Rachel Hartman–Seraphina

Like so many other 16 year olds Seraphina, the eponymous heroine of Seraphina, struggles to fit into her world. Her mother died at childbirth and her relationship with her father is strained at best. She thinks she’s ugly and feels torn between two worlds.

Unlike other 16 year olds however, Seraphina also happens to be half-dragon. Rachel Hartman’s debut Seraphina is as enjoyable on a re-read as it was the first time I read it two years ago. (I re-read in preparation for Shadow Scales, the sequel).

Rachel Hartman’s world is one where an uneasy peace exists between humans and dragons. The story opens with the 40th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty looming on the horizon. To commemorate the event, dragon commander Comonot and his entourage are travelling to the human kingdom of Goredd.

While there is no outward conflict between dragons and humans, distrust runs rampant, with the two species viewing each other as alien beings with no common ground between them. To compound the matter, as the story begins, the human king Prince Rufus has just been murdered—in a fashion that is reminiscent of dragon killings.

seraphina-198x300At this point I want to talk about Hartman’s dragons. Dragons in Rachel Hartman’s world are not the fiery creatures of passion and emotion that one normally encounters. Quite the opposite in fact. Cool logic is their purview and they disdain emotional quagmires, looking at human beings as interesting cockroaches, as Seraphina puts it.

Seraphina’s character and the tension fraught world of Goredd reminded me of the world we live in. I love how the framework of a fantasy world makes the issues that are explored in the story feel non-threatening. The distance that the fantasy aspect provides makes it easier for me to approach the subjects that are being dealt with, and to think about them from a broader perspective than I would have been able to if those very same issues had been couched in a non-fantasy story. (And in fact this is one of the reasons why I think I love fantasy as a genre).

Seraphina is thrust right in the middle of all the intrigue. A gifted musician and the assistant to the court composer she comes to be in a unique position, one from which she can see clearly both into the human and the dragon heart. In her quest to understand the going-ons around her, she has to reach a measure of peace with herself, and has to stop viewing herself as one of the “grotesques.” As she comes to realize:

We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful.

Are you intrigued yet?

The world that Hartman builds is very atmospheric:

The road, not wide to begin with, narrowed even further above us; the upper stories cantilevered over the street, as if the houses were leaning together to gossip. A woman on one side might have borrowed a lump of butter from her neighbor on the other without leaving home. The looming buildings squeezed the sky down to a rapidly darkening ribbon.

Or the vividness of the details that makes this bit come alive:

I did not just see it: I smelled fish and market spices, felt the ocean’s salty breath upon my incorporeal face. I soared through the pristine blue sky like a lark, circled over white domes and spires, and glided above the bustling dockyards. A lush temple garden, full of chuckling fountains and blossoming lemon trees, drew me in.

As you can make out from the above, the writing is lovely (and remains so through and through):

The music flew from me like a dove released into the vastness of the nave; the cathedral itself lent it new richness and gave something back, as if this glorious edifice, too, were my instrument.

I took one last look around this peculiar, smelly slice of interspecies coexistence, the treaty’s mad dream come to raucous life.

Seraphina is exactly the sort of fantasy that I enjoy the most—layered characters, evocative settings and thought-provoking writing. It doesn’t hurt that the plot sucks you in too.

There’s just one last thing that I want to remark upon before I go off to enjoy Shadow Scales. Though there’s just a whiff of romance in the story, I very much love the way that the sort-of-love-triangle that exists between Seraphina and two other characters, Princess Glisselda and Kiggs, is handled. Far from portraying one of the girls as an evil other-woman, Hartman makes the reader fall in love with both Seraphina and Glisselda. They complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses and share a friendship that has nothing to do with Kiggs. I just love that so much!

