A brief entry — I just finished reading Lev Grossman’s second novel Codex — the one he wrote before beginning the Magicians trilogy.
It’s plot is an interesting, if not terribly new idea — a quest for secret knowledge hidden away in some manner, this time in the form of a medieval book that may or may not exist. It throws in a video game and nostalgic references to an old Atari 2600 game called Adventure. It feels very Lev Grossman-esque, even if in many ways a beta version of what he is finally able to achieve in the Magicians trilogy.
Even still there are wonderful qualities to this book under its immediate surface — the life of quiet desperation that purported protagonist Edward inadvertently rebels against and his behavior that has aspects of a mental and emotional breakdown. It really feels at time that this book wants to be more about that interior landscape of life choices but needs to return to the plot and building its suspense and moving things forward. It also ultimately feels like it focused on the wrong protagonist. The scholarly Margaret’s story is seen in bits and pieces — afterall she is mostly there to advance the plot and a tool to inform the readers via her guiding of Edward through the world of ancient books. Still she is the one who is expert, the one who has lost sight of her goal and finds through the book a way to realize that goal and ultimately she is the one who makes the most interesting choice at the end of the book. Unfortunately too much of that is off-stage and we never really get a chance to explore this world entirely from her point of view.
Lev Grossman has written three Magicians books about Quentin Coldwater, Brakebills Academy and the magical land of
Narnia Fillory. (By the way you can buy a print of the image above here) The first novel, The Magicians, took familiar tropes from a whole river of fantasy literature and invested in them a seriousness of emotion and consequence that was quite cathartic for me. In particular, the book plays with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books which was an intense favorite of my childhood. I am almost the same age at Lev and the way the Narnia books fired my imagination and my yearning for escape must have also been a profound influence on him. His notion to revisit them in the guise of a novel grounded in… well at least emotional realism if not actual realism, is nothing short of brilliant.
The second book, The Magician King, was also quite good and took up sorting out what it would mean to be the Kings and Queens of
Narnia Fillory. I just finished the third book, The Magician’s Land, which has an amazing beginning section which is almost Ocean’s Eleven-like in it’s depiction of a magically-powered heist. Neither sequel quite hit the punch of the first novel for me but they both were very good and I really did enjoy the conclusion of the third novel which I think captured the right moment to exit the stage on. (I am not writing a review here — just another one of my bookmark posts to myself. There are whole sections of the three novels that are complicated and on which I have read eagerly others’ criticisms and analysis. In particular, there are some pretty solid and serious essays on how women are depicted in the novels vis a vis Quentin that absolutely are worth reading. Needless to say like all works of art, these are imperfect — no matter how much I found them worth reading.)
The author put together a collage of famous (to me anyhow) people reading part of the first chapter as a trailer for The Magician’s Land:
This interview where Lev talks about his influences is pretty interesting. I’m glad he acknowledges the titanic impact Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell had on him. Susanna Clarke’s novel of magicians in England at the dawn of the nineteenth century is an incredibly realistic depiction of magic, fairies and fantasy. Which is not the contradiction it sounds like — Clarke invests her characters with a full range of emotions, crafts legends and rules for her magical version of Earth that make magic darker, deeper and terrifying.
I also liked this article in Slate about the trilogy with it’s argument that the books are actually about Julia and her painful story (it’s also about how hard it is to successfully write trilogies).