The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

The second installment in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy picks up just where book one, The Crystal Cave, left off. Young Merlin has assisted High King Uther Pendragon to bed Lady Ygraine, and a child has been conceived. Pendragon declares to Merlin and Ygraine that he will not claim the child as his, but that he also will not harm him (in case Uther has no other sons, the boy must be prepared and safe). Merlin is charged by Pendragon and Ygraine to take their son, Arthur, into hiding and to prepare him for his birthright, without allowing Arthur or anyone else know who he truly is and what might become of him. Emrys is given to a neighboring minor king to be cared for and raised in noble fashion, but with the burden of being labeled a bastard, as Merlin himself was labeled. As the boy grows, Merlin has taken an expedition abroad, following the path that his god has laid for him, in search of an ancient and powerful sword, Caliber (Excalibur). After his journey is completed, Merlin returns to England, where he disguises himself as a caretaker of a small chapel near to Arthur’s home. Eventually, Arthur (known as Emrys) meets the magician Myrrdin one day by “chance.” Merlin teaches the boy what little he can of magic, but also all he knows of history, culture, and legend. The time comes when Uther’s health begins to fail him and, left without a son, he must call the boy to his side.

Characterization in this particular installment of the series is more deeply explored and more effectively delivered than in its predecessor. Two major characters from The Crystal Cave, Merlin and Uther, are afforded interesting growth and development. Uther’s daughter, Morgause, also has a notable presence and, though explored rather briefly, is clearly presented as a character to watch: mysterious, cunning, and dangerous. King Lot, Uther Pendragon’s most powerful rival, and other minor characters, like Bedwyr, Arthur’s trusted friend (fashioned after Lancelot, perhaps?) also add exciting and meaningful levels to the plot, most intriguingly, at times, when they are not directly involved but referenced or alluded to. Arthur himself, as Emrys, is drawn quite well; there is something innately regal about him, though he is growing up as an orphaned boy in a relatively low-royalty home. Comparisons to Merlin and Ambrosius (Merlin’s father / Arthur’s uncle and former High King) do not go unnoticed; even as a child, Stewart writes his character in such a way as to believe that this boy could one day be a powerful and revered leader. The handling of the crux, where Emrys discovers that he is Arthur, son of Uther, is also quite nicely done and gives the reader further appreciation of Arthur’s and Merlin’s characters.

As with The Crystal Cave, I was not entirely enthralled with the story, nor was I truly excited by the magical elements, which I found to be rather lacking for a Merlin story. Still, Stewart is a good writer and a good storyteller, both of which are necessary for the effectiveness of fantasy stories in particular. Because she draws Arthur’s character so well, and because of the many ways she re-imagines the more recognizable elements of the Arthurian legend (such as the sword in the stone), The Hollow Hills remained interesting almost despite itself. Had I not been a fan of the legend already, I may not have appreciated the book as much as I did; however, even readers who are not familiar with Arthurian legend will still appreciate how well the story is written; the pace is conducive to the experience, the language is appropriate and adds fascinating elements in its own right, and the prose is fluid in an enchantingly mystical kind of way (imagine taking a lazy raft down a slow-moving river, but with vividly wonderful views of a vibrant and blooming forest on either side).

It is clear that Stewart does her research. Not only does she know the legend inside-out and back-to-front, but she also takes the time to appreciate the difficulties that readers might have in interpreting the more elusive facts or in keeping track of ancient, extinct locations and kingdoms. She recreates the story in a more linear, accessible way, but with all of the deeper, permanent elements in tact (though changed to fit a modern, skeptical reader). Stewart does away with the majority of the true fantasy elements and reinterprets the magic of Merlin as legend which is based in fact and which grew exponentially over time; the reader witnesses perfectly reasonable, scientific, and creatively man-made events give birth to the well-known stories which have stimulated young minds and imaginations for centuries. In a way, it could almost be compared to an atheist’s reading of the Bible, wherein foundations of fact would be located and re-written to explain the more divine elements. It is a commentary on the human experience, on superstition, and on man’s struggle between his desire for fact and his fascination with the inexplicable.