Anyway! Here’s another bit that I enjoyed:

The ocean was still there, but my music was a bridge, a ship, a beacon. It bound me to everyone here, held us all in its hands, carried us together to a better place. It modulated (ripples on the sea) and modulated again (a flight of gulls) and landed squarely on a mode I loved (a chalky cliff, a windswept lighthouse). I could make out a different tune, one of my mother’s, just below the surface; I played a coy melody, an enigmatic variation, referencing her tune without bringing it up explicitly. I made a pass at her song, circled, touched it lightly before swooping past once more. It would draw me back into its orbit again and again until I gave it its due. I played her melody out in full, and I sang my father’s lyrics, and for a shining moment we were all three together.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle

I’ve had a really busy fall with my mum visiting and us gadding all over the city! But I am back now! And I want to start off with Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

I’ve only ever heard good things about her books and so it was with trepidation—and also delight: because yay! Oyster had it! Has the next in the series too! Also, I love Oyster! (the book subscription service. Not the seashell animal. In case you were wondering)—that I approached the story. BUT I thoroughly enjoyed it! I wouldn’t call it blew-my-socks-off spectacular but I suspect that the book and perhaps Miss Jones in general might become one of my go-to comfort-read authors.

Here’s a synopsis of the story:

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

I loved Sophie. And the Wizard Howl. And Calcifer (the fire demon). And Sophie’s two sisters. And Fanny. And the king (who makes an appearance for just one chapter). And Mrs. Fairfax. And the [spoiler alert for someone who hasn’t read the book! Highlight it] hybrid Suliman-Prince Justin-Scarecrow-Skull-head. And Michael. Ok, I guess it’s fair to say that I quite enjoyed everyone who makes an appearance in the story.

Diana Wynne Jones writes characters who are just so. . . I want to say delightful but I don’t mean that in a twee sense. There’s a solidity to them—she makes them look like real people with both things to admire about and things which makes them appear incredibly frail. The king’s description was one that really stuck out for me:

And there was the King . . . [T]rue, he sat with one leg thrust out in a kingly sort of manner, and he was handsome in a plump, slightly vague way, but to Sophie he seemed quite youthful and just a touch too proud of being a king. She felt he ought, with that face, to have been more unsure of himself.

And then I loved the fact that Sophie is a 90 year old for most of the story (thought she still has to deal with the doubts that plagued her as a 17 year old). The early chapters in which she’s trying to settle in at the castle have this marvelous energy (Literally. She’s dusting and cleaning her way through all of it) that was just such fun to read (and was also laugh out loud hilarious at times):

In the days that followed, Sophie cleaned her way remorselessly through the castle. She really enjoyed herself. Telling herself she was looking for clues, she washed the window, she cleaned the oozing sink, and she made Michael clear everything off the workbench and the shelves so that she could scrub them. She had everything out of the cupboards and down from the beams and cleaned those too. The human skull, she fancied, began to look as long-suffering as Michael. It had been moved so often.

The world-building is wrought finely and with a light hand. It is integral to the story but does not overshadow the characters—a characteristic that I liked very much. Neither the magical world, nor the magic within it offers a solution for the problems our young (and not so young) hero and heroine have to face. Both Howl and Sophie have to step up and face their fears to move on.

And speaking of the world that our characters inhabit, Market Chipping felt like a quaint English village. And the use of present world Wales was, I thought, a stroke of genius! (and that reminds me—I would love a book on Wizard Sulaiman! How did he end up finding this world? I can imagine it being easier for Howl after he finds it first!)

Last but not the least I love a romance with absolutely no bells and whistles. While Howl’s Moving Castle in no way qualifies as a romance as per the definition of the genre I did so enjoy watching Sophie poke at Howl and Howl poke right back at Sophie! More of such stories with nothing to signal that a romance is unfolding right under the reader’s nose would be very welcome!

N.K. Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is certainly epic in feel—gods, mortals who are playthings of gods and gods who are playthings of mortals, an all powerful ruler, a 19-year old heroine who has to quickly learn to fall right on her feet as she is thrust in the heart of a family that is power-hungry and vindictive, and her own. (It’s her mother’s side of the family whom she will be meeting for the first time).

Yet, for all the epic-ness, I was left distinctly uncharmed. After thinking about it I have come to the conclusion that the book was just not to my taste. Like rich, dark, steaming hot chocolate isn’t to my husband’s. (which works out remarkably well for me each time. Ha!) A part of this is because of the petulant gods who have brought the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms into existence. We’re told that the mortals were fashioned in the image of Gods but to me it felt the other way round. Nothing wrong about it, of course, but like I said just something not to my taste.

