The Magician’s Land

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The concluding (is it?) volume in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy begins rather shakily. While book one was fresh at the time, the seams are now all too apparent: Grossman’s take on ‘modernising’ grand old fantasy is to have a bunch of modern snarky teens who drink, swear, have sex and generally behave badly.

Behind it all sits the wise-ass author, inserting inappropriate remarks and comments about just how ridiculous all this magic crap really is. While expecting us to believe and shed a quiet tear at the sheer wonder of it all. Nudge, wink.

I did not have high hopes for book three, after the tepid second volume, and especially as the story picks up with Quentin back where it all began, in Brakebills. Was Grossman simply going to recycle the whole story again, from the perspective of an older and wiser Quentin?

Yes and no. Bizarrely, book three quickly turns into a madcap heist caper, with Quentin, Plum and a few other misfits recruited by a talking blackbird to retrieve a missing case that once belonged to Rupert Chatwin. The contents of said case are unknown, while it is protected by an unbreakable spell. Thus a regular McGuffin, as in an ordinary SF novel. Only this one has flying furniture in it.

Grossman switches back to Brakebills to slowly reveal the back story of Quentin and Plum as teacher and pupil. We also get a window into events in Fillory, where the ram god (don’t ask) Ember warns Eliot about an impending last war that forespells apocalyptic doom for our beloved Narnia clone, Fillory. So a Magical Object and a Magical Prophecy, and we are all ready to join the Tolkienesque dots.

Note to author: this is one instance where I as reader would have appreciated a brief summary of What Has Gone Before, as it has been quite a while since I read book two, let alone book one.

The unexpected reappearance of a feral, demonised Alice starts off the last third of the novel with a bang (literally). From this point on, Grossman tightens his hold on the reader’s emotions, and begins a very satisfying and resonant arc that brings Quentin’s story full circle. And it really has been Quentin’s story all along, we realise in the end.

The Magician’s Land is really nothing special until that magical point where Grossman lets his imagination and his love for these characters fuse to create something much larger than the sum of its parts.

This is really a great love song to the wonder and innocence of all children who fall through the magic pages of a book, be it Middle Earth or Bas Lag or Barsoom … and how powerful a force that love and wonder can be in shaping the adults we become.

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The Gayristocracy

Looking After JoeyLooking After Joey by David Pratt

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has a great premise. Calvin, an ageing and single gay man (which as David Pratt would tell you is a double whammy if you want to be part of the ‘gayristocracy’), inexplicably finds himself inside the world of the porn video he is watching one evening.

One man’s heaven is another’s hell; Calvin quickly finds that perfection is rather dull and rote. He manages to return to his circumscribed existence in his rent-controlled apartment in New York City, but with Joey in toe, the man of his dreams.

Calvin’s best friend Peachy decides that Joey is their Golden Ticket to crack an invite to the social event of the season, a lavish party thrown by the reigning king of the ‘gayristocracy’ (a dildo-and-lube millionaire; and yes, there are lots of appalling jokes about this).

Joey is such a morsel of perfection that Peachy thinks their invites are a slam dunk; at the same time, they can give Joey a crash course in what it means to be gay in the modern world. As I said, a great premise. Unfortunately, the execution is rather uneven, wobbling between gross-out gay humour, maudlin pathos and relentless cynicism – often on the same page.

I am thinking of one scene in particular where Calvin does his time slip trick again and ends up in a drinking hole filled with Roman legionnaires talking Latin. He lets himself be picked up by one and goes to his apartment. With Liza Minnelli crooning on the sound system, the Roman looks beseechingly at Calvin before pulling out a hammer and nails.

Yes, there is a certain subtext about Calvin feeling an innate need to be ‘punished’ due to his perceived failure as a gay man. However, this scene in particular steps over the boundaries of good taste.

And there are various other instances where Pratt does not seem to know where to draw the line: Calvin’s relationship with Joey becomes a complex father-and-son interaction, but when Calvin gives Joey a hug, it gives him a hard-on. Or the ‘disabled sex anthology’ entitled Spasms: Sex for the Differently Abled, which crudely subverts a rather important part of the story.

