Review | The Magicians, Lev Grossman

TheMagicians

In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater, a nerdy and melancholy eighteen year old, is recruited to join a magic university in upstate New York called Brakebills. Quentin is obsessed with a children’s fantasy series about a magical land called Fillory, and real life just cannot compare, particularly when he sees himself as both sidekick and jilted suitor in his trio of friends. When invited to study at Brakebills, he hopes he has finally found his meaning in life, his place of belonging, and the thing that will finally bring him happiness.

Grossman riffs off the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia traditions, and presents a rather more sardonic view of magic. As an older student, Eliot, tells Quentin, most people can’t do magic because “it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right.” Indeed, unlike Hogwarts which felt wondrous and, well, magical, Brakebills makes magic feel like a particularly rigorous college major, like pre-law or pre-med. During one term for example, students had to study in isolation all the different ways circumstances can change the makeup of a single spell. As Quentin observed, he knew more about that particular spell than he’d ever wanted to know, including how to cast it if he were a woman.

The book continues to follow the characters after graduation, when they struggle to find their place in a world where most people are unaware that magic exists. One of them discovers a portal to Fillory, and, having not quite found the happiness he sought in Brakebills, Quentin turns his attention into possibly finding happiness in the fantasy land of his youth. However, just like Brakebills isn’t quite as wondrous as Hogwarts, nor is Fillory anywhere near as magical as Narnia. The residents in Fillory appear to be in need of something, and while Quentin and his friends decide to go on a quest to become kings and queens of Fillory, the decision resulted more from an understanding of fantasy tropes and classic quest stories than from any real understanding of how the quest’s success will solve Fillory’s troubles.

I liked the story. I hesitate to call it more realistic than traditional magical stories because I like to think real-life magic would still be more exciting and wondrous than Grossman presents. As well, Grossman pulls short of delving deep into realism — while his characters drink a lot and face ennui upon graduation, they also lead charmed lives, with a magical network of corporations guaranteeing magical graduates a comfortable lifetime income for shell corporate jobs. I also hesitate to call it more adult than traditional magical stories, because while there is sex and drugs and certainly less wide-eyed innocence, there is also a naivete about Quentin and his friends’ approach to life, a sort of languorous privileged view that still makes me want to tell some of them to grow up. Still, in a way, both descriptors are accurate. Grossman does raise some interesting complications that could occur if magic and magical lands did exist. I can imagine mastery at magic requiring a lot more tedious memorization than fun tricks, and I can also imagine a magical fantasy land not quite living up to childhood expectations.

Among the characters, I absolutely loved Quentin’s classmates Eliot, a fashionable gourmet, and Alice, a brilliant, talented magician. In contrast, Quentin is not at all a likeable character, at least for me. It’s hard to root for someone who is so consumed by his own ennui and lack of self-worth that he is unable to see that other people around him have problems of their own and that he externalizes blame for his mistakes onto “the sick, empty world they were all in together.” (p. 263)

His attitude towards their quest in Fillory annoys me as well. When Alice points out that people could get hurt, he responds:

“If I die doing this, at least I’ll have done something. Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time.” (p. 332)

The problem is that they don’t really have a goal or stated need for that quest in the first place. Quentin is just bored with life and decides to find meaning by visiting Fillory, and then literally for lack of anything else to do, decides to go on a quest to become king.

Possibly one of the reasons I love Alice so much is that she calls Quentin out on his behaviour:

“If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or your going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”

“You can’t just decide to be happy.”

“No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.” (p. 333)

The end of the book promises further adventure in the sequel, this time involving Quentin’s childhood friend Julia, who was not accepted into Brakebills and therefore taught herself magic. From what I hear, she is a much more interesting character than Quentin, and the TV show version somewhat conflates both books so that, on the screen, we get her story alongside Quentin’s.

The Magicians TV Adaptation on Showcase

Having read the book, I’m much more excited to see how it translates on the screen, and to see the actors who will bring the characters to life. I also can’t wait to find out more about Julia’s story, as the glimpse I’ve seen of her in the book seems intriguing.

The Magicians premiered last January 25, and airs on Showcase Mondays at 9. Catch up on previous episodes at www.showcase.ca/themagicians and check out a brand-new episode tonight on TV and tomorrow online.

