Series Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

TheMagicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Viking. 402 pp. 

I remember when The Magicians Land came out and what a big deal it was. I kept seeing it everywhere, described as the conclusion to a bestselling trilogy. And here’s where I lose some nerd cred: I couldn’t remember ever even hearing about the series! A friend of mine recommended them when the first book was released, and I must’ve forgotten to write it down or something. (I only realized that he recommended it because of those “On This Day” things on Facebook a few months ago.) So I’m not the best friend. Or the best reader. And yet somehow I managed to find my way back to this series.

I scored a paperback copy of the third book at BEA and set it aside for future reading. Then, a couple of months later, I found a copy of the first book at Now and Then, my third-favorite used bookstore (second only to The Strand, which I feel doesn’t really count because it’s sort of its own category at this point, and Arcadian Books, which has an excellent selection and a kind proprietor and poses the added benefit of being located in the French Quarter). I figured that owning the first and third installments meant it was high time that I gave this series a shot. A hundred pages into The Magicians, I discovered two things: syfy was going to release a series based on the books, and my local library didn’t own a copy of the sequel. I promptly placed a request via interlibrary loan and decided to stay away from the TV series until I’d finished the books. (I’ve since watched the trailer and the pilot, and I’m almost inclined to stay away from the show entirely. It looks like they’re trying to have a hit — making it cutesy and trendy — instead of sticking to the books. However, Hank Green is obsessed with it, so I’ll give it another shot. We tend to like similar stuff.)

Sadly, the interlibrary loan took three weeks to come through, so I did something unthinkable: I stopped reading The Magicians halfway through because I didn’t want to wait if there was a cliffhanger ending. Then I flew through the first two and a half books, slowing down halfway through the third because I didn’t want it to be over.

This series is magic. Pure magic. And I’m not just saying that because it’s quite literally about magicians. I enjoyed the idea of magical ability as a hot commodity, practiced and protected by a select few. (Side note: I want to go to Brakebills! Magical grad school? Yes, please!) Any book about magic is about power struggles, but these books’ portrayal of that war is one of the best I’ve seen. The blend of high fantasy and modernity, the almost-winking references to other popular fantasy works, the way that old characters come back just when you thought you’d never hear from them again…I can’t say enough positive things. I guess the best thing I can say is that I bought a copy of the first book for a friend as a Christmas gift; that’s pretty much the highest endorsement I can give, right?

The world-building is intense. I mean, there are so many different worlds — and they all feel different without overwhelming the reader. None of the characters is terribly likable — except maybe Josh (and Eliot?) — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’ve got a lot going on over the course of the books, and they all grow and develop into entirely new people. It’s not a trilogy that spans six months, either; it takes place over about a dozen years, so there are many happenings and many chances for the characters to “become.”

Before I finish this raving, all-over-the-place review, I want to share my favorite passage with you. It’s from the final ten pages of the final book, but it won’t spoil anything for you. It’s just…well, this is what my life as a reader has been like. These words hit me hard.

“This is a feeling that you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.

“Years later you went to Fillory, and the Fillory you found was a much more difficult, complicated place than you expected. The Fillory you dreamed of as a little boy wasn’t real, but in some ways it was better and purer than the real one. That hopeful little boy you once were was a tremendous dreamer. He was clever, too, but if you ever had a special gift, it was that.”

Quentin nodded — he couldn’t quite talk yet. He felt full of love for that little boy he’d once been, innocent and naive, as yet unscuffed and unmarred by everything that was to come. He was such a ridiculous, vulnerable little person, with so many strenuous disappointments and wonders ahead of him. Quentin hadn’t thought of him in years.

He wasn’t that boy anymore, that boy was lost long ago. He’d become a man instead, one of those crude, weather-beaten, shopworn things, and he’d almost forgotten he’d ever been anything else — he’d had to forget, to survive growing up. But now he wished he could reassure that child and take care of him. He wished he could tell him that none of it was going to turn out anything like the way he hoped, but that everything was going to be all right anyway. It was hard to explain, but he would see.

I don’t know. Maybe that doesn’t make you cry, but I’ve read it three times and it’s made my eyes tear every time. The hope of magic existing in the world can do wonders for a lonely kid who feels like he (or she) doesn’t fit quite right. And that, in itself, is its own kind of magic.

All in all: Highly recommended. One of the best series I’ve ever read; it finishes just as strong as it starts. Buy it. Now.