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“To remember love after long sleep; to turn again to poetry after a year in the market place, or to youth after resignation to drowsy and stiffening age; to remember what once you thought life could hold, after telling over with muddled and calculating fingers what it has offered; this is music, made after long silence.”

“Every life has a death, and every light a shadow. Be content to stand in the light, and let the shadow fall where it will.”

“I was left kneeling there in the choking cloud of dust, with the shrouded sword held fast in my filthy and bleeding hands. From the apse, the last of the carving had vanished. It was only a curved wall, showing blank, like the wall of a cave.”

“You and I between us, Merlin, we will make such a king as the world has never known.”

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Review: The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 14 


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Last Enchantment is the third book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (which later became the Arthurian Saga, with the inclusion of a fourth book, The Wicked Day).  This portion of the trilogy concerns the waning of Merlin’s power, the fulfillment of his final prophesies, and the rise of Nimue as King’s enchantress.  Like its predecessors in the trilogy, this book reinvents some of the major elements of the Merlin legend, such as Merlin’s entombment in the crystal cave, Morgause & Mordred’s lives, and Arthur’s betrayal by Gwenevere and Lancelot (Bedwyr).   


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

What this installment of the series does better than its predecessors is that it allows for growth and development of the characters.  King Arthur’s leadership style and personality are given more attention and some of the minor characters (such as Gwenevere and the lesser Kings) are also clearly drawn, though in a subtle, understated way.  The greatest achievement in this regard is with the character Merlin.  This, his final phase, is both sad and noble.  The relationship he builds with Nimue is touching and heartbreaking.  As Merlin’s early prophecies about his own demise begin to come to fruition, the reader cannot help but hope for Merlin’s success, though it would ironically prove him a failure.  


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the story.

Stewart is a good writer and satisfactory storyteller.  The book is constructed in such a way as to progress the story fluidly and rapidly, without it seeming rushed or impatient.  Most of the chapters are short, though there are lengthier portions where more time must be spent on a single subject – these choices are made consciously, however, and prove necessary to appreciating and understanding the more important aspects of the overall plot.  The only downfall for this edition of the novel is that it is littered with proofing errors.  There are multiple instances (particularly nearer to the end of the book) where words are missing or incorrect (“if” instead of “of”, for instance).  These grammar and proofreading issues should have been caught prior to publication, so it is no fault of the others and does not necessarily take away from the reading experience (except for OCD English majors such as myself). 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

How does a man of power and consequence deal with the waning of that power and stature?  How does a man of supernatural gifts grieve their loss and find a new place for himself in the mortal world?  This final installment of the Merlin trilogy deals with the rise and fall of magical and godly powers, yes, but its message resounds with the common reader just the same.  This is a story about the circle of life, one which takes us from birth and discovery of the many wondrous, seemingly inexplicable things around us, to coming of age and learning to question what we see and what we think we know; it leads us to explore the power of healthy manhood and the wisdom that comes with elder years, then forces us to confront old age and a new dependency on others.  This is a story about love and friendship, war and peace, land and spirit – it is a story about mistakes made, lessons learned, and the very personal meaning of magic.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Merlin lore, Arthurian Legend, History, Ancient British History.