Then there’s the universe-shattering love between our heroine and one of the said Gods. Our heroine has hots for the god even though having sex with him could very well end her mortal life. Incredulous but ok, whatever floats your boat. What I had much more trouble swallowing was the romance that springs up fully formed pretty much right from the start—one look at each other and God and Heroine are struggling to not give in to their feelings for each other.

The other really jarring part was the back-and-forth switch between our heroine’s reminiscing and the present tense conversation? that she has with her past-self?, a god?, her-self?, uh, what? Do you feel confused? Good. I did too. It becomes clear in the end as to what’s going on, and perhaps the confusion was precisely what I was supposed to feel through almost half of the story. I don’t know. I just found it jarring.

There’s two more stories set in the same world. I might read it or not. We’ll see.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

I didn’t know anything about “The Goose Girl,” a Grimm Brothers’s fairy tale on which Thorn is based but I was hooked enough by the comments of one of my favourite book bloggers to dive right into it.

Alyrra is a princess who doesn’t feel anything remotely like a princess. When circumstances conspire to strip her off her princess-ly position, she’s terrified at first, but grows to embrace her situation with élan. I love how the plot lends itself so easily to Alyrra’s growth into a confident young woman. Her be-coming into the fullness of who she is, felt real, and was completely believable unlike another princess, from another first time author.

Thorn_CoverFnlRevFNLF_low_resAnd yes, this is a first time author by the lovely name of Intisar Khanani. She’s also self-published, so if the book interests you, and you are able to, please do go directly to her site and buy the book from the link she offers!

Power and the ability to wield justice (or injustice) are at the heart of the book. Alyrra has already experienced cruelty at the hands of her brother, a king-to-be, and as a goose girl, living with the hostlers and the common thieves, she comes to see how the decisions of those in power affect the lives of everyone around them. She would rather continue being a goose girl, away from the machinations of the court, but being who she is, she cannot fail to see the role she could play in affecting those decisions.

Of the many things to like about this book, the one I liked the best was how the “battle” between Alyrra and the “evil witch” plays out at the end of the novel. At its core, the resolution is about seeing what is at the heart of the “evil witch.” No magic is involved unless you count empathy as a magic in itself (and I do, especially in today’s world). The way that Alyrra handles it seems in keeping with what she has been becoming through the course of the story. And I have to say if Miss Khanani hadn’t allowed Alyrra to develop the way she did, it could all have gone horribly wrong.

The romance between Alyrra and the prince was handled deftly as well—gentle and allowed to unfold at its own pace. The only snag, a very slight one was. . . the children’s literature feel to the story. That’s not even really a criticism, just something that I felt towards the end, something I wasn’t really expecting to encounter.

On the whole, I’d recommend this book to everyone who loves a good story. I’d especially tell the adults to get this book for that special teen in their lives who loves himself or herself a good fantasy!

A Fantasy, A Regency, and A Historical or Madames Elliott & Heyer and Monsieur Lawrence Norfolk

Yes people I’ve been reading. So without further ado—does anyone have a replacement for this phrase? Hosts introducing moderators, and moderators introducing the panel “without further ado” left, right and center in the World Science Festival has left me feeling a bit exhausted with this phrase—here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been upto reading-wise.

The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott

Oh how MUCH I love this one! It’s big, it’s complex, it’s meaty, it features two kick-ass heroines whose relationship forms the heart of the series and it also explores issues of free will.

I loved the romance that was explored in the series—I love how it’s allowed to simmer so that when things really come to a head between the two protagonists it feels so authentic, like a natural-next step for its two main leads. Then there’s the theme of ownership that was woven all the way through to the end of the story (with a plot twist that I hadn’t foreseen and that made me realize how I really SHOULD NOT jump to conclusions about others’ actions because I really DO NOT know the heart of their stories). I also really liked how one of the two main female characters was so kick-ass happy WITHOUT a strong, big hero in the offing. And I really liked how the ambiguous note that the series ends on politically reflects the one step forward, two steps backwards nature of sustainable, long-term changes in the real world (feudalism/capitalism/democracy/benevolent dictatorship and their ramifications are all discussed through the length of the story arc). And there’s a parallel Caribbean too! Oh just go get your hands on Cold Magic, the first in the series!

