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Posts tagged ‘Lev Grossman’

Best Books 2014

The Golden AgeI’d hoped to get this up last Friday, but I ended up holding off because The Weekend Australian’s Best Books feature didn’t run until Saturday and I didn’t want to preempt my contribution to it. If you’ve got a few minutes I strongly suggest you take the time to check that list out, since it’s crammed with great stuff. You might also want to check out the lists in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, as well as the excellent Books of the Year feature in Australian Book Review (which I also contributed to but isn’t online and is available for the price of a couple of cups of coffee).

As I said in the Oz and ABR, two of the books that stood out for me this year were Ceridwen Dovey’s wonderful suite of short stories, Only The Animals and Joan London’s luminous new novel, The Golden Age. I suspect both sound like slightly odd propositions at first blush – the Dovey is a series of stories about animals whose lives cross over with literary figures such as Tolstoy and Kerouac and Lawson, and the London is about two teenagers in a polio hospital in the 1950s – but they’re both fantastic books, and I’d be very surprised if the London wasn’t all over award shortlists here and overseas in 2015.

Staying with Australian books for a moment, there were three others I enjoyed enormously. The first is Chris Flynn’s The Glass Kingdom. I loved Flynn’s debut, Tiger in Eden, but the often very funny The Glass Kingdom shows Flynn stretching himself imaginatively and technically as he interrogates the various ways men perform masculinity. I was also very impressed by Fiona McFarlane’s tautly written debut, The Night Guest, and the fabulous P.M. Newton’s gritty and brutally unsentimental take on Sydney and crime, Beams Falling.

I also loved two books I’ve already written about but hope to write something longer about soon, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I know I’m not alone in being deeply impressed by the Faber, which is both very strange and deeply affecting, but I was also very moved by the Mitchell, which seemed to be deeply and productively engaged with a series of questions about time and loss.

Only the AnimalsMoving further afield I also completely adored Ali Smith’s smart, sexy and very moving How to be both, Jenny Offil’s wonderfully fragmented and very witty Dept. of Speculation, and Will Eaves’ marvellous The Absent Therapist, and while half the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Bark had already been published in Faber’s Collected Stories a few years ago, even four new stories by Moore are something to celebrate. Something similar is true of Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, almost all of which I’d read elsewhere (and sometimes as non-fiction, which gives the book an even more unsettling frisson) but gathered together the pieces form a powerful and troubling whole. And Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is exactly as smart, funny and wicked as you’d expect, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Whether Richard Ford’s new Frank Bascombe book, Let Me Be Frank With You, is a novel or four short stories is an interesting question, but either way it sees Ford back on top form as he depicts the now retired Bascombe not quite adrift in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Next to Ford Colm Toíbín’s writing can seem deliberately unshowy, but his new one, Nora Webster’s portrait of a woman rebuilding her life after the death of her husband offers a reminder of just how good he is. And while it didn’t make the Booker shortlist Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo sees Powers interweaving classical music and biology and terrorism in typically brilliant fashion (just quietly, if I could write a novel like Orfeo I’d die happy).

As I mentioned the other day you can catch me, Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe chatting about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books on the Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review special, but as I say there, I was enormously impressed by William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, which is both brilliantly written and grounded in a fully lived social reality in a way his last couple of books haven’t been, and Adam Roberts’ darkly witty, deeply literate and very unsettling riff on talking animals, Bête. I also adored the second part of Sean Williams’ Twinmaker trilogy, Crashland (which has one of the most jaw-dropping endings I’ve read in ages), Simon Ings’ creepily visceral exploration of virtuality, Wolves, and although I think it’s an almost wilfully unlikable book, I was deeply impressed by Peter Watts’ chilly follow-up to the terrifying Blindsight, Echopraxia. And while I didn’t think Ann Leckie’s sequel to last year’s Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword was as successful at a narrative level as its predecessor it was no less thoughtful and uncompromising in its depiction of the nature of power.

Of the debut science fiction novels I read this year the one I loved the most was Monica Byrne’s jagged and sensual The Girl in the Road. And while I’m not sure whether it’s really a genre novel at all, I hugely admired Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle’s awkward and deeply distressing study of trauma and the possibilities of the imagination, Wolf in White Van.