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

 Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 13


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howls Moving Castle came about when a young boy asked the author to write a story about a castle that moved.  Knowing that ahead of time added an interesting element to the experience, as it was fun to see how that one small, random request morphed in Jones’s imagination and eventually came out as this very entertaining and surprisingly meaningful book.  The story is about a young woman, Sophie Hatter, who is the eldest of three sisters.  The book immediately takes on a satirical tone, simultaneously mimicking and mocking the literary fantasy (and particularly fairy tale) traditions of yore.  Sophie and her family live in the Kingdom of Ingary, where conventional fairy tale tropes are in effect facts of life.  As the eldest sister, Sophie knows she must take care of her family first – probably living to become an old maid while her sisters get to go to the balls, court dashing princes, and study the magical arts.  Things begin to change, though, when Sophie is mistaken for her sister by the Witch of the Waste. She is cursed into appearing like a haggardly old woman and she soon leaves town to find a cure, bringing her to Howl’s moving castle.  There she meets Howl’s apprentice, Michael, and learns that she has certain magical talent of her own.  She eventually helps Howl in a final show-down between good and evil (or, perhaps, bad and worse?) against the Witch of the Waste, and learns that her curse might not have been all it –or she- appeared to be.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

Although a traditional young fantasy tale in many ways, Howl’s Moving Castle is very much about a young woman’s coming-of-age.  Just as Sophie is learning to appreciate herself – seeing herself as attractive for the first time and exchanging drab gray clothing for brighter hues, she is cursed and becomes a gnarled old woman.  Jones is exploring the nature of individuality and self-worth; only by becoming this older woman can Sophie begin to understand and appreciate who she is – a strong-willed, confident, powerful individual.  She begins to realize that she is not destined to be just “the eldest sibling” as tradition would have it.  Sophie discovers that she is in command of her own fate and that those around her, including her family and new friends, will love and respect her all the more as she embraces who she is and learns to respect herself.  The other characters in the story are equally deep, though they may appear flippant or standardized at first glance.  Wizard Howl, for instance, is an excellently drawn Byronic hero.  Seduction of young maidens is his modus operandi, so much so, in fact, that he is feared throughout the kingdom as the wizard who eats young girls’ hearts (taken literally by the people – which makes him a feared character, although in reality he is quite harmless and endearing, if not more than a bit vain).  The reader discovers through Howl’s assistant Michael, that Howl has never truly been in love with any of the women he has courted – and he knows this because Howl always looks so incredibly dashing when he goes out on the prowl.  Near to the end of the story, though, we realize poor Howl must have fallen head-over-heels for someone because, for the first time, he is totally disheveled. Ultimately, the characters are much deeper than they first appear to be; when the reader sits back and examines their purpose and their connections to other characters, the development of and sub-layers for each, but particularly the major characters, is quite striking.


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

One minor point of contention for me was that the smartness of the story did not quite seem to gel with the middle grade reading level of the prose.  It is, after all, a middle grade book – so making it readable by the prospective age group is absolutely paramount.  While I understand the primary audience is young readers, I couldn’t help but be a tiny (tiny) bit put-off by the sparse style and simple language, when the story itself is so witty and multi-layered.  Still, this is the smallest of small complaints because, in reality, Jones does what she sets out to do; she has produced a well-written, well-constructed, well-paced story for young readers, with added elements that give the book richness which older readers will enjoy and appreciate too.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this book, for book lovers, is that it is rife with literary allusions.  Jones references a plethora of authors and stories from the fantasy canon, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Arthurian Legend, and also from British literature, including Shakespeare and John Donne.  These little gems are delightful for those who recognize them, but also work well in the storyline in general, so young readers will appreciate their presence at face-value.  This type of sub-context, coupled with the major themes of love and destiny (Sophie is grappling with the fates, fighting to break the fairy tale mold placed on her as eldest sister, though on the surface she has seemed to resign herself to the traditional role) makes for a fascinatingly and surprisingly rich story for young (and older) readers.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Middle Grade

Interest: Fantasy, Magic, Family, Coming-of-Age, Sibling Rivalry, Love, Perception, Fairy Tale, Satire, Jealousy, Destiny.

Notable Quotes:

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

“I assure you, my friends, I am cone sold stober.”

“I must apologize for trying to bite you so often. In the normal way, I wouldn’t dream of setting teeth in a fellow countryman.”

This book was recommended to me by Amanda.