On Fantasy

So I went to the Fantasy panel with Deborah Harkness and Lev Grossman at BookCon on May 31. The thing that I like about both these authors is that their works straddle the real and the fantastical. Their magic skids along the edges of the world as we know it. And that apparently is, exactly the reason, why they write the sort of books that they do (rather than straight out fantasies like George R. Martin or Brandon Sanderson).

Grossman said that to him it’s not about the magic. He’s more interested in exploring how you live your life, and what you do with it, when you could conceivably have everything that you want at your finger-tips. For Deborah Harkness, magic is just another skill like being innately smart at studies or good at singing. In each case, how you feel about yourself as a person and your sense of self-worth is not a function of the skill you posses but more about what you think of and feel about yourself.

It was interesting to see some of my own thoughts about fantasy being reflected back to me by these two authors whose books I’ve enjoyed so much!

Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep

I really really enjoyed Black Sheep. I am NOT a fan of the rake to perfect husband trope and didn’t like Venetia, and These Old Shades, two other Heyer romances featuring a rake as a hero. The other two felt over-the-top to me whereas Black Sheep hit the sweet spot with both Miles and Abigail. This time around it also struck me that dialogue is Heyer’s tool of choice for fleshing out her characters. There are pages and pages of conversation between her characters with only a few words spared for the setting or descriptions of any sort.

I think that along with The Unknown Ajax Black Sheep has become one of my favourite Heyers. And now that I think of it both Miles and Hugh Daracott (the hero of The Unknown Ajax) are cut out of the same cloth.

Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast

If you love food and words, go grab the book! The setting is mid-17th century England. The plot is okayish. Indeed, the use of Christian zealot-ism as an integral part of the storyline is tedious. The characters are also nothing spectacular but they serve the purpose—the purpose being to devour the food–words that are dished up through the course of the story! The FOOD! Oh my! The description of the implements of cooking, the depth and breadth of the spices, the process of the ingredients being mixed up to serve utterly sumptuous feasts, the “recipe” that introduces each chapter, ALL of it had me salivating for more! The words are ornate, at times archaic (and I was really glad that I read this one on my iPad which made looking up the meaning easy), but always luxurious, especially the ones that have anything at all to do with food. The scenes that do feature food (and thankfully, there are a LOT of them as this is a story about a 17th century cook) are truly evocative. If you love cooking or eating, or perhaps enjoy both like me, then this is a book that you shouldn’t miss out on!

Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy by Rae Carson

At first I wasn’t going to say anything. But the more I think about it the more I realize that while I did not not like Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy I didn’t like it either. And I’m interested in thinking through why it didn’t work for me.

The first book was the best. The heroine’s development feels true and in commensuration with the challenges she faces. In books 2 and 3 by contrast, some of the major “battle” scenes are too tame—they lack the scope of imagination that one comes to expect after reading the first book in the trilogy. Not only that but also the heroine’s triumph in those scenes feels too contrived, and quick. Overall those scenes, that one would expect would help in the development and the rounding out of the heroine, did not register with me as events of great import. As a consequence Elisa (the heroine) never felt like a fully fleshed out character.

[SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL] At the end of the third book Elisa’s godstone rolls off her navel and this was such an obvious attempt to make her view all her earlier actions as things she did of her own volition, to help bolster her self-confidence, that I felt disappointed. I wish Miss Carson would have come up with other ways of achieving this. Moreover, the rolling off raised questions about the earlier plot resolutions that Miss Carson had affected and that featured the godstone heavily.

Also, the romance arc in the 2nd and 3rd books is irritating. Neither the heroine nor her love interest were developed well enough for me to be emotionally vested in their relationship. I will give Miss Carson full marks for effort for her first trilogy but I’d suggest that you wait for her later books. In the meanwhile, I would rather recommend Guy Gavirel Kay, another author whose stories failed to engage me emotionally but an author whose characters and plots have a satisfying depth to them.