Blog Tour: Without Light or Guide (Los Nefilim #2) by T. Frohock

Hello, and welcome! Today I’m kicking off the blog tour for T. Frohock’s Without Light or Guide, sequel to In Midnight’s Silence.

Without Light or Guide cover

Without Light or Guide by T. Frohock. Harper Voyager Impulse. 128 pp.

The fate of mankind has nothing to do with mankind…

Always holding themselves aloft from the affairs of mortals, Los Nefilim have thrived for eons. But with the Spanish Civil War looming, their fragile independence is shaken by the machinations of angels and daimons…and a half-breed caught in-between.

For although Diago Alvarez has pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim, there are many who don’t trust his daimonic blood. And with the re-emergence of his father—a Nefil who sold his soul to a daimon—the fear is Diago will soon follow the same path.

Yet even as Diago tries to prove his allegiance, events conspire that only fuel the other Nefilim’s suspicions—including the fact that every mortal Diago has known in Barcelona is being brutally murdered.

The second novella in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, Without Light or Guide continues Diago’s journey through a world he was born into, yet doesn’t quite understand.

MyReview

I have lots of reading rules that I abide by: if you like an ebook or library book enough, buy a hard copy for your collection; buy your favorite authors’ works on release day to support them and make sure their publishers sign them for more and more books; don’t dog-ear the pages; read the book before seeing the movie; and don’t read a series out of order. Of course, I break these rules sometimes, but reallllly rarely. I watched season one of Game of Thrones before reading the books, and I’m glad I did, because it got me interested enough to pick up them up (their page count alone could have easily seen them sitting on my TBR for years like the Wheel of Time series).

When I was asked to participate in this blog tour, I knew the featured book was a sequel. Sometimes I’ll ask a publicist to send the first book as well so I can read the series in order, but things have been busy lately, so jumping in at book two would have to do this time around. The author did something wonderful, though: she included an author’s note at the beginning that summarized the important characters and plot points of the first book, both as a refresher for returning readers and an entry point for new ones. I’d never seen this done before and was overwhelmed by it at first; I felt like I was cramming for a test and worried that I wouldn’t be able to remember everything while reading. But the note was informative without being overly long, and it made my experience with the sequel almost effortless. I was skeptical, but it was an enormous help, and it didn’t get in the way of the narrative at all.

Without Light or Guide is a great story; so much is packed into its brief page count that you’ll never believe that you read a little over a hundred pages and got an entire tale out of the experience. It’s a combination of fantasy and historical fiction (although the dialogue seems a bit modern), and the supernatural characters are human enough to make the reader forget at times who is an angel or daimon and who is not. This makes the characters’ lives in the real world believable.

The themes are both ancient and modern: love, trust, judgment, family, loyalty, and hunger for power. These themes are present in many works of fiction, but Frohock presents them in a story that is entirely new (at least, to me; I’ve never read anything like this before).

All in all: An entertaining, interesting story with direct, economic writing. If you already enjoy supernatural fiction and are looking for a quick read, check it out. And if you don’t typically read this genre, it’s a great way to get a taste for it without having to commit to a large page count!

OtherInfo

About the author: T. Frohock has turned her love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She currently lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. Check out more of her works and news at www.tfrohock.com.

OtherTourStops

Wednesday, December 2nd: Kahakai Kitchen

Thursday, December 3rd: 100 Pages a Day…Stephanie’s Book Reviews

Monday, December 7th: Bibliotica

Tuesday, December 8th: Dreams, Etc.

Wednesday, December 9th: A Book Geek

Thursday, December 10th: A Dream Within a Dream

Monday, December 14th: From the TBR Pile

Tuesday, December 15th: Raven Haired Girl

Wednesday, December 16th: Dwell in Possibility

Thursday, December 17th: Curling Up by the Fire

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Review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire

After Alice by Gregory Maguire. William Morrow. 256 pp.

After Alice by Gregory Maguire. William Morrow. 256 pp.

From the multi-million-copy bestselling author of Wicked comes a magical new twist on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis’s Carroll’s beloved classic

When Alice toppled down the rabbit-hole 150 years ago, she found a Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But what of that world? How did 1860s Oxford react to Alice’s disappearance?

In this brilliant new work of fiction, Gregory Maguire turns his dazzling imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings — and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll’s enduring tale. Ada, a friend of Alice’s mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is off to visit her friend, but arrives a moment too late — and tumbles down the rabbit hole herself. 