Pratt clearly wants us to take Calvin seriously as he follows a (meandering) path towards redemption and grace. But along the way the author gets sidetracked by his own cleverness and need to wring humour out of every situation, whether bathos or slapstick. This quickly becomes tiresome and irritating.

I think that comedy is one of the most difficult things to write. Pratt tries to pull off quite a balancing act here between a genuinely screwball premise and some serious, heartfelt ruminations on life, death and the universe. He only succeeds partially because he is like the clown at an office party who thinks that placing a farting cushion on an unsuspecting person’s chair is the height of hilarity.

Still, it is refreshing to read a gay-themed novel that is funny and uplifting at the same time. It might be a half-baked soufflé, with too much sugar in some places, but Pratt has us rooting for the unlikely trio of Peach, Calvin and Joey from the get-go. And that, after all, is what the ‘gayristocracy’ is all about: rendering the unconventional both palatable and beautiful.

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Strange Bodies

Strange BodiesStrange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a perfunctory and dour thriller that attempts to update the Frankenstein story, with mixed results. The ending is elegant and rather sad, but is a case of too little, too late. The big problem here is that the main protagonist, Nicholas, is so unlikeable that not even his doppelganger likes himself; which poses a bit of a problem for the reader.

I got the feeling reading this that Marcel Theroux himself failed to believe sufficiently in his hypothesis of using language to ‘code’ human consciousness, like a role of imprinted music for a player piano.

This can then be used to transfer such a consciousness into a different body. (We never learn what happens to the consciousness already inhabiting the body; all we get of ‘the Procedure’ itself are vague and bloody hints).

These sections of the novel are rather preposterous, tied up as they are in meditations on Russian mysticism and pseudo science. I think Theroux wrongly tries to straddle the fence here: he should either have opted for more mysticism and horror, or injected more scientific speculation and hence increased the thriller quotient.

Instead he tries to do both, which unfortunately turns a potentially fascinating premise into a bland potboiler. There are some standout sections here, like the ‘reborn’ Dr. Samuel Johnson figure who reacts in abject terror at the usurpation of the London of his memory, and the framing sections set in a rather seedy London mental unit. But this is very much a case where the parts (of bodies, minds and unfinished theories) do not make for a unified whole.

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All Those Vanished Engines

All Those Vanished EnginesAll Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

“It’s all meta-fiction, all the time.”

“I always warned students against complexity for its own sake, and to consider the virtues of the simple story, simply told.”

These two quotes sum up what I found both fascinating and frustrating about this short novel of three inter-linked meta-narratives by Paul Park. On the one hand, Park rather dazzlingly conveys not only the potential of the written word, but the plasticity of the novel format itself.

We are so habituated to traditional narrative formats that any form of meta-fiction (simply understood as a recursive story, where the beginning and ending are enfolded into a Möbius Strip of multiple beginnings and endings) often takes us out of our comfort zone as readers.

As soon as we have to ‘work’ at a text in order to extract its meaning, the compact between author and reader changes, I think, where the reader becomes a far more active (and culpable?) creator of that particular text and its embedded meaning.

It is not that simple though, for on the other hand, meta-fiction often engages multiple levels of irony and various sleight-of-hand tricks to frustrate the reader in his or her quest for meaning. I think the main aim of this is to force the reader into thinking differently about how the text itself functions as a discrete unit, and the (sometimes contradictory) roles that the author and reader play in this process.

I say ‘contradictory’, because the main bugbear with meta-fiction is this: any reader not habituated to this particular form is unlikely to find any kind of conventional narrative satisfaction or resolution here; and hence is unlikely to read such a book, which defeats the stated purpose of educating readers into reading differently and thinking about texts differently.

The other problem I have with meta-fiction is that it is so self-interested in the mechanics of fiction that it is often hard to connect to the story and its characters emotionally. As I get older, I am finding that I really value an emotional connection to my reading. Yes, I am fascinated by books such as this, but they remain hard work and are often very difficult to connect with.

