I got off to such a slow start with this book, in large part because the author reads the audio version (I love you, Mr. Beagle, but you are not a ver...moreI got off to such a slow start with this book, in large part because the author reads the audio version (I love you, Mr. Beagle, but you are not a very convincing nineteen year-old girl. Or nineteen year-old anything. Or girl of any age).
But once I really got into it, a good third of the way through, I was hooked. Days after finishing, I'm genuinely missing Jenny and Tamsin. Wonderful writing and storytelling, and a good reading, too, once you get over thinking of Jenny as an elderly man.(less)
Well... add me to the list of people who thought this was disappointing next to As Meat Loves Salt, but who nonetheless count it as a fine read. Metic...moreWell... add me to the list of people who thought this was disappointing next to As Meat Loves Salt, but who nonetheless count it as a fine read. Meticulous plotting and painstaking characterization. And McCann writes so beautifully. Even if this book weren't rich and dark and twisted and utterly believable all the way to the end, it would be worth reading.
"The world is full of these goassamer threads ... tying the present to the past; once perceived, they breed and multiply in the mind.
"No matter where they lead us, we have need of them. That what once existed is lost utterly, that time's river can never return to its source, is a thought more terrible than any act that is recorded here. So I choose to believe in such traces, of which I am one - the record of a certain act committed upon a certain day - and every man and woman on earth another.
"I could wish that Robin had written to me, as well as to my father. Then I might trace back the trail of ink to his first mark upon the paper and see it as a thread stretching between his breathing, blooming time, long gone, and mine, which is now.
It's been several weeks since I finished this book, and I have to be honest, I'm enjoying it much more on reflection than I did during the actual read...moreIt's been several weeks since I finished this book, and I have to be honest, I'm enjoying it much more on reflection than I did during the actual reading. I was originally thinking of this as a two and a half or a three-star read. I'm at four now, and I think that's about right.
I do have complaints: 1. The book is long for the very little bit of plot it contains, and the reading is frequently tedious. 2. The characters are pretty annoying, and consequently difficult to care about. 3. The plot, when there is one, is nothing extraordinary.
It's still the smartest book I've read in months. And okay, it's clear that Grossman thinks it's pretty smart too, and I get how that might turn off some readers. But it IS smart, and in many ways unique, and altogether very meta. It's a forehead flick to the world's entire fantasy fandom (of which I count myself a part), and I suppose the standard forehead flick reactions apply: will you be surprised, annoyed, defensive, angry, will you escalate the violence?
So, without giving too much away...
Quentin is not Harry Potter. Actually, Quentin is kind of a douche, drowning with great determination in a well of self-pity (or self-loathing?) and also alcohol. For a character who is in his own mind, at least, a victim, he's also the least sympathetic, least likeable character in the whole book. But his is the perspective that tells the story, so you kind of have to take him with a grain of salt, or leave him. The way you would ANY 19-22 year old, right? And if that disappoints you, well... there's more where that comes from. Disappointment is a running theme here: popularity, love, prestige, purpose -- it's all just out of reach for poor Quentin. Whenever he does get what he wants, he's sure to destroy it. And though I spent most of the book kind of hating him, Quentin's numerous flaws -- plus occasional glimpses of his vulnerability -- are what kept me interested. This is fantasy, sure, but it's a character study first, and I say Grossman nailed Quentin's characterization. Likeable, no, but believable? YES. Quentin's friends and sidekicks never seem fully-formed, but I think that is because we see them through the lens of Quentin's self-absorption. He loathes and mocks anyone who seems to like him, seeks to possess anyone with power, and absolutely worships anyone who ignores or dislikes him.
What I love about Quentin is that his negativity, his selfish behavior, his endless self-sabotage all effect realistic consequences. This book is very much about consequences: of having too much power, of using it irresponsibly, of thinking that power makes you inculpable. Characters get wrapped up in their egos and self-destruct. Characters play simple pranks and accidentally kill people; they make foolish decisions and they die. More significantly, MAJOR characters die, or are crippled, or suffer insurmountable traumas. THEY DIE, and not as heroes, not as martyrs, not because they did something to deserve it according to the rules of literary tradition, not even to move the plot forward half of the time, but because they aren't strong enough for the choices they make. In a fantasy novel, that blows my mind a little bit.
As for the fantasy aspects of the book... It seems like a lot of people are calling this derivative, but aside from some fairly generic high fantasy devices of plot and setting, there's nothing quite like it out there. In fact, the familiarity of the setting and eventually the plot allows us to settle into and appreciate what is unique about this story as a fantasy story: loathsome, decidedly unheroic heroes and fantasy made too real to be appealing. Which is a pretty accurate summary of the book, actually.
This is what fantasy would REALLY be like -- scary and gross and weird. When a group of characters seeks adventure in a magical land, it is with the confidence that they are owed victory and happy endings, a fact they logically base on all of the fiction they've read in their lives. It's obvious to readers that nothing good will come of their adventure because Grossman has absolutely shattered our own expectations of fantasy fiction by this point in the book, but the characters have to live the disappointment for themselves, and watching the situation unfold is equally devastating and satisfying because it all makes so much sense. It would suck to see a six foot anthropomorphic ferret beaten to death before your eyes, and most people in the modern world, especially young, idle, city-dwelling alcoholic types, would probably not rise to the challenge. What a concept.
If this book is ruled by logic, there's still plenty of interesting world-building going on. The magic here is very scientific, deep, dangerous, and largely mysterious to the people who practice it. Everything has a history, and not one based on Harry Potter. Breakbills encourages a strange, affected, elitist culture, grand and ridiculous. Adult magicians are ungoverned and free of responsibility, but too powerful to exist meaningfully in the real world. Fillory is Narnia-esque, but the talking animals who live there have drinking problems, and the mythical human half-breeds aren't to be trusted. The Watcher Woman, the Beast, the mysterious teacher at Breakbills South... everything, everyone was developed with care and thought.
A lot of scary things happen. Horror, or terror, maybe, is something Grossman does really, really well, actually, and there's plenty of it -- because wouldn't all fantasy translate into horror in the real world? The incident at Breakbills with "The Beast" was absolutely terrifying, and probably the first moment I found myself completely engaged by the reading. The final conflict made my skin crawl.
Humor is another thing Grossman does well, though much of the humor is quite dark. The eventual revelation of what turned the villain evil is so simple and obvious, delivered so matter-of-factly that it IS funny, though tragic. And there's plenty of clever dialog -- Josh's "Enthouse" joke slays me.
So okay, if Grossman is a cynic, if he's a fantasy RUINER, he's at the very least interesting. He doesn't pull punches. He doesn't romanticize ANYTHING. He made me think and laugh at least as much as he made me uncomfortable. I think that makes for a pretty damned good book. At least in hindsight. (less)