And finally, turning to fantasy, two novels stood head and shoulders above everything else I read. The first was Garth Nix’s wonderful new Old Kingdom novel, Clariel, a book that comes at the world of the Old Kingdom from a new angle, and which doesn’t just provide a reminder of just how wonderful that world is, but of how rich and magical and funny Nix is when he’s working at full throttle. And the second was the emotionally expansive and deeply satisfying conclusion Lev Grossman’s fabulous Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land.

H is for HawkOn the non-fiction front I loved Iain McCalman’s passionate and thrilling history of the Great Barrier Reef, Reef, and slightly closer to home, Ian Hoskins’ wonderful history of the New South Wales coastline, Coast. I also very much enjoyed James Nestor’s descent into the world of freediving and fringe science, Deep (a book I want to write something more about soon) and . But the two non-fiction books I loved the most this year were Helen MacDonald’s sometimes strained, sometimes eerily beautiful H is for Hawk (and interestingly the third book engaged by T.H. White’s legacy I’ve read in the last couple of years) and Sophie Cunningham’s tense, terrifying and frighteningly prescient study of Cyclone Tracy and its aftermath, Warning.

Of the graphic things I read I loved a number of the quirkier titles Marvel has been producing, in particular Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire’s brutal and brooding Moon Knight, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, G. Willow Wilson’s joyous Ms Marvel and Charles Soule’s now-sadly cancelled She-Hulk, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Emily Carroll’s fabulously creepy collection of shorts, Through the Woods, a book that brilliantly marries a finely tuned affection for the pulp comics of the 1950s, an awareness of the cruelty of fairy tales and a wonderfully acute grasp of the darker corners of the human psyche. It’s great stuff.

Of course as always there are a number of things I haven’t got to yet but am looking forward to very much, in particular Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the third part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Boyhood Island, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky, Jane Bryony Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Angela Slatter’s The Bitterwood Bible and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a number of which I hope to get read over the break.

On the subject of which I hope the holiday season brings good things to all of you, and the year ahead is full of good things. Peace and goodwill to you all.

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods

The Coode Street Year in Review

the-coode-street-podcastI’m planning on getting a Best Books post up in the next week or so, but if you’ve got an hour to kill in the meantime you can catch the Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review special, which features Jonathan Strahan, Gary K. Wolfe and me chatting about some of our favourite science fiction and fantasy books of the year. Books discussed include Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, Adam Roberts’ Bête, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, Garth Nix’s Clariel, William Gibson’s The Peripheral and Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road.

You can listen to the show via Podbean or iTunes. And congratulations to Jonathan and Gary on the new partnership between Coode Street and it’s very exciting news for all concerned.


Catspaw, or The Rakshasa’s Servant

rakshasaJust a quick note to say I’ve got a story in the May issue of Aurealis, which hits the interwebs today. Entitled ‘Catspaw, or The Rakshasa’s Servant’, it’s basically a contemporary folk tale, and was inspired by a post on Lev Grossman’s blog which reproduced the image on the right, an image that will be immediately recognisable to anybody who played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s (next up, a story called ‘The Unbearable Squareness of Gelatinous Cubes’).

Anyway, you can purchase Aurealis from Smashwords for AU$2.99, which seems an absolute bargain for a story that features duelling shapeshifting tiger demons. And which is really a tribute to my many years as a devoted player of role-playing games.

Lev Grossman’s The Magician King

I’ve just uploaded my review of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, which appeared in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald to my Writing page, but if you can’t be bothered clicking through I’ve attached the text below. To sum up in a sentence, it’s brilliant: funny, addictive and ferociously intelligent, and if you haven’t read it or its prequel, The Magicians, you should do so immediately.

You might also want to check my partner, Mardi McConnochie’s piece about it over at her blog, Big Red. You’ll be glad you did. And if you’d like to read more about Grossman and his books, you can visit his website.

The Magician King
Lev Grossman

A few years ago A.S. Byatt wrote a famous critique of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, dismissing them as “jokey latency fantasies”. In it Byatt argued that unlike works such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising or Alan Garner’s troubling and often unsettling children’s books which demand children grapple with a world larger and stranger than they had previously imagined, Rowling’s books allow children to fulfil their infantile fantasies of unrecognized importance and power.