Ada brings to Wonderland her own imperfect apprehension of cause and effect as she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and see her safely home from this surreal world below the world. If Euridyce can ever be returned to the arms of Orpheus, or Lazarus can be raised from the tomb, perhaps Alice can be returned to life. Either way, everything that happens next is “After Alice.”

I’ve got a couple of Gregory Maguire books sitting on my shelf but haven’t read a single one yet; I keep saving them for a rainy day and getting distracted by other books. He wrote a moving, arm-hair-raising introduction to My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, and I’ve been looking forward to reading his fiction. So you can imagine my reaction when I heard that his next book was an Alice in Wonderland spinoff and that he was signing at BEA; it was one of the must-attend events on my schedule. However…I got stuck in over an hour and a half of traffic on the way to BEA and didn’t arrive in time to get a ticket for his signing. Later in the day, I saw a small pile of books on the ground at the Penguin Random House booth and asked a rep if I could take a copy of each. And that’s how I nabbed this ARC (along with an advance copy of Geraldine Brooks’s upcoming novel, The Secret Chord).

I had no idea what to expect from After Alice because the back cover merely displays a couple of paragraphs of text from the book (I found the above summary on Goodreads later). I figured it would take place after Alice had visited (and returned from) Wonderland. But it’s actually a sort of parallel narrative, following Alice’s neighbor Ada as she falls into Wonderland — you guessed it — after Alice.

Since having kids (and thereby finding myself with far less reading time), I’ve become a wholehearted proponent of the DNF (Did Not Finish). When I was younger, I would finish a book 99% of the time; I couldn’t bear to not see a story through, even if I was hating it. Now, though, I give it fifty pages, and if I’m still miserable, I jump ship. “Life’s too short to read bad books,” I often tell my husband. And then I immediately feel guilty for calling a book a “bad book” just because I didn’t like it or because it wasn’t for me at that point in my life. Still, though, I have far less free time lately and won’t muddle through something if I’m feeling like my time is being wasted.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that I almost didn’t finish this book. It took some time to get things moving, and I couldn’t see how the multiple plot lines would connect or why I should care about them. As time went by, though, I began to enjoy Ada as a character and was delighted by how different her experiences in Wonderland were than Alice’s. If you know Carroll’s Wonderland, you’ll find just enough of it here to make things similar without becoming boring. The Duchess is here, and the Mad Tea Party, and the White Queen and the White Knight, among others…but they interact with Ada differently than they do with Alice, and this is a story all its own.

I was delighted by the adventure and loopy logic, but also by the historic aspects. Ada’s journey to Wonderland doesn’t occur in a vacuum; there are people back in Oxford searching for her, and their stories and societal roles allow this to border on being a historic novel as well. Maguire examines the ideas of restraint and propriety, and how the levels of each differ depending on one’s lot in life, from clergy and governesses to escaped slaves and physically disabled children. Throughout the course of the day, the characters find freedom in various unexpected places, some aboveground and some below. I loved witnessing the breathing room that they found when routines were shifted and the shackles of polite society loosened a bit.

The only thing about this book that caused it to fall a bit short for me is how randomly-placed some of the asides are. There’s a thought-provoking examination of the effects of a town’s architecture on the sort of literature its residents produce, which I loved reading, but it takes place at the beginning of a chapter following the housekeeper, Mrs. Brummidge. It’s almost as if these thoughts are hers, but they’re clearly not because her character is far more straightforward and industrious than pensive. It’s almost as if the narrator (or Maguire himself? I’m not sure) is sprinkling his own thoughts here and there. They’re bright thoughts, but the way they fit into the narrative was a little shaky for me.

All in all: There’s a lot going on here, lots of food for thought as well as entertainment, and I ended up loving this book much more than I expected. Can’t wait to add it to my Alice shelf (which is overflowing…).

Summer Reading List: Fantasy

Next installment is a bit late; sorry about that. (The next one could be even later since I could go into labor any day now. We’ll see how this pans out!) Most of these books are ones that I selected, not ones that were given to me for review, and I really enjoyed them.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Roc. 212 pp.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Roc. 212 pp.

I bought this one when Borders was still alive and well, and it sat on my shelf for years before I got around to it. How many years? Well, the pages have started to yellow. :-/ I loved the animated film as a child and still watch it every few years or so. There’s something about unicorns that’s always pierced my heart; they’re beautiful, imperial, and pure, and I love thinking that they exist. (Please don’t rain on my parade…) Peter S. Beagle’s writing is just right for this tale: it’s beautiful and poignant and it made me want to kick myself for waiting so long to experience this treasure. It’s worth a re-read for sure.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Harper. 434 pp.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Harper. 434 pp.

