The Magicians Trilogy Review

Book: The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land
Author: Lev Grossman
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2007 – 2014
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: (from The Magicians) “Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams may have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined….
The Magicians is one of the most daring and inventive works of literary fantasy in years. No one who as escaped into the worlds of Narnia and Harry Potter should miss this breathtaking return to the landscape of imagination.”

Review: To fill you in on a little background, I found The Magicians through a show on the SciFi channel appropriately named The Magicians. It was compelling, I was immediately struck by what a massive budget the show must have had, and I was completely sucked in by the quality effects and overall put-together-ness you often miss with fantasy and sci-fi shows. It wasn’t until this year, though, that I realized the show was originally a book series so without much thought I dove right in.
I’ve struggled to find ways to review this series without also reviewing the show, continuously finding ways to compare what was done in the show to what was written in the book, seeking out plot holes between the two, and being somewhat marveled by the apt characterization of each person in the show vs the book. It’s already a bit of a strange review, attempting to review a series rather than each book individually, but I found the stories blended so seamlessly, I could have been reading from one enormous book.
Despite plowing through this series in under a week, I chose to rate these books with ultimately 50% because I’ve found, particularly in more recently popular fiction, one does not have to be a great writer to turn pages. One only needs to be compelling, and Lev Grossman writes stories that are nothing if not compelling. If we look past the glaringly obvious copy-cat of The Chronicles of Narnia, we’re still confronted with an author who wields the trope of a miserable, privileged teenage boy as if it’s a blazing sword of originality. It isn’t. I remarked recently, in the show you’re presented with Quentin as a miserable, privileged boy in a way that points to the remarkably pathetic nature of his character, in the book, however, we’re supposed to believe wholeheartedly in his “nothing is ever good enough” facade. Was it meant to be written in a way that makes you want to gag slightly over how rough Quentin has it with his genius IQ that allows him access to a magical world he’s been dreaming about his whole life only to continue pining for something more (a something more that included access to every ivy league school he could possible wish for)? I doubt it. I think we’re truly meant to feel sorry for him and that’s not something I can find myself doing. Poor rich boy, with his magic and his smarts and all the doors opening for him – it hits harder when we realize that his best friend, a girl who is likely better at magic and just as smart as him, didn’t gain access to the magic world for reasons that are never fully explained in the book.
Moving on. Grossman is cavalier with his use of mental illness, he relies heavily on fat shaming, and throws around words I wouldn’t dare use as a conversational piece. Looking at the published date of 2007, I’m not entirely surprised by some of the language he uses, but it doesn’t stop Grossman from continuing to make light of horrific sexual trauma and deep depression even as his writing moves further into the 2010s. That alone is enough to knock the rating down at least two points, in my opinion. It neither adds to the story nor furthers any action, it merely serves to show how little Grossman cares for an audience that often seeks fantasy and sci-fi to escape from the realities of life; mental illness, trauma, abuse, and bullying.
Something I found hard to move past in this trilogy is the way in which Grossman sets up magic; it’s unattainable to the average person and unless you have an IQ higher than practically everyone you know, the idea that you could insert yourself into this world he’s created is implausible. He builds a world we are meant to love and wish to escape to and then holds it so high over the heads of his readers to keep them out that we couldn’t reach it if we jumped. It’s impossible to insert yourself as a reader into a world like that, and frankly isn’t that what sci-fi and fantasy are about? How can we, as readers, be expected to escape to a beautiful world of magic if it’s so far beyond our intellectual reach?
Grossman writes in such a way that I thought perhaps he was simply trying to convey how pretentious Quentin and his friends are throughout the series, but the more I progressed through the books the more I realized it isn’t Quentin and his fellow magicians who are pretentious, it’s Grossman. I found myself looking up words I absolutely never hear or read – thrown into books that read at a YA level, words that, again, don’t further the plot or move the action along; they serve merely as yet another tool to keep his readers at arms length.
Finally, as I finished the trilogy, I began to see the book devolve into a tangled mess of “probably”. I didn’t have the time, energy, or heart to go back through the entirety of the third book, but I did sift through a few of the final chapters (26-28) and found the word probably used over fifteen times – often as the start of a sentence, used both in narrative and conversation. What’s the point? I’m really not sure. Did the other two books and maybe even the remainder of the third contain more of the p-word than I realized? Probably.

Advice: These books are compelling, they really are. I found it hard to put them down, wanting to know what was going to happen next, reading quickly because the plot moved quickly. It’s an enjoyable read if you don’t think about it too much, or if you’ve watched the series and found it to be something you liked. It’s not an enjoyable read for a myriad of other reasons and I will likely not be reading anything further from Grossman in the future.

Where the Crawdads Sing Review

Book: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Publisher: Putnam
Year: 2018
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl.
But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.
Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject the the beautiful and violent secrets nature keeps.”