Winter Reading–A Winter’s Tale, Tigana and some more

A Winter’s Tale

And so I would like to begin this new year with where I left off last—A Winter’s Tale. (Here’s my thoughts on part 1 by the way). Halfway through I’m still not entirely sure about the overarching theme of the novel. From the bits and pieces that Helprin drops here and there I get the feeling that he’s talking about the necessity of the existence of both good and evil for there to be any sort of equilibrium in this world. Then there’s the fact that the two lovers, Peter Lake and Beverly Penn whose lives we were following earlier have completely disappeared to be replaced by Hardesty Marratta and Virginia Gamely. In the middle there was a 50-60-page sequence between Hardesty and a giant dwarf called Jess that was hilarious. Of course Jess died and doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the rest of the story. Then again, the mysterious way in which almost all the previous characters have disappeared has made me pretty sure that they’re all going to turn up somewhere or the other. I’m impatient to know how and of course Helprin is in no hurry while he continues to frolic around in a lush prose that’s teeming with words that I frequently have to look up.

This far in the novel I also realize that Winter (yes, the season) and the Lake of Coheeries are central to the story. Both Hardesty and Virginia make their way to New York City on the heels of a winter that is unforgiving. And the Lake of Coheeries is a “place” that’s “not on the map, and [where] mail never gets through . . . It’s hard to explain.” It’s as if Lake of Coheeries is a living, breathing presence, one that condescends to allow only certain people into its folds.

I was also a bit bemused by the scenes of madness Hardesty encounters—

Bakery trucks raced on the main avenues at 125 miles per hour, assassinating bicyclists and pedestrians. Balkan pretzel vendors in two-foot-thick-padded clothing and fleecy aviator caps charged each other with their flame-holding wagons, bumping like buffalos, to lay claim to a corner.

They have me wondering whether Hardesty actually saw these. What if they were merely a product of an imagination that had taken a violent dislike to a city that we’re told “wanted fuel for its fires, and it reached out with leaping tongues of gravity and flame to pull people in, size them up dance with them a little, sell them a suit—and then devour them.”

Helprin captures the beingness of New York City in all its beauty… and also its cruelty. I’m hooked and impatient to know how it all comes together.

Tigana

This last month I also read my second Guy Gavirel Kay novel. He writes gripping stories that for some reason I just don’t find as satisfying as the rest of the world does. In Tigana the issue is a question of identity and how much of it stems from a shared past. What does it mean when nobody other than the people of your own country can recall the nation-state you’re from? What does it do to your sense of self to have that culture and history that you perhaps took for granted obliterated from the minds of the rest of the world? As I said Mr. Kay writes about interesting themes and packages it  in fast-moving action but for some reason both Tigana and A Song for Arbonne failed to capture my imagination. I’m thinking of reading one more of his books—Under the Stars—before making up my mind.

Other stuff

Some other books I’ve been occupied with included the second Earthsea book Tombs of Atuan, Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London and Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot. Aaronovitch’s book is very much like what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the London police force.

I’ll leave you with this poem that I found while reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter:

The Winter Evening by William Cowper written in 1785

O winter, ruler of the inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d, . . .
A leafless branch thy scepter, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slippery way,
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded as thou art! . . .
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, homeborn happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.

Brandon Sanderson – The Mistborn Trilogy (Mini Review)

What has occupied me this past week: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.

Faith and trust are the two themes that Sanderson explores time and again in this trilogy. The series is well plotted and meticulously planned. All of the disparate and pesky bits of details which one would not have thought of as clues come together in the climax in the third book. The framework of magic that Sanderson develops (Allomancy – the use of metals to enhance physical power, the power to influence emotions, etc.), and the different magical species he creates are engaging. Best of all the magical species were a result of not just a foray into magical imagination but were pivotal to the resolution of the conflict and for the movement of the plot.

By the third book though I found my attention wandering (largely due to my impatience with some of the major characters in the book). For instance, I appreciate Sanderson’s exploration of faith through Sazed’s struggles in the third book; however, I could not find myself empathizing with Sazed (a major character in the book). His struggle with faith seems too pedantic; his realization that the transformation he has been subjecting himself to because of what Twindyl (Sazed’s love interest) admired too haste. His emotional movements are just too jerky for me. I had similar troubles with Vim’s (the heroine) and Elend’s (the hero) issues with trust in the second book – I found their characters a bit too cookie-cutter-ish to trust their moments of epiphany.

This combined with some of the story-arcs that I felt stretched on unnecessarily (Spook’s story line for one) made the trilogy a less than stellar experience for me. The first book of the series was the most engaging and the series went downhill from there. My impatience to find out how the different pieces fit together was the only linchpin in me finishing the whole series.

