Monday, July 25, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Imagine that instead of C.S. Lewis and Narnia a man named Christopher Plover wrote about a land called Fillory and the Chatwin family.  The Chatwin children make a few visits to Fillory, have grand adventures, and their stories make for a successful book series.  Unlike Narnia, Fillory doesn't have any similarities to Christian dogma and unlike the stories of the Pevensie children, not all the Chatwins return home to the real world.

Now, imagine magic is real.  It's not the wand-waving, fantastical kind of magic but a physics-based, ancient language-focused science that's hard to learn and tougher still to master.  You're recruited and thoroughly tested before being admitted to magic college where your training takes place and you're then dumped out into the real world to figure out how to live with magic in a mundane environment.  This world of magic is dark and the people who possess it are broken.  Quentin is just a lost soul, totally unhappy.  Magic killed Alice's brother, yet she still learns the craft.  Eliot drinks way too much, and Janet uses her sexuality and amoral behavior to stay noticed.

The violent and gritty tale of our magicians moving through college, struggling in the real world, and finally facing a great evil takes the shine off magic.  Magic inflicts so much physical and mental pain on our characters that they would have been better off never knowing it existed - not exactly the fantastical message usually brought across with magic in literature.

This intense take on the magical genre of story-telling had me caught up in the story at every turn.  Grossman tells a fantastical tale without the fantasy making the story harsh and intense and surprising.  Evil is pure and fierce and emotions (good and bad) are vibrant and deep - this world actually feels real to me.  I don't think I've read a book this quickly since Olivia was born.  I just had to know what came next.

If you like your magic more along the lines of Harry Potter, than this book isn't for you.  Even the battle at the end of HP is nothing compared to the carnage and darkness revealed in The Magicians, but I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a different literary take on magic and how being a magical person can damage you.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Snobs: A Novel by Julian Fellowes

I really liked this book.  That being said, this novel definitely caters to a certain type of reader.  Do you like Jane Austen?  Did you read Howard's End and not find it boring?  If you answered "yes" to both of these questions than Snobs might be worth checking out.  A lot happens in the novel, but it's all played out in a very calm and almost bland sort of way.  The action is minimal but the conversations and whispers behind closed doors are lengthy.

The actual plot of the book is pretty standard for a British society novel.  We've got our leading lady - Edith - a commoner/social climber looking to marry up regardless of love; and we've got Charles, our Earl Broughton, marrying the woman he loves no matter the consequence. She lets her newly-found title go to her head and the lack of love (on her side) in her marriage to escort her into an affair while he simply just lets her get away with everything, willing to forgive when she's ready to come around.  The story wouldn't be complete without a villain, which in this case isn't really an evil entity, but just the Lady Uckfield, Charles' mother, attempting to pull the puppet strings she thinks everyone has hanging off them for her to use.  Emotions are kept at bay as best they can be.  The illusion of appearance is of the utmost importance.

I love the concept that high society British refuse to give up the illusion of a happy appearance.  They work harder to keep everything looking "right" than they do actually making things better.  It doesn't matter the gossip that circulates or the actual truths that exist, if it looks happy and serene, they've achieved their goal.

I find this book very interesting because it seems to be taking a bi-polar view of modern British society.  On one hand, the story encapsulates British high society's struggle to hold onto the rigid rules and traditions of their past.  The level of decorum they still cling to, no matter how antiquated it might feel to the rest of the world, is intense.  The other vein of the story focuses on our narrator, an actor (gasp!) who marries up, exhibits all the proper manners for his high society acquaintances and ends up being brought into the confidence of one very great lady.  So, while shunning Edith, our social climber, our narrator is welcomed into a social circle he hardly belongs to - obviously there is no rhyme or reason to the snobbery of high society.

Another unique aspect of the author's style here is the use of his narrator, who seems to know everything that's going on whether he's present at the action he's describing or not.  His insight into the whole story even when being removed from bits and pieces of it is really intriguing.  He so perfectly captures the complete story even though none of it is really happening to him.  It's an interesting literary device.

The book was written by the author who penned the screenplay for Gosford Park (a great movie) and you can see a lot of similarities between the movie and novel.  Both are entertaining and subtle reminding readers and viewers that the Victorian Era is alive and well in the day-to-day lives of the English elite.