If this is your first exposure to meta-fiction of any kind, give this one a wide berth. Rather begin with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as a form of meta-fiction ‘lite’. Then again, if you are already a habitué of Mitchell, you will probably be fascinated to find out how far the form can be expanded and twisted in the hands of a dedicated writer like Park.

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Station Eleven

Station Eleven: A novelStation Eleven: A novel by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Emily St. John Mandel knows the importance of a good beginning, and her opening line of “The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored” is one of the most arresting and haunting I have read in a long time. This introduces us to the character of Arthur Leander, who is playing King Lear (it is no spoiler for me to say for the last time in his life).

Arthur dies on stage, a victim of a global swine flu pandemic. Within a few brief chapters, civilisation itself is relegated to the wings of the stage, as it were. It happens so quickly that the reader is left rather dumbfounded; Mandel makes some vague pronouncements on incubation periods and infection rates.

This is a general problem of the end-of-the-world genre: a writer has to choose between the Fall itself, or the aftermath of the Fall. Doing both is tricky, and is best left to much larger canvases such as the trilogies by Margaret Atwood (MaddAdam) or Justin Cronin (The Passage). The best single books in this sub-genre are inevitably rooted in the Fallen world itself, such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.

It can be argued that Mandel chooses to dispense with civilisation in such a cursory fashion in order to convey to the reader how astonishingly quickly such an event can occur, and how all-encompassing it can be to the people caught up in it.

Of course, the book slows down very rapidly after the beginning, and we do get to learn a lot about how the world grinds to a halt and what the aftermath is. Our viewpoint character in the Fallen world is young Kirsten, a child actor who happens to be on the same stage when Arthur Leander dies.

We pick up her story after she has joined the Travelling Symphony, an itinerant band of musicians and thespians who delight the locals with Shakespeare and classical music. (There is a fascinating subtext here as to how Shakespeare and the world he inhabited was also shaped by plague and pestilence).

Mandel then pulls off a neat narrative sleight of hand by going back in time to tell us Arthur’s story. Here the book truly comes alive with a sense of poignancy and urgency. Clearly the author is as fascinated with Arthur as is the reader.

Unfortunately, Kirsten is not a strong enough counterpoint to Arthur. I kept on thinking of her as an amalgam of Katniss and Arya Stark; she just did not gel for me in the same way that Arthur does as a living, breathing character. Instead Kirsten joins a host of rather stock end-of-the-world stereotypes, the most interesting of whom is The Preacher. However, he is perhaps the most cursorily sketched, which is a great pity.

In Chapter 24, Mandel comments on “The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone”. There is a lot of lovely nature writing and pastoral ruminations, which places this book more in the category of Cosy Catastrophe. “If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”

Anyone who has read Stephen King’s The Stand will know from the get go that The Preacher’s part in this story will not have a happy ending (in the context of the greater unhappy ending of the world at large, of course). Yes, there is some obligatory darkness, but I felt no lingering sense of horror or dread at any point in this book (maybe I have become too jaded in my genre reading).

The ending is a bit of a misstep as well, I think, carrying on for one or two beats of additional chapters after the perfect point at which it should have ended (again, anyone who reads a lot of horror or SF will know exactly how the book ends after reading the opening).

I cannot help but think how different this book would have been if Mandel had had the conviction to jettison all the end-of-the-world schtick and focus exclusively on Arthur. Still, this is well written, lingering and affecting. It is probably a very good introduction to this particular sub-genre for people who do not like zombies, vampires or gene-spliced mutations.

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Echopraxia

EchopraxiaEchopraxia by Peter Watts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is kick-ass SF of the highest order. It is provocative and smoking hot in terms of some of the latest scientific thinking and ideas.

As with Blindsight, the most fascinating part of the book is Watts’s ‘Notes and References’, where I was amazed to learn how much of it is based on real facts and current hypotheses (here Watts joins an elite group of scrupulously accurate SF writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter and Paul McAuley).

Equally important, Watts is a very good writer. He strikes a much better balance between the info dumping and sheer barrage of ideas than he did in Blindsight. In fact, Echopraxia is not so much a sequel as an iteration of the previous novel.