Review: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 11


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Crystal Cave is the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy.  She based the series on Geoffrey of Manmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) – a work of now-debunked “scholarship” from the 12th Century.  In her Author’s note, Stewart makes it quite clear that she based her story on this text because it was, to her, the most interesting – and because she was not interested in creating a work of scholarship (thus, she did not need to take Geoffrey of Manmouth’s work entirely seriously).  This is an important note and certainly asserts the credibility of the author, scholarly text or not. Ultimately, this is a story of Merlin’s boyhood – and it outlines the path he will soon take as prophet, rather than magician.  Stewart’s interpretation places all of Merlin’s power in the hands of the gods – making him simply a vessel, with no major magical ability of his own (though he is certainly clever and intelligent).  While I am a bit disappointed in the more spiritual / less mystical interpretation of the Merlin story (I much prefer the magic of T.A. Barron or Jane Yolen), I was still fascinated by tale and how Stewart interpreted the various mythological events, people, and places.  I am a great fan of Arthurian Legend and the Merlin story, and this solid, literary approach (even more literary than White’s Once and Future King, in my opinion) is an excellent addition to the lore.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The downside to Stewart’s approach with Merlin’s character is that it leaves much of the “magic” in the hands of a higher entity.  Thus, unlike the Barron or Yolen works, for example, Merlin’s character in The Crystal Cave does not spend much time training or developing in the magical arts, even though he does have a magician tutor (as well as engineering, language and other tutors).  To me, this is a disappointment because that type of learning is what I have come to expect with retellings of the Merlin tale.  Even without this element, though, the character development and dynamics throughout are so excellent, one becomes taken in and starts to appreciate the story for what it is – a more realistic, “historical” account of the man who was Merlin – and how the lore and legends might have grown exponentially over time.  Merlin’s characterization as a bastard prince, coupled with his relationships, then, with his mother (an unwed princess), his grandfather (the king) and his biological father – whom Merlin comes to discover later in the story, all make for interesting sub-plots and help to guide the story of Merlin’s development along.  The introductions of familiar characters from legend, such as Uther Pendragon, are also well realized and, though different from other interpretations, work very well in Stewart’s reimagining.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The crowning achievement for this story is without a doubt Mary Stewart’s writing style.  There are elements of this piece which hearken back to the epic poets – Virgil and Homer- and which make this story, though modern fantasy-fiction, feel like a weathered text of yore.  Simultaneously, though, the language and flow are current, making the story easy to read and easy to follow (Stewart herself explains in the Author’s note how she took great care to update town names and to limit herself linguistically: For instance, where there may have been three or four different names for one town, based on the different people who had settled the territory at the time, she would choose one name – the simplest to read, thus keeping the story moving and effective by not forcing readers to track the less important elements).  The Merlin legend is one which has been around for ages and thus which demands a certain respect in storytelling – it must be relevant, but also authentic;  it must be told in a way that is somehow reminiscent of ancient folklore, which means largely lyrical – respecting the way ancient stories were not written down, but retold again and again through song and the spoken word.  Stewart’s prose does this in a way that no other Merlin text does (at least, not since Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur).


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

In essence, this story is about a young boy who was born in a tumultuous time and who has seemingly everything stacked against him.  Myrddin Emrys is a bastard child, born without a father in a kingdom constantly threatened.  His royal status is ignored because his mother bore him out of wedlock; he is feared because of the tales his mother told about his conception (and because of certain small “talents” he has, which are misinterpreted by those around him; and he is treated with fear, disrespect, and abuse – both by his elders and by his young peers.  But it is soon discovered that Merlin is a prophet – a vessel for the gods’ (or God’s) power.  He is a seer, who foretells the future – which causes him to be simultaneously feared and revered.  Ultimately, he is a boy on a quest to find his father and to do the right things – the things he is guided to do by his conscience and by the higher powers, who are preparing him to be the tutor and caretaker for the greatest King of all Brittania.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Merlin lore, Arthurian Legend, History, Ancient British History.