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Thanks to Showcase.ca for a copy of this book (and awesome card deck!) in exchange for an honest review.

Review | City of the Lost, Kelley Armstrong

26869354Where would you go if you suddenly had to disappear? In Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lostthere’s an isolated small town in the Yukon that provides such a sanctuary, hidden away by the forest and essentially self-sustaining. Casey Duncan, a detective who has killed a man, is less interested in escape than in ensuring that her best friend Diana is safe from her abusive husband. The town’s sheriff Eric Dalton needs a detective, so the town council agrees to take Diana on if Casey comes along.

A departure from Armstrong’s usual paranormal thriller, City of the Lost is a fairly straightforward murder mystery, a locked room puzzle in a town where everyone has a troubled past. There are shades of political intrigue, the possibility that the town council accepts bribes to allow dangerous criminals into town, and the threat of “hostiles” living in the surrounding forest. There is also a drug angle, with the mild-mannered town pharmacist allegedly suppling residents with a more potent version of a popular drug. And there is a series of murders with rather disgusting markers such as internal organs hanging from a tree. It feels very much like a big city police procedural, except with small town friendships and the added danger of the wild.

Armstrong can always be counted on for a good story, and City of the Lost is a solid example of that. It had a lot of good points — the romance was hot and I absolutely love that Casey is half Filipino-Chinese. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, or worse, condescending that I’m making a big deal of it, and I really don’t mean it to be. It’s just that I never really expect to see characters like me in popular fiction, so it’s always a thrill when I do. And it’s an even bigger thrill when the character is awesome like Casey is, and when her being Filipino-Chinese isn’t at all integral to the story, when it’s simply a throwaway piece of description, because it shows how effortless it can and should be to incorporate diverse characters into literature. Armstrong has always been great at having diverse characters, and I love that about her work.

I’m a huge Kelley Armstrong fan, and perhaps that’s why this novel fell somewhat short of my expectations. The mystery was good, but the search for the killer wasn’t quite as gripping as I’d hoped. I knew there was danger in the town, and the danger had turned somewhat personal with a character I liked getting killed, but the mystery somehow lacked urgency. I wasn’t flipping the page as fast as I could to get to the bottom of it. Contrast that to her earlier work The Masked Truth where I stayed up late to finish it, or the Cainsville series, where I was so intrigued by the mythology she’d created that I wanted to keep reading more.

The characters as well were likeable, but not so memorable that I absolutely need to read more of their stories. Armstrong creates good characters and her Women of the Otherworld series in particular is an example where her characters veritably crackle off the page. I didn’t quite get that crackle in City of the Lost, and in fact, when Casey was going on a rock climbing trip with a new close friend Petra, I had to flip back to remind myself who Petra was. Their first meeting confused me as well — Petra was part of a group that Diana had gone with to a bar, and while Casey initially seemed put off by the group, agreeing with Eric that they were the popular party kids Diana should probably avoid, she then becomes very good friends with them herself. It’s possibly a case of first impressions being a mistake, but the change in Casey’s perception seemed to have happened within the same page, which confused me.

All this to say that City of the Lost is a good book, just not as amazing as I look for in a Kelley Armstrong story. Perhaps I just prefer her paranormal fiction, or perhaps, as this is the first book in a series, Armstrong is still feeling out her characters and setting. Still, it’s a solid mystery thriller, and it’ll be interesting to see how the concept of this town will play out in future instalments.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Books on-screen | The Magicians on Showcase

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Two-Episode Premiere on Showcase, Monday January 25 at 9 pm ET/PT

Based on a best-selling trilogy by Lev Grossman, The Magicians is about a group of graduate students at Brakebills University in upstate New York, who discover that the magical fantasy world they read about as children is real, and that it poses a grave danger to humanity. I’ve heard of Grossman’s books, of course, but haven’t gotten around to reading them yet, so I’m thrilled to see it’s coming to the small screen via Showcase. The story strikes me as a blend of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I’m definitely intrigued.

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The show stars Jason Ralph as Quentin Coldwater, an awkward, geeky (but actually really good looking) guy secretly in love with his best friend, the perfectionist achiever-type Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve). Other students include Alice Quinn (Olivia Taylor Dudley), a shy but supremely talented magician; Eliot Waugh (Hale Appleman), a snob with a painful past;  William “Penny” Adiyodi (Arjun Gupta), a loner who loathes everyone; and Margo Hanson (Summer Bishil), the resident mean girl.

