but otherwise the kids have to wear school uniforms like something out of a British boarding school (why I say it's based on the Harry Potter movies rather than books because in the books they wear robes, not boarding school uniforms). The students are divided into Disciplines, like majors, based on an assessment of skills, but they also hang out primarily with other people in their Discipline and even have their own clubhouses and compete in a sport that's like a more athletic magical chess against the other Disciplines. The main character even has a best friend who's the smartest girl in the class and something of a magical prodigy who has learned a lot of the spells already before the first day of classes. This book doesn't do anything original with the Harry Potter trope. Because the school is a pastiche of British boarding schools, the book doesn't explore the possibilities inherent in American magic or in the higher education of magic. Every so often a character will make a Harry Potter reference, almost as if to make sure we know that the similarities are intentional.

Then the "Narnia" books are barely disguised. They involve a family of British kids who travel into a magical land by going through the cabinet of a grandfather clock, the land is ruled by godlike twin rams, and the kids become kings and queens in this land. There's nothing about this world that really differentiates itself from Narnia or that's at all unique in the fantasy genre. The reason I doubt the author was a real Narnia fan is that the kids are surprised when they go to "Narnia" and find that it's a scary, dangerous place, not the cute magical land from the books. Narnia was never a safe place in the books. Even the "cute" talking animals turned out to be dangerous.

I'd think that any fantasy editor would demand more originality from the fantasy elements, as would most fantasy readers. That leads me to believe that this wasn't meant as a fantasy, but rather was using culturally familiar fantasy touchstones to tell a different kind of story. That story is somewhat interesting as it explores the clash between fantasy and reality, and how even a fantasy-like reality can't live up to an imaginary fantasyland from childhood. There's a cynical part of me that wonders if the message is supposed to be that reading fantasy novels is bad for kids because fantasy establishes unrealistic expectations about life, and you're better off reading "realistic" books where bad things happen to people and magic isn't real. If you're familiar with the fantasy tropes, it makes for a coming-of-age/ennui of the modern world novel that's more interesting than most, but if you're reading it as a fantasy novel and wanting to explore what it might be like for a recently graduated magician to find his way to the fantasy world of his childhood and really have to deal with it, then you'll have to wait for me to figure out a way to steal the idea and do it right without it being obvious that's what I'm doing.

1 comment:

Hope said...

I had similar feelings about this book. It could have been so much more interesting. I had a very hard time caring about Quentin, since so much time was spent on showing his ennui, and not much on showing why I should want him to get over it.
And it was incredibly derivative.