Notable Quotes:

“… the gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage.”

“But I have noticed this about ambitious men, or men in power, that they fear even the slightest and least likely threat to it.”

“I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the bloodstained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.”

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (With Bookalicious Pam)

Hello, Readers!

This is a week of firsts for me!  Yesterday, I posted my very first video-blog, and today I am posting my very first joint review!  Bookalicious Pam and I decided that, since The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was getting so much hype, we would read it together and review it under the same format, to compare notes as it were.  Enjoy!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Roof Beam Reader’s Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

Bookalicious Pam’s Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0


 Plot/Story:

RBR’s Thoughts:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Welcome to Le Cirque du Rêves!  The sun has set, which means the doors are just opening.  Catch it while you can – it’s back in town, but not for long.  Be sure to visit the Ice Garden and the Wishing Tree… and don’t miss out on the Pool of Tears.  Grab a caramel apple, something hot to drink, and wander through the aisles of black and white.  If you have questions while you’re here, feel free to seek out someone wearing just a splash of red – they’re the experts, after all.  Celia Bowen and Marco Alistair, magicians trained since birth, are bound by their masters’ unbreakable spell, to compete against each other, exhaustively and eternally, until one magician wins.  But what determines a winner?  In whose hands does the final verdict rest? And what will it cost the victor to win?  Morgenstern’s darkly-whimsical drama is an intricate play – the reader is strung along, a viewer to the events unfolding.  There are brief moments when the reader is invited in, allowed to be a part of the action, but one soon learns that The Night Circus is largely a private event, where spectators are allowed, but never truly privy to all that is happening.  The Night Circus is Romeo and Juliet meets The Prestige – a delicately constructed, intricately designed, beautifully crafted love story, with a novel twist.

BP’s Thoughts:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

I was entranced by the first sentence of The Night Circus and every sentence after that. Rarely does a book hold so much magical fodder to keep me entertained long past the 200th page has passed. I am in awe of Morgenstern’s writing chops and the fact that she flashed these chops so brilliantly in a debut Novel.  Normally I am wont to breeze through a novel and swiftly move on to the next, however, The Night Circus is like an expensive woody Cabernet to be savored slowly and in small doses. It’s not easy to make a magical world wholly believable and Morgenstern did just that. 


Characterization:

RBR’s Thoughts:

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Characterization and character development were almost the sole point of contention for me.  There are certainly a wide assortment of characters, from the dark, dangerous, and seemingly cold-hearted mentors, to the naïve farm boy, a gentle soul who is sucked into the magic of the Circus, almost against his will (not that he isn’t willing, ultimately).  While the characters –be the major or minor, external to the Circus or crucial to it- are each of them interesting in their own way, filling a separate need in the plot and final climax/resolution, it is ultimately the subtle changes in certain characters, including Marco and Celia, their mentors, and some of the Circus folk, which demonstrates Morgenstern’s mastery of characterization.  It is further demonstrated, and perhaps most profoundly, in the realization that the Circus itself is a complicated character, the one which grows, develops, and changes the most throughout the story – and the one which is crucial to the existence of all the other characters.

BP’s Thoughts:

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

The Night Circus has a brilliant cast of characters. Moving beyond your main protagonist there is a whole circus to explore full of everything and everyone you believe would be haunting and working at a circus that only opens at night. It is very comparable to that episode of Torchwood about the Night Circus. At times I was able to imagine Captain Jack running about in Morgenstern’s world. The whole characterization style was wholly refreshing.