What I want to read next: Something solidly contemporary. I want to purge myself of all things magical before I latch on to Kristin Cashore’s Graceling which seems to have garnered some great reviews (and yes, I know it came out 3-4 years ago).

I have The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny loaded on to my Kindle (I found it at a literally throwaway price on Amazon). However, I also have The Maytrees by Annie Dillard on my wishlist and I’m wondering if I should get that instead. Hmm… What to do?!

Update: Well, I ended up getting The Snow Child by Eown Ivey instead!

Among Others by Jo Walton – A Review

Among OthersAmong Others was a bit of a disappointment. In all honesty the disappointment probably stems from my notions of what a sci-fi / fantasy novel should be like. (And I am confused whether Among Others is a sci-fi story or a fantasy). Devoid of mindbending magic and fantastical creatures and the grand battles between good and evil Among Others is a pean to the sci-fi genre.

Morwenna, the 15 year old zealous sci-fi lover whose diary entries we read has just lost her twin. She has also run away from her evil witch of a mother who was responsible for her twin’s death. She is meeting her father for the first time and is settling down somewhat uncomfortably ‘among others’ – amongst a group of sports-loving, girly-girls who are as different from her as can be.

As an ode to books and the power they wield and as a revelation of a book lover’s somewhat tempestuous relationship with books they adore Among Others excels. I was sucked in by the intensity and the passion with which Morwenna discusses books. While the focus on sci-fi meant I had not read 90% of the books being talked about the minutiae of being a reader – of being held in grip by a book, of discovering one that forces you to reconsider your long-held cherished notions, of the fact that there are books that change one’s life and the eventual discovery that you aren’t the only one whose life has been changed, of there being “some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books” – was all eminently relatable.

It’s just that I found myself disappointed with the overall plot.

The breathless quality of Morwenna’s narration set me up to expect unspeakable revelations being disclosed in the very next breath; however, the entirety of the the accident that led to the twin’s death, Morwenna’s mother’s role in all of it and the grand face-off between good and evil was over before I was aware of it. Again, I want to repeat that there’s nothing wrong with this by itself – it’s just that I was caught completely unawares.

Among Others depicts magic as something that could be construed as happenstance – no fire-breathing dragons and faery realms here. Miss Walton also touches on predestination vs free will. If there is such a thing as magic then who is to say that your reading of these words was not so much your choice as perhaps a circumstance already ordained to happen because of magic meddling in somewhere along the chain of events? Overall, I found the description of magic whimsical and refreshing:

Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself. Gramma’s shirts and jumpers adjusted themselves to hide her missing breast. My mother’s  shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us.

The element of magic is secondary to the story. The focus is on Morwenna coming into her own. That she can wield magic is incidental. Her identity is defined more by the books she reads than her ability to do something rare and secretive like magic. And yet it is this very aspect of Among Others which makes me question the necessity of magic in the story in the first place. The coming-of-age story could have been told with no introduction of magic in the first place. Its presence seems superfluous to the overall story. Then again, perhaps that is Miss Walton’s message – that our identity need not be defined by the presence of a superhuman ability (or the lack of it); rather it’s a conscious decision that we must make each moment through our choices.

There are also some lovely insights tucked into the folds of Among Others:

Class is like magic. There’s nothing there you can point to, it evaporates if you try to analyse it, but it’s real and it affects how people behave and makes things happen.

and

I hate it when people imply that people only read because they have nothing better to do.

and

If you love books enough, books will love you back.

Book lovers out there, I certainly recommend this for a one-time read. Fantasy lovers out there, put away your expectations in a little box and then come to Among Others.

realist fantasy – The Magicians

Ever felt a peculiar restlessness dogging your footsteps which refuses to go away? Ever felt as if you:

had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness, had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices but happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.

That’s the theme which Grossman explores in his intelligent fantasy novel, “The Magicians”. (Sidenote: isn’t the way Grossman put that restless feeling into words absolutely delicious?)

The book explores the story of one Quentin Coldwater whose fantasies come to life when he stumbles into Brakebills College and discovers that he might very well be a magician; a real and actual magician. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s another Harry Potter though. It’s not. Darker but so much more relatable, it delves into one question over and again – what do you do if you have the entire world at your feet and yet something is still missing from your life?