The theoretical focus is free will, as opposed to the nature of consciousness in the previous novel. This shift allows Watts to tackle some hot potatoes such as the meaning of religion and the existence of God.

That he does so with great vigour, humour and insight within the framework of a pretty conventional SF thriller (with vampires and zombies to boot) is testament to a considerable achievement.

One of the weaknesses of Blindsight was that Watts never takes us to his future earth, but only gives us fascinating glimpses. That novel, of course, was constrained by being a First Contact story of the Theseus mission to the asteroid Icarus and what it encountered there.

We do indeed find out why contact was lost (or was it?). In the sequel, however, Watts widens his scope even further to bookend Echopraxia with extensive sections set on a future earth overridden by environmental catastrophe and rampant gene-splicing, where large swathes of the population have retreated to digital environments.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending, which seems a bit of a misfire given the build-up. Or maybe I just did not understanding the implication that Watts was striving for. Perhaps he deliberately takes a step back to leave himself room for a third and final novel.

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Precision engineering

Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #1)Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is the Ray Bradbury whimsy-with-a-hint-of-darkness Stephen King that writes mom-and-apple-pie books like Joyland.

And then, thank heavens, there is the dark side of Stephen King, which compels him to fire out nasty little nuggets like Mr. Mercedes, which is black as pitch, pretty gruesome where it needs to be, and very, very funny (though it is the sort of dark comedy that makes the reader complicit in its illicit humour).

This is not the ‘detective noir’ I thought it would be, but then one must always be leery of pre-publicity, especially when it comes to a writer as unpredictable as King, who runs the gamut of total crap like Desperation to dazzling brilliance like Doctor Sleep.

It is fitting to refer to the latter, his last book, because King seems to be on a roll at the moment (I have Revival lined up as a holiday read, and that is already an Amazon Top Pick of 2014).

I was quite surprised to see some Goodreads reviews not only decry the lack of supernatural elements in Mr. Mercedes (they are wrong, by the way), but also bemoan the fact that it is not horror at all. Did we even read the same book, I found myself thinking when I put it down after its grim but hugely satisfying ending.

King has always been superb at evoking creepy relationships, and none are creepier than that between Brady and his mother (the phrase “my handsome honeyboy” quickly becomes a sobriquet for such queasy intimacy that it leaves the reader squirming).

Brady’s mom joins a long line of beautifully evoked female characters in this book, from Hodges’ girlfriend Janey (this is a bittersweet love story as well, among its many other attributes) to the embittered old woman who gets the story rolling, as it were. Hodges himself acknowledges that an inordinate number of these women meet a diverse array of fates.

Then there are the ancillary characters like Jerome (yes, there is a cute dog as well). Jerome’s Huck Finn patois is a hilarious counterpoint to the non-PC thoughts of Brady we are constantly subjected to, and hence balances it out. But this is not nearly as neat a technical trick and narrative sleight of hand that King manages to pull off with the tormented character of Holly.

The particular revelation here (and let no one dare spoil it for you) is so masterful and so note-perfect that it involves a 360° change-of-view of this character in a few sentences.

Early on in the novel King presents the full text of the first taunting letter that Brady sends to Hodges. I read this quickly, as I wanted King to get on with the story, man … only to realise that the letter is the story.

King then lets us see the letter through Hodges’ trained eyes, picking up on the stylistic tics and narrative clues that help him to form a mental picture of Brady. I actually found myself going back to this letter to check the points that Hodges highlights, as they certainly did not register when I read it initially. And then I read the subsequent letters extra carefully the first time, to see if I could outsmart Hodges…

I think that King has become such an institution that we tend to forget just how much of a sheer fucking story-telling genius he is. I found myself reading this in a kind of sick panic, desperate for Brady to get his comeuppance.

However, in some dark corner of my own mind, I was secretly rooting for Brady. I think King is well aware of this ambivalence, which makes his bad characters so particularly frightening and heartrendingly human at the same time.

King frays the reader’s nerves until they seem to twang like guitar strings. And then he still manages to throw in a couple of quiet scenes where we actually get to feel sorry for Brady. Now that is a real writer.

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