This was a Goodreads First Reads win. I’m not sure that I’ll rush out to buy the sequel the second it hits stores, but I’m interested in reading it, which is more than I can say for the start of some series. Here’s what I liked most about this book: the heroine isn’t rendered differently because she’s a girl. Kelsea is plain, overweight, and (by the end of the book) scarred. She’s not perfect — not stunningly beautiful for no reason — and she becomes more “weathered” as she learns to fight and defend herself. The problems that she faces are real and complicated; there’s not much that’s pretty about this book, and I love that. Plus, there’s an invasion scene that made me heart leap up into my throat. Worth reading.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Anchor. 512 pp.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Anchor. 512 pp.

Can this be made into a film, and can Baz Luhrman please please please be the one to do it? He’d be perfect: he creates the lushest, richest images, and he knows how to work the whole star-crossed-lovers thing. I love stories about magic when they’re done well, and this one really was done well. The tricks, the characters, and the quandary…it was wonderful. My only complaint is that Le Cirque des Rêves doesn’t actually exist. (I have a suggestion for that one, too: Punchdrunk, please bring this circus to life! I’d pay good money to see that.) I’ll admit that I found the love story to be laid on a bit thick at times, but the circus saved the book for me. I could lose myself there for days. I’d say it’s worth reading if you like magic; if you don’t, you might want to spend your time elsewhere.

Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. Doubleday. 384 pp.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. Doubleday. 384 pp.

In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.

Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .

Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads,The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.


I requested this book because the description compared it to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which I loved. I’m a huge fan of books about books (and/or the English language), but I tried not to set my hopes too high to avoid being disappointed. I needn’t have worried about that. This book was very, very good. It’s not exactly like Penumbra — I wouldn’t want it to be — but its tone of reverence toward words and the search for knowledge is similar.

Like all good dystopian novels, this one is terrifying because of how closely it reflects the direction in which we’re headed. In the book, a Meme (a sort of futuristic smartphone-esque device) can anticipate a user’s desires before she actually gives it a command (e.g., a Meme will hail you a cab as soon as you mentally make the decision to take one). The other day, I opened the “Maps” application on my iPhone and was shocked to see that it had imported addresses from my most recent communications. It’s like my phone was saying, “Your friend sent you his address in Syracuse so you could mail him a Christmas gift. Are you trying to find directions to his house? Or maybe to your brother’s address, which he texted to you last week?” It was unsettling to think that my phone was anticipating my needs, but I was more impressed than suspicious. In The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon takes things a step or two further; her technological creations actually sync with their users’ genetic makeup, so it’s hard to tell where the device ends and the user begins. Who is really in charge then? And how far are we from this?

I don’t mean to sound alarmist or paranoid, because I’m not. I realize that this is a work of fiction. However, you do have to admit that we’ve already sacrificed a large amount of personal privacy in technology’s name. And then there’s the whole language factor. You don’t realize how much you rely on language until you watch people lose it. It’s frightening to imagine a world like the one Anana finds herself in; what’s scarier is how close we already are. I doubt we’ll ever find ourselves at that point, but I am curious to see how close we finally come.

The book consists of twenty six “chapters,” each one headed with a dictionary entry (alphabetically, of course). Some of the definitions are traditional, some are directly related to the plot, and some are made up — a testament to the ever-changing nature of words. At just under 400 pages, the book isn’t short, but I couldn’t put it down. I kept telling myself, “One more letter before bed,” but that didn’t go so well for me.

All in all: The nerdiest — and by far most interesting — thriller I’ve read. Well written, smart, and compelling. To find all three of those in one book is rare.

Review: The Journeys of a Different Necromancer by James J. Crofoot

JourneysOfADifferentNecromancer

Thomas wanted to learn to read and write, things only Xavier the Necromancer could teach. But Thomas learned much more. He learned to raise the dead. Then, with his knowledge, he set out for the distant sea. Along the way, he made an army, encountered a dragon, and fought thieves by the score. But, could he continue to use the knowledge Xavier gave? Could he hold to his teacher’s views that all people were self-centered, greedy, and jealous of him for being so much better? Could he return to the obsidian tower to live a life where the world was locked out, where his teacher had kept all life away to simply be left alone? Where no one ridiculed and beat him for being different? Could he return to a life where only the undead, his risen, kept him company?