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing came highly recommended and it was absolutely without question as to why my book club chose this title to read. It is a New York Times Bestseller, it’s a book in Reese’s book Club, and it’s been highly praised. A quick online search shows it ranks between 4.5 and 5 stars from multiple rating sources. I began reading this book truly uncertain about how I would feel – I waited until the last minute to cram it in before our bookclub meeting and never actually read the synopsis. The story begins in 1952 when Kya, the “Marsh Girl”, is six years old and jumps back and forth between the years leading up to 1969 and 1969 itself. Crawdads is Owens’ debut novel, though it is not her first publication. As a native to North Carolina herself, Owens has a unique perspective of the swampy, marshy areas along the coast, and in fact she has written several books on wildlife (though, notably not about her time in NC). The writing of Crawdads is gorgeous and striking, at no point during the novel are you lost in imagining the marsh and the amazing creatures who call it home. This, at the very least, warrants Crawdads 50% of it’s rating. However, while Owens’ writing skills are clearly well developed, her novel writing skills are not. The conversation is stilted and unbelievable – most townsfolk speaking as Owens writes: in prolific, beautiful language, describing things people would likely think rather than say. She weaves an intricate tale of murder throughout the novel, something that the entirety of the plot relies upon, yet when it comes time to reveal who the murderer really was (gasp! plot twist??) we are left with an incomplete story, a predictable ending, and a story that would absolutely never have happened. And maybe that’s my fault for hoping that a realistic book would have a realistic plot line, but I’d rather read something realistic and deeply moving than something that Nicholas Sparks himself might have written and written better.
The ending leaves the story with gaping holes and I find myself stewing over this days after having finished the book. If what the novel was aiming for was a purely romantic plot line with absolutely no need for reality, it could have and should have been written differently. If, what I suspect Owens was trying to do, the novel was written to be poignant, address prejudices, and introduce the reader to the amazing wildlife and human life that reside within a marsh, it should have absolutely taken about three different turns and concluded in a much different manner. But what I’m left with is disappointment and frustration that I spent $25 on a hardcover copy of what ultimately turned out to be a Nicholas Sparks book in disguise and for that I would have passed it up.

Advice: If you are interested in a slow moving and deeply unrealistic love story, first of all, no judgement. Secondly, this is the book for you. It is a gorgeous book with amazing tales of wildlife and a truly remarkable coming-of-age story that turns on its head and becomes a sappy love story at the end. I can admit that this is not at all my style but is the style of many a summer book reader. If you are not looking to think deeply about the plot or the potential holes in it, definitely pick this book up. Again, I can’t say enough about the gorgeous imagery Crawdads provides, it is striking and compels you to continue reading without putting the book down. It’s a 50/50 for me, some good with a lot of, in my opinion, bad.

The Girls Review

Book: The Girls
Author: Emma Cline
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Year: 2016
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, teenager Evie Boyd sees a group of girls in the park and is immediately struck by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. The group’s sprawling ranch is eerie and run-down, but to Evie it is exotic, thrilling, charged – a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.”

Review: I picked up The Girls because of the hype that had surrounded the book upon it’s release. Cline’s first novel was being read by everyone and being reviewed in publications like the New York Times and NPR; the cover art is simplistic but catchy and inviting, it nearly jumped off the shelf at me. I read the synopsis and against my better judgement decided to give the book a try.
Let me explain.
The year is 2019. We have a white man for president. “Literary geniuses” are more often than not white men. White men dominate the news. In an effort to combat this, I have chosen to read only works from authors who are not white men. I picked up a book by a white woman, Emma Cline, hoping to read a fresh take on an old story. What I was bombarded with, instead, was a stale story about a white man who has been romanticized beyond exhaustion.
How many times have you seen a “new and exciting!” documentary about Charles Manson and the Manson girls? Did you watch John McNamara’s Aquarius when it debuted in 2015? Or perhaps you have noted the movie featured on Netflix “Manson Family Vacation” (again, 2015 release) or the newer documentary “Truth and Lies: The Mason Family” (2018) on Hulu. There is a trend, a fascination, a morbid desire to pick these horrific events apart piece by piece and imagine what could have led people to act the way they did.
Cline writes of a man, Russel, who has a strange hold over the people in his sphere. He speaks of love and a world without race and has seemingly deep and meaningful connections with every girl who lives with and follows him. And as every Manson story goes, if you read just a tiny bit further and delve just a little bit deeper the facade peels away and you’re left with the scum and filth underneath; a sexual predator and young girls who are so lost that they blindly follow the words of their supposed savior.
My hopes for Cline’s novel were less than high, admittedly, but I did wonder if she would perhaps refresh this fascination with Manson and rather than simply retell the story with new names attached would create her own world with new ideas and figures.

My Advice: Perhaps you haven’t seen Charles Manson’s face in the news, a swastika tattooed on his forehead and scraggly hair sprouting from his scalp. Maybe you haven’t watched any of the numerous Manson documentaries, movies, or tv shows that have picked apart the events of the Manson family so such degree that there is nothing left to scavenge. If this is the case, my advise to you is go to your local used book store and pick up a copy for $7.
If, however, this is not the case and you have indeed been privy to this sick obsession with a sexual predator who had no motive beyond his own selfish desires, there are plenty of other books out there that would be better suited for you. And if you still feel like you are missing out, watch Aquarius. It’s the same story.