Prose/Style:

RBR’s Thoughts:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The Night Circus is narrated in the third-person present for the majority of the story, aside from brief second-person interludes, where the reader is specifically directed to certain aspects of the Circus.  It is also constructed as a series of episodes, interspersed through time and space: one moment, the reader is watching events unfold in 1890s London, and in the next moment the story is developing in Boston, twenty years later.  The construction is interesting in that it almost forces the reader to slow-down and savor the story; if you read too quickly, it will be easy to get lost in the timeline.  Though I am not typically a fan of non-linear plots, Morgenstern’s layout is somehow appropriate, largely because it is 1) written so well and 2) an interesting addition to the already surreal story, mirroring the intrigue and mystery of the Circus.  Similarly to the unique structure and style of the book (which includes, I should add, a gorgeously crafted book, from cover-to-cover – you can feel the quality of this book under your fingertips), the prose is also demonstrative of high-art writing and ability.  This type of prose, so meticulously wrought, is lacking in today’s fiction, aside from a few literary writers.  Though the chapters are short, the words are so intense and the style so powerful that it makes each episode in the story impossible to skip.     

BP’s Thoughts:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The style of the book was candy but the really rich darkest chocolate. It had sustenance with indulgence that never overwhelmed the reader. The editing was top notch and reflected the author’s darker subplot fantastically. Honestly I really don’t have much to say here except that this section was perfection on a stick.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

RBR’s Thoughts:

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What really brings this altogether and makes The Night Circus not just an interesting, dramatic, magical-romance is the world Morgenstern creates both in the book and external to it.  The Night Circus has its own interactive website, where fans can continue to participate and even interact with some of the “cast.”  The proprietor of the Circus even leaves the reader his business card, with e-mail address, so that anyone can send a message (and actually get a response – try it!).  This world-building, coupled with the gorgeously designed physical book (the paper quality is superb, the book boards themselves, outside and inside are beautiful, the jacket art is lovely, the constellation section-breaks and font/type are beautiful, etc. etc.) make this a book one will not just enjoy reading, but will be proud of owning.  There is something very old-fashioned, almost ancient, about this story – though it takes place just 100-years ago.  It’s as if Morgenstern channeled the history of magic, from the Merlin myth through the Salem-age, and wrapped it up tight in this one book, for all to taste.  Some reviewers have been put off by the “diversions” in the book, which distract readers from a supposedly predictable plot, but in my opinion, these diversions complement the Circus.  At the Circus, visitors are allowed glimpses of different acts and events, depending on which tents they visit.  Because the Circus is so big, and always changing, no one person has ever seen every tent, every act.  Morgenstern allows us to see as much as we can see, to get glimpses of the characters in different times and locations, which affords readers the opportunity to come to the Circus on their own and to like whichever aspect of it is most appealing to them.  Some will fall in love with the romance, others with the magic.  Some will be charmed by the clockmaker, others by the fortune-teller.  Readers might adore the Circus twins, who are born in the Circus and grow along with it, while others might find the competition itself, the power and history of it, most intriguing.  The point is, readers get to see all of it – brief glimpses which create the whole story.  Think of it as a mosaic, where up close any one image out of hundreds can be seen, but when you stand back and look at the images from afar, the true portrait appears.    

BP’s Thoughts:

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Hello, it’s a circus, and who doesn’t love a circus? Well to be honest the only circus I will visit is an imaginary one. I have all of these thoughts and feelings about animal treatment and real circuses don’t work out for me on the whole so it was wonderful to learn about circus worlds/terms/ideals via this book. I found myself enamored by the setting which was just as much a protagonist than the characters. 


RBR’s Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult

Interest: Fantasy, Romance, Whimsy, Competition, Family, Magical Realism

BP’s Suggested Reading for:

Upper YA, College Students and fans of dark literary motif. 

Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 42


Plot/Story:

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Magician King is the sequel to Grossman’s 2009 novel, The Magicians (my review can be found here). Quentin Coldwater and the other genius-magicians are back to save the world(s) again, only this time Quentin is forewarned that, part of accepting a quest and winning it is sacrificing or losing something most dear to him.  And this time, he not only battles magicians and monsters, but must take on the creators of all life, all worlds, and all universes:  the gods.  In the first book, Quentin loses someone very close to him and that pain has stayed with him over the intervening years; so, what more could Quentin have to lose?  As it turns out, quite a lot, although he doesn’t realize it yet.  In this second installment of the lives of these realistic magicians, the reader gains perspective on more than just Quentin’s struggles.  Julia, a recurring character from the first book, has a front and center role here, and her story is a dark and dangerous one.  The quests that Quentin and Julia are on ultimately lead to the same place, though the majority of each is played out in different worlds (Fillory and Earth).  Only when they come together are they able to make headway toward finding the Seven Golden Keys and to avoid a catastrophic event, the return of the gods, which will doom all worlds to the loss of magic forever.


Characterization:

3 – Characters well-developed.

The Magician King reintroduces us to some of our favorite (and least favorite) characters from The Magicians.  The four monarchs of Fillory – Quentin, Eliot, Julia, and Janet, have been ruling the land since their defeat of Fillory’s previous dictators and restoring balance to the realm.  Josh, another magician from the genius school Brakebills, reappears and helps the others on their quest to save the worlds.  Aside from Janet, who does not get much page time, and Eliot, who has minimal growth near the end, most of the recurring characters grow quite a bit over the course of the story, and are noticeably different from the personalities of The Magicians.  Some of the new characters, too, like Poppy – a brilliant Australian research magician, who is studying dragon lore, and the secret society of magicians who Julia manages to engage with, after years of strenuous study and training, add great depth and new life to this second book in the would-be series (as I do anticipate at least one more book).  The great disappointments, though, are the final resolutions for Quentin and Julia, the book’s main characters.  Each ending seemed relatively unsatisfying – Quentin seems to have learned something at the end, but he’s not quite sure what.  Julia becomes more than human, which we are led to believe is what she deserves for all her sacrifice, except that her sacrifice always seems selfish and, if anything, makes her less worthy (at least in this reader’s opinion).


Prose/Style:

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Grossman certainly has a unique voice, particularly within the fantasy genre.  His Magicians books are much more realistic than one would expect fantasy novels to be, and this includes the language.  The magicians speak in real voices – they are vulgar, colloquial, and sarcastic.  They are, aside from their magical abilities and supposed genius (a lingering point of contention for me, from the first book), very normal people.  This may be difficult for a lot of readers, particular those who pick-up these books expecting a typical fantasy story.  Reading Grossman’s fantasies is much more like reading Irving or Updike, with magical/fantasy elements, than reading J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis (though both authors’ works, in addition to works by Rowling and other fantasy writers are referenced many times, in a tongue-in-cheek manner).  This could be a pro or a con, depending on what individual readers want from their fantasy novels.  Still, Grossman’s language is fluid and engaging; the story moves forward at a steady but sometimes disjointed pace and, aside from a few proofreading errors, which I only blame an author for when he/she is self-publishes, the style is well-done and appropriate.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I love most about this book is what I worry others may not enjoy: the realism.  It could be very difficult for fantasy lovers to enjoy this take on fantasy.  It almost comes across as satire, at times.  Many reviews of The Magicians, for instance, took issue with that book because they believed it either stole from or made fun of traditional fantasy books, and the genre in general.  I will say of The Magician King what I said of its predecessor:  Grossman does what he intends to do, which is pay homage to the fantasy genre and its giant writers, while making the genre his own.  This is a difficult thing to do, but I believe Grossman does it well and should be applauded for his efforts. I would caution sensitive readers to be prepared for some disturbing scenes.  I read subversive literature often, William S. Burroughs and Dennis Cooper being two of my favorite writers, but there was one particular passage in The Magician King which made even me a bit squeamish.  Still, if you are looking for a truly different, envelope-pushing, dangerously real-life kind of fantasy, The Magician King (and its predecessor) is for you.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult

Interest: Realistic Fantasy, Fantasy-Parody, Magic, Friendship, Epic Quest Tales, Multiverses, Mythology, Theology, Poly-deities