Book Reviews and Rants, February 2012, Part 2

My rating system is explained here.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.  ☼☼☼.  Quick summary: magic users suffer from the ennui of particularly unimaginative gods.

Longer Summary: Quentin is a bright student with a pretty good life which he is bone-achingly bored with.  He read and was entranced by the magical world outlined in the popular series of children’s books, Fillory and Further, as a child, and has never quite escaped the feeling that his life would be so much better with a little magic.  Then he was accepted into Brakebills—North America’s only magical university—and thought his wildest dreams had come true.  Then…

Quentin has just graduated from an extremely exclusive magical university.  He’s got a pretty good life; partying with friends every night, a wonderful girlfriend, and a life of decadence and excess supported by magic and the university’s slush fund for recently graduated students.  He is bone-achingly bored with his life, and can’t shake the feeling that it would be so much better if only Fillory was real and he could actually live there.  Then, a fellow graduate of Brakebills shows up with the means of traveling to Fillory.  Then…

Quentin has traveled to the magical land of Fillory, and his life still fucking sucks.

Review:  The summary is necessary to highlight why I went with three stars.  The main character is extremely lethargic and unlikeable.  Amazing opportunities fall into his lap, and all-too-quickly they become mundane and boring…and he’s depressed again.  The other characters aren’t much better.  This is not because the writing is bad.  I finished the book because, from the way it was written, there were pretty good odds that there was a reason behind all this unpleasantness and ennui.  And there is.  It’s devastating, how much awful sense it makes once the pieces have clicked into place.  If I were grading this solely on the ideas, execution, and how much I enjoyed them, I’d give it five stars.  However, there were a few places where I put the book down and almost didn’t pick it up again because Quentin’s headspace was so unrelentingly and unpleasantly toxic (this was done on purpose, and I doubt the book would have been as powerful if the author hadn’t done it this way, but that doesn’t mean that I enjoyed the experience).  I don’t think I could bring myself to read the sequel, no matter how much I really really really want to know what happens next.  Also, I listened to this as an audiobook (which probably exacerbated the problem, because I couldn’t easily skim over the bits I didn’t like).  Mark Bramhall’s performance of the novel was quite good, and I do tend to be picky about these things.

The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett.  ☼ (unfinished).  I generally think it’s unfair to rate a book on the basis of having read a minority of the pages, but this book didn’t seem to be going in a direction that I am entirely happy with.  I grant that the protagonist is eleven years old, and the author may be making the kid act snotty and holier-than-thou in order to make a reversal of opinion all the more poignant but…I doubt it.  The book doesn’t feel like it’s trying to pull some reverse-psychology on us, or that it’s exploiting the kid as an uneliable protagonist.  It feels dead serious.  Allow me a tangent:

I was at my parents’ house a few weekends ago.  Mom was channel surfing, and came across a show titled Hillbilly Handfishin’.  We watched part of it due to morbid curiosity.  One guy, I’m going to call him “Greenie”, because he’d never done this before, was talked into going by a friend.

Greenie [looks up at the camera, worried]: Wait, we’re going to be in the middle of nowhere?  No doctors nearby, or anything?

An understandable sentiment, yeah?  Wading into a muddy, opaque stream, sticking hands and feet into holes in the rock so that pissed-off catfish (or worse) can bite the hell out of your fingers?  I’d be worried.  Then the voice-over ominously proclaimed in the best hillbilly voice ever,

“He better man up.”

Remember that.

Summary:  Demons materialize whenever the sun goes down, and eagerly devour any person (or animal?  Are all the wild animals extinct now?) who is caught outside the protection of defensive wards.  These demons are many and—here’s the important part—humans have no way to fight them.  Alright.  So the snotty kid, Arlen, is a farmboy who lives in a village with his mother and father.  His family takes in two women who lost all their family when the wards on some houses failed.  Two travelers come into town; a bard-like guy who entertains the children, and another man whose job it is to deliver the mail and sell the villagers salt.  Now, it’s pretty common for people who have survived demon attacks to commit suicide (usually, it seems, by hanging).  Arlen gets the job of showing Salt-guy around the area, and they come across the former-survivor of a recent demon attack hanging from a tree.  Salt tells Arlen that this happens because men instinctively want to fight back against the demons, and that cowering behind wards saps their will to live.  And, you know.  That makes them cowering cowards who are secretly ashamed of their cowering.

Fast forward to that night (or maybe the next night).  Twilight takes the residents of Arlen’s house unprepared.  The humans rush to secure the animals, then sprint to the safety of the house.  At that moment, one of the guests realizes that the dog is still outside, tied to a fencepost.  Despite the falling darkness, she runs out to untie the dog.  On her way back, the demons begin to manifest, and one attacks her.  Seeing this, Arlen’s mother runs out to lend assistance (against the advice of pretty much everyone).  Arlen and his dad stand frozen on the porch as the demons rip the guest apart and then start in on the mother.  Arlen thinks of Salt-guy’s philosophy, and runs out to save his mother.  He manages to bean some demons with a bucket, and knocks enough away that he is able to drag her into the protection of the pig sty.  They wait out the night there.  The mother is very, very badly wounded and ill.  Arlen is very disappointed with his father for not jumping off the porch into the yard filled with demons.  Arlen thinks his father is a cowering coward.  A big problem I have with this book is that Arlen never says (or even thinks), father, you should be brave like mother and the guest.  Because they ran out into the demon-infested lawn, didn’t they?  Hell, his mother left the safety of the porch in order to help a woman she only sort-of knew.  Arlen didn’t jump in and attempt a rescue until his freaking mother was the one in peril.  The guest could (and did) get eaten alive for all he cared.

Also, by all rights the demons should have dog-piled on Arlen the moment his snooty little feet left the porch.  All the numbers in the world indicate that his chance of survival should have been exactly zero.  His chance of affecting a successful rescue mission?  A damn sight lower even than that.

And now Arlen’s all like, Father, you need to fucking Man Up.  Yuck.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch.  ☼☼☼☼.  I almost rated it three stars, but the dénouement alone was worth a star.  Make no mistake—the fact that I haven’t rated this book five full stars is not due to any failing of the book, but is instead due to a personal failing in moral fibre.  I…I know it is pathetic, but I dislike it when the protagonist cheats or deceives people who trust him.  This is the same reason I can’t bring myself to follow the show White Collar (yes, seriously).  And Locke Lamora is a conman.  Indeed, he’s perhaps the most magnificent, extravagant conman you’ll ever encounter.  He concocts grand schemes, steals thousands of dollars, and then just sits on the money (because if he spent it, people would realize that he isn’t the unassuming petty thief he claims to be).  TLoLL is a dramatic, funny, exciting, and intricately plotted book.  The worldbuilding is head-spinning in its scope and complexity.  The book is almost exclusively set in the city of Camorr (and the details and history of that city could be said to fill the depths of the Mariana Trench), but what tidbits we learn of the rest of the world are no less tantalizing.  I think I’m interested enough that I’ll have to read the sequels, despite the confidence schemes.  (Also nice?  Great worldbuilding with no frelling prophesies.)

My rating system is explained here.


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