The Magicians premieres on Showcase with the first two episodes on Monday, January 25, at 9 pm. New episodes will air on Mondays at 9 pm, and during the season run, you can also check out the episodes the day after on showcase.ca.

Get a sneak preview online with the first episode, “Unauthorized Magic”, available now on showcase.ca/themagicians, Showcase’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, and Showcase On Demand.

Check out the trailer below:

Being a book geek, I’m also really excited that Showcase will generously be providing me with a copy of the book for review. So keep an eye out for my upcoming review on that, and in the meantime, check out the new series on Showcase!

All images courtesy of Showcase.

Review | The Wildlings, Nilanjana Roy

25387318I absolutely adored this book! Partly, I admit, this may be because I love cats, so a story about a group of stray cats in a Delhi neighbourhood is bound to spark my interest. Also partly because it reminded me so much of Ursula Le Guin’s Catwings, which I loved as a kid. But mostly, it’s because The Wildlings presents us with such a beautifully imaginative urban landscape, where  animals have created their own community and systems of power, and humans are mere “Bigfeet” who are relegated to the background.

Roy creates a memorable cast of feline characters: Miao, the wise Siamese; Katar, the gruff second in command; and Southpaw, the irrepressible kitten whose desire for adult responsibilities reminds me of the naivete and exuberance of Simba in The Lion King singing “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” The delicate balance of their lives is upset when a kitten named Mara, moves into their neighbourhood, and turns out to be a powerful Sender, a cat with the ability to communicate telepathically over great distances and with other animals. Being new, a house cat, and utterly unable to control her powers, Mara is viewed with suspicion by the neighbourhood cats, and the story begins with them sending one of their best fighters to neutralize the threat.

I love so many things about how the cats are depicted in this book, and Roy does such a great job giving her characters human-like thoughts and feelings while still maintaining their feline instincts and attitudes. It was fascinating to see Mara explore and then learn to control her powers. I love how her loneliness due to the wariness from the neighbourhood cats leads her to reach out telepathically to the zoo and befriend a tiger instead. I also laughed at her confusion over her Bigfeet’s behaviour — why don’t they seem to like the toys she knocked off from the shelves? — and her confidence that she will eventually succeed in training them.

The villains are a group of feral cats who live in a seemingly abandoned house. They are vicious and unbound by the rules that govern all the other animals. When a kitten literally falls into their lair, they refuse to give it sanctuary, nor to accept its surrender, even though these are courtesies that feline rules dictate should be extended to every cat. That encounter was one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve read in a while, and even I couldn’t believe I was so emotionally involved in the scene. The novel takes a darker turn when these feral cats decide to take over the streets, and the neighbourhood cats must find other allies to help them defend their territory.

I was completely riveted by this book. I loved the story, I felt an emotional connection with the characters, and after reading it, I hugged my cat and vowed to play with him a lot more often. If you love animals, if you love stories about friendship and power and tight-knit communities, and especially if you love cats, definitely give this book a try. And if you’ve read it and loved it as much as I did, a sequel The Hundred Names of Darkness will be published in Canada in July 2016.

One minor note is that I see a lot of reviews on Goodreads that praised the illustrations throughout the book. The copy I have only has an illustration on the inside cover, and I feel like I missed out on part of the experience, so I’m now on the hunt for this edition.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Giveaway | Tides of Honour, Genevieve Graham

Genevieve Graham

Love historical romances? Author Genevieve Graham is giving away a SIGNED copy of her book Tides of Honour

ENTER THE CONTEST HERE. (Canada / US only) 

The novel explores the relationship between Canadian soldier Danny Baker and French artist Audrey Poulin, and the turmoil caused by the Halifax Explosion of 1917. I enjoyed the novel and particularly loved the characterization of Audrey. Check out my full review here.

Review | The Masked Truth, Kelley Armstrong

24733600I love Kelley Armstrong’s work, and The Masked Truth is no exception. A group of troubled teens spends a weekend in therapy camp, and are taken hostage by a group of masked men. It’s a scary premise, and Armstrong lives up to expectations, keeping the pace on an adrenaline high throughout.