When we first meet Quentin, who’s a ridiculously brilliant young man, he’s not happy. Brakebills comes to his rescue and he no longer feels like he’s struggling to breathe. However, that isn’t the neatly wrapped, decorated-with-a-bow finish that Grossman gives to his story. He relentlessly forces Quentin to confront his dissatisfaction again and again. With all their brilliance and power why didn’t the magicians just invent a pill to make themselves happy wonders Quentin. He has power literally at his fingertips but has no idea about what he’s supposed to do with it.

Even after he finds Fillory (a series of children’s fantasy books which has a Narnia like world) to be real and finds his way into it – a deep rooted yearning which had been a part of his life from the time he read the first Fillory book – the gaping hole remains unplugged:

There was a time when this had been his most passionate hope, when it would have ravished him with happiness. It was just so weird, he thought sadly. Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? Its groping hands so clumsy? He thought he’d left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills. How could it have followed him here, of all places? How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him. He had to get rid of it, break the pattern! Or maybe this was different, maybe there really was something off here. Maybe the hollowness was in Fillory, not in him.

This thought-provoking novel doesn’t really give Quentin or the readers any straightforward answers but Quentin’s journey as he struggles to grasp that kernel of happiness which refuses to stay in his hold is eminently relatable and readable. Grossman makes you run through the entire gamut of emotions as you find yourself cheering for Quentin and then hating him and then sympathizing with him as you see him through his own eyes.

Along the way Quentin falls in love with a painfully shy and socially awkward young woman named Alice. Here’s how Grossman describes the initial stages of their friendship:

He (Quentin) wasn’t sure they were friends, exactly, but she was unfolding a little. He felt like a safecracker who – partly by luck – had sussed out the first digit in a lengthy, arduous combination.

The book is filled with gems like these. Who hasn’t met an Elliot who:

was obviously one of those people who felt at home in the world – he was naturally buoyant, where Quentin felt like he had to dog-paddle constantly, exhaustingly, humiliatingly, just to get one sip of air.

Exquisitely written, Grossman has a gift for grasping words which tend to dance at the periphery of your consciousness. Sample this:

They maneuvered around one another with the absolute confidence of people who had spent huge amounts of time together, who trusted and loved one another and who knew how to show one another off to best advantage and how to curb each other’s boring and annoying habits.

One thing which I did wish Grossman had dwelled more on was his remarkable description of the magical world. Since the magic provides a context in which the characters find themselves, Grossman doesn’t focus a lot on the details of the magical world. However, the glimpses he provides certainly makes me wish he had.

For example, the test which Quentin had to give to prove his merit for admittance to Brakebillls (no, the fact that you had magical abilities did not guarantee your admission) had a question where:

He was asked to draw a rabbit that wouldn’t keep still as he drew it – as soon as it had paws it scratched itself luxuriously and then went hopping off around the page, nibbling at the other questions, so that he had to chase it with the pencil to finish filling in the fur. He wound up pacificying it with some hastily sketched radishes and then drawing a fence around it to keep it in line.

Or the description of Brakebills’ library:

In the nineteenth century Brakebills had appointed a librarian with a highly romantic imagination who had envisioned a mobile library in which the books fluttered from shelf to shelf like birds, reorganizing themselves spontaneously under their own power in response to searches. For the first few months the effect was said to have been quite dramatic. A painting of the scene survived as a mural behind the circulation desk, with enormous atlases soaring around the place like condors.

But the system turned out to be totally impractical. The wear and tear on the spines alone was too costly, and the books were disobedient. The librarian had imagined he could summon a great book to perch on his hand just by shouting out its call number but in actuality they were just too willful, and some were actively predatory. The librarian was swiftly deposed, and his successor set about domesticating the books again, but even now there were stragglers, notably in Swiss History and Architecture 300-1399, that stubbornly flapped around near the ceiling.

The Magicians is an extremely interesting book to read. If you’re looking for a light/happy read, this definitely isn’t it; neither should you read it if you’re looking for an escapist fantasy story. The reason why I stayed up till 5:00 in the morning is because this fantasy story doesn’t lose grip of the reality – there are no black and white answers after-all. Wanting to escape into another world might be the thing that all of us fantasize about sometime or the other but ultimately there is no escaping from who we are.