Whatever one makes of Byatt’s argument, it’s difficult not to wonder whether her essay played a part in the formation of Lev Grossman’s exuberantly entertaining 2009 novel, The Magicians. At once loving homage and deadly accurate deconstruction, it imagined a world where magic is real, and asked, with considerable sophistication, what it might mean if that particular fantasy came true. And in the process it created something at once strikingly original and deliberately subversive, not just a story about the loss of illusions and the beginnings of adulthood that was simultaneously an exercise in re-enchantment but a exploration of the manner in which power and trauma distort our inner selves.

The Magicians centres on Quentin Coldwater. “Sarcastic and spookily smart”, Quentin is also, as his friend Julia admits to herself at one point, “basically a kind person who just needed a ton of therapy and maybe some mood-altering drugs”. Lonely and isolated at high school, Quentin’s one solace (other than his hopeless passion for Julia) is his absorption in the Narnia-like Fillory novels. Yet when an alumni interview for Princeton turns into an exam for an ultra-secret, ultra-exclusive school for magicians called Brakebills, Quentin finds himself initiated into a world where his oddness is no longer a liability, and where, amazingly, Fillory is more than just a story.

Grossman’s follow-up, The Magician King, begins two years after the events at the end of The Magicians. Quentin is now one of the kings of Fillory. It’s a good life: populated by magical creatures and impossibly beautiful, Fillory is as close to perfection as any place could be. But as Quentin is beginning to realise it’s also a little bit boring. And so, when a carelessly arranged day in pursuit of an enchanted hare ends in tragedy, Quentin decides to embark on a quest. As quests go it’s no big thing, just a trip on a refitted sailing boat to an island in the Eastern Ocean to find out why the inhabitants haven’t been paying their taxes. But for the now-restless Quentin it seems enough just to have a purpose again.

These early chapters unspool with a brisk efficiency, but the novel only really kicks into gear when Quentin stumbles on a golden key, which when used does not transport him somewhere magical, but dumps him and his childhood friend and fellow tetrarch, Julia, back on Earth. Desperate to return, the two of them must navigate a hitherto unglimpsed magical underworld populated by self-trained wizards and witches, and utterly unlike the cosy prep school world of Brakebills, a process that gives Quentin his first glimpse of the price Julia, who was rejected by Brakebills, paid to acquire her powers. But as they discover on their return to Fillory, their experiences on Earth were only the prelude to a much larger and more perilous quest to save not just Fillory, but magic itself.

If much of the pleasure of The Magicians lay in its unfeigned delight in the books from which it drew its inspiration, much of its power lay in the tension between the magical elements drawn from C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter and elsewhere and the restless, dissatisfied and painfully human dramas of its protagonists. For all its playful energy it was ultimately a surprisingly dark book about loss, and failure.

Something similar is true of The Magician King. Once again the book riffs wickedly on the tradition it inhabits, managing to seem as comfortable invoking the secret lore of 1970s role-playing games and Neal Stephenson novels as it is gesturing to Le Guin and Tolkien. And once again it manages the not-inconsiderable feat of managing to be both extremely funny and utterly believable.

Yet it is also a more ambitious book than The Magicians. Moving beneath its surface are a series of deeply disquieting questions about the corrupting nature of power and the theological underpinnings of fantasy worlds such as Narnia. The gods Quentin and his friends glimpse are not benevolent, but cold and distant, while their expressions on Earth are not just capricious but actively malevolent. Certainly it’s safe to say that you’ll never look at Aslan the same way again.

Despite the achievements of writers such as Guy Gavriel Kay and Neil Gaiman Fantasy is a genre that has long struggled to be taken seriously, often treated as faintly ridiculous or an embarrassing overhang from childhood. In The Magician King Lev Grossman demonstrates it is neither, producing a book that does not simply crackle with energy and ideas, but which manages to be at once an inquiry into the underpinnings of the tradition it occupies and a brilliantly eloquent demonstration of its possibilities. The Magician King is not a book for children, or even a book about the stories of childhood for grown-ups. It is quite simply one of the smartest, funniest, most exciting novels you’re likely to read this year.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 2011.