The main characters are Riley, who had witnessed the brutal murder of a couple she was babysitting for, and Max, whose psychiatric condition leads him to doubt everything he sees. Both characters are kickass and well-developed, and as always, Armstrong’s heroine is a standout.

Armstrong also gives us a glimpse into the reality of schizophrenia — I knew of the condition, but had no idea how terrifying it could be, or how dangerous it could make someone given a lack of treatment and the wrong circumstances.

The ending was a bit of a letdown, with the big reveal being far more convoluted than it had to be. The story also required major suspension of disbelief throughout, and while I don’t necessarily expect realism in a thriller that read very much like an action movie on the page, there were a few times in this novel where I had to silence that little voice in my head telling me something didn’t make sense. Ironically, for a novel about three masked men taking a group of teens hostage, it was the aftermath of the incident that felt most unbelievable.

Still, the story is an exciting ride overall. Just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride; you’ll find it hard to put this novel down.

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Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | And Again, Jessica Chiarella

25110965Imagine if a medical procedure could transfer your consciousness into a perfected version of your body. Imagine if cancer, AIDS and all sorts of illnesses can be cured, and those afflicted could wake up one morning in a perfect copy of their body, minus whatever genetic or cellular matter led to the disease in the first place. It sounds like the set-up for a Gattaca-type thriller, and I was pleasantly surprised that Jessica Chiarella’s And Again did not feel like a sci fi novel at all.

Rather than focus on the miraculous nature of the procedure, or on the corporate and political bodies attempting to benefit from its existence, Chiarella focuses on the patients who underwent the procedure. While at least two of the patients are fairly high profile (David is a conservative Congressman and Connie is a soap opera star), and while at least part of the plot does mention the political machinery behind the procedure, the bulk of the story focuses intimately on the individual lives that benefited from it. The question Chiarella poses is not so much what good or evil this procedure can bring humanity, but rather: how would you feel living life as a perfected copy of yourself?

It’s a haunting question, and particularly poignant in the case of one of the patients, Linda, who was in a car accident eight years prior and had been completely paralyzed ever since. How would it feel to be able to walk and talk again, and how could she cope with a family whose lives have moved on without her? I especially love how she comes home and finds solace in watching the soap opera she’d watched every day in her hospital bed, a rather sad reminder of what has become her normal.

Also compelling is the story of Connie, an actress whose career had ended when she was diagnosed with AIDS. The procedure gives her a new chance in her career, but what I really found touching was the friendship she’d formed with her elderly neighbour after her diagnosis. She returns home after the procedure, thinking it was mostly her looks that have changed, and her neighbour, who is blind, thinks she’s a stranger because her voice and her scent have also changed. It raises the question of how much would actually remain of you, if your body changes.

This question is most urgent for another patient, Hannah, who though the novel is told in the alternating voices of all four patients, still feels like the main character. Hannah is an artist, yet after the procedure, she realizes that she seems to have lost her talent. A comparison of her self-portraits from before and after the procedure reveals that while the subject had become younger and more attractive, the post-procedure work lacked that special something that had once made her work great.

Chiarella raises some interesting questions about personal identity, though I also wonder if focusing on a single character would have allowed her to delve into these questions a bit more deeply. Does artistic talent such as Hannah’s reside in the genes and memory, or is there some muscle memory formed as well over time, which would be lost in a new body? How desperate must a conservative politician like David be to go against his own beliefs and agree to being cloned, or are all his “beliefs” just presented for votes? Connie’s resurgence of beauty is briefly touched upon when she encounters her former agent in her new body, but the responses to it remain fairly shallow — this may be the point, but I wonder how much of the depth of emotion she brings to her roles may have been sacrificed in this new body? And Linda’s story just had a few random twists that I felt detracted from what I had found so compelling about her in the first place.

The book is well-written and the stories beautifully told. Though I admit I thought Hannah and Connie’s stories felt a bit more complete, whereas Linda and David’s stories felt somewhat abruptly cut off, Chiarella manages to juggle all four characters well enough. At the very least, this book raises some interesting questions for the reader, and inspires you to imagine: what if you are given a second chance, with a genetically perfect version of your body? What would you do with it?

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.