Let’s start with the positives, shall we? The scenes with action and suspense move smoothly and simply. The author makes battles happen swiftly, and it’s easy for the reader to understand what’s going on without too much unnecessary description. The book is based on an interesting premise, and I was looking forward to examining the themes of isolation versus civilization and the selfishness that is rampant in the world.

The Journeys of a Different Necromancer contains many elements of a great fantasy story: a young and underprivileged hero, an aging mentor, travel to distant lands, magical powers, and dragons. However, they’re all touched upon briefly before jumping quickly to the next thing in a rush to make them all fit into 80 pages. I felt like I never got to know any of their characters — not even the protagonist — as well as I would have liked.

The description for this book gives a great summary of the questions running through Thomas’s mind. However, the book itself doesn’t give the reader any insight into these things. If I hadn’t read the description, I wouldn’t have known that Thomas was going through so much of an internal struggle. Sometimes you can tell enough about a character from his speech and actions, and you don’t need things to be spelled out for you. I usually use Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” as an example of this; with the exception of the final scene, that entire story takes place between the lines, and it’s brilliant. However, it takes a great amount of skill to pull something like that off, and most writers need to explain somewhere. This novella doesn’t examine Thomas’s struggles anywhere near enough. Any time we start to get a glimpse into his soul, we’re yanked off on another adventure.

To be honest, this reads more like a first draft than a finished work. There are numerous errors — mostly grammatical ones — and there’s one character whose name is spelled differently on different pages (Cedric vs. Cedrick, each of which appears at least twice and both of which refer to the same man, could have been easily caught in one round of edits).

All in all: Contains an interesting premise and has promise but still needs work. I hate to say that about something that’s already been published, but it’s true. However…if you’re looking for a quick fantasy story and don’t mind a whirlwind presentation, you might enjoy this. There’s lots of action and adventure, and if you read for that rather than cleanness of writing, you may enjoy yourself in this world.

Review: Montaro Caine by Sidney Poitier

MontaroCaine

Montaro Caine by Sidney Poitier. 320 pp. Spiegel & Grau.

Disclosure time: I recognized Sidney Poitier’s name when I started reading this book, but I had no idea who he was. Didn’t even know he was an actor. Terrible, I know, considering his many accomplishments. I guess I could use the excuse that he was before my time, which he most certainly was, but I think it’s good to know a little bit about the culture of many decades, not just my own. (This is especially important because…well, have you seen some of the swill this generation has produced?) I’m glad that reading Poitier’s (first) novel gave me the opportunity to learn a bit more about him. Also…I know age doesn’t terribly matter, but I find it vastly admirable that he decided to pursue this new avenue in such a late season of his life. I hope that I don’t spend my later years resigned to “doing what I’ve always done” and am brave enough to venture out and do anything that I haven’t gotten around to yet.

Anyway. About the book. Montaro Caine is about the title character and his search to discover the origins of two mysterious coins. The elemental composition of these coins is unlike anything he has ever seen before, and he quickly becomes absorbed in a quest to uncover as much information about them as he can. (Fortunately for him, he is the CEO of a company whose resources are at his disposal.) As murmurings about these strange coins reach other scientists, collectors, and thieves, everyone wants to get their hands on them. What follows is a story of intrigue, deception, and suspense with a dash of family struggles and personal growth.

There are many great things about this book. For starters, Montaro Caine is a great protagonist because he isn’t perfect, but he is noble. I enjoyed watching him figure out his place in the world. The writing is clean and efficient. Also, Poitier is a good storyteller: there are so many characters in this novel, and their stories intertwine so often, that it has the potential to become dizzying and confusing. But it doesn’t; Poitier manages his web masterfully. Transitions between scenes and locations are smooth, and it’s fairly easy to keep everyone straight. This is no easy feat. Also, although the book is very slow to start, once the action picks up it flows right along and sweeps the reader up in its swift current. I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.

Okay, negative time. I didn’t do this on purpose, I swear, but my complaint with this book is exactly the same as my primary complaint with the last book I reviewed: it gets too teachy-and-preachy for me. I love it when good prevails, but I hate having to be told, “Good is winning over evil. Do you see? These characters are coming out ahead because they are good. And they have love. And integrity of intention.” I’d rather an implicit moral than an explicit one.

That being said, I still think this book is worth a read. It’s good. I just wanted a stronger ending.