Tag Archives: Books

“A Princess of Mars” and John Carter, the Prince of Pulp Sci-Fi

20 Mar

Literally just minutes ago (as of this writing) I finished Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 novel “A Princess of Mars,” and I’m fairly convinced that it’s the best worst early-20th-century science fiction novel ever published. That should be no secret, considering that this book, the first in an 11-part series, was the inspiration for Disney’s recent movie (soon to be a flop), “John Carter.”

See how she cringes? That's how a real Victorian woman cringes.
(Click for the original column in the Crimson White)

Burroughs, an astonishingly prolific writer of the 20th century, gave us, among other iconic characters, Tarzan the jungle man, but you’re not likely to find him on the syllabus of an American literature course. If you’ve seen “John Carter,” that won’t be a big surprise: Burroughs’s writings, many initially published as magazine serials, are as pulpy as they come.

They’re science-fiction penny dreadfuls, dime novels with sensational and poorly-illustrated covers, cheap paperbacks you’d find on the counter at a seedy gas station and all-around the stuff sophisticated college-educated young people such as us would be embarrassed to be caught reading in the 1910s.  And to be perfectly honest, I should be embarrassed now. But, I’m three books in, and there’s no going back.

The story begins with Virginian ex-Confederate John Carter mining for gold in Arizona, running away from angry Apaches and hiding in a creepy cave filled with human skeletons. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very promising.  But let’s fast-forward a chapter to his mysterious re-location to the planet Barsoom — what we, in our ignorance, call Mars.

Like the movie, “A Princess of Mars” has vicious aliens, epic battles and a giant monster dog named Woola.  But the novel is certainly a product of its time.  Occasionally this leads to questionable racial connotations (red men on the red planet) and cringe-worthy gendered characterizations (“I would rather stay and die with you, my chieftain!” or something). But at other times we find hilarious misunderstandings for the modern reader. For example, the chapter entitled “Lovemaking on Mars” includes nothing more scandalous than John accidentally grazing the bare shoulder of the Helium Princess. Steamy stuff.

Considering the time period and his icky military history, John Carter is a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist. He is, essentially, the classic hero of a Western, and Barsoom does look suspiciously like Arizona. The many times crypto-Victorian princess Dejah Thoris cringes behind him during a battle scene get annoying, I’ll admit, but by the second installment we have a much more active heroine: Thuvia, who protects her own honor quite adeptly by just shooting evildoers with Carter’s revolver.

The science is outdated, the romance is somewhat silly (Helium Princess, really?) and the writing is mannered, but we still read Jane Austen don’t we? We made “Twilight” a major franchise and eagerly await the return of “Game of Thrones” on HBO. I’ll go so far as to add that “Avatar,” with its Noble Savages and white hero, is quite like the John Carter books, and let’s not forget that “Avatar” came 97 years late to great critical acclaim.

“A Princess of Mars” and the rest of the John Carter books aren’t great literature, but even in 1912, they weren’t intended to be. Burroughs’s writing is fast-paced, entertaining, and readable today (not to mention the first three books are 99 cents digitally). If nothing else, they’re fun to make fun of. But I warn you, it’s not hard to get emotionally invested: When I turned the last virtual page on my Kindle, I was still holding my breath for the cliffhanger.

Of course, if you still feel you might be embarrassed reading “A Princess of Mars” and its sequels, just tell your critics that doing it … ironically.

All sorts of 19th-century drama in “The Marriage Plot”

11 Mar

“There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.”

That’s the motto Madeleine Hanna lives by, anyway, in the 1980s college world of Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Marriage Plot.”

Click here for the original column in the Crimson White.

Hanna, a senior majoring in English with an impending graduation date and no idea what she wants to do with the rest of her life, probably isn’t too different from you – especially if you were raised on Jane Austen novels and the sort of early 19th-century happily-ever-after that ends with someone becoming a Mrs. Darcy.

Madeleine Hanna is a hopeless romantic.  When her professors and more fashionably cynical classmates argue that the trope of the Jane Austen “marriage plot” is as fantastic and unrealistic as any Grimm’s fairy tale, Hanna closes her eyes and mutters “na-na-na-na-na” under her breath.

Well, not exactly.  She also happens to be bright and articulate, and instead, she thinks something like this: “What Thurston was saying seemed to Madeleine both insightful and horribly wrong.  It was maybe true, what he said, but it shouldn’t have been.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that a pretentious guy named Thurston really should play a handsome, but sinister rake in an Austen novel.  In this book, he’s just a pompous preppy, and maybe that’s just as well.

Madeleine Hanna is also an incurable idealist.  After graduation, she, along with her friends, seem somewhat perplexed by the “real world” they’ve finally entered.  And it’s really no wonder: She lives in an intellectual circle made of Nietzche-reading classmates like Thurston and professors with names like “Zipperstein” and a boyfriend who makes fun of her drink preferences with quips like, “Sure. Martinis.  We can pretend we’re Salinger characters.”

College, clearly, is a far cry from grown-up life.  And Madeleine Hanna, bless her heart, is expecting to grow up to be Elizabeth Bennet.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a novel if there weren’t some sort of conflict.  And it wouldn’t be a Valentine’s Day book review column if there weren’t some sort of love triangle – am I right?  Of course I’m right.

Our heroine, like many a Bennett before her, has two suitors: Leonard Bankhead, the biochem major from semiotics class, and Mitchell Grammaticus (what did I say about these names?), the religious studies guy who emerges from his long library sojourn with Meister Eckhart with the total conviction that Madeleine is his soul mate.

What’s an Austen devotee to do?

Well, marry one of them, naturally.

To Madeleine Hanna’s puzzlement and most readers’ exasperated sighs, the traditional marriage plot takes a twist in Eugenides’s new take on an old trope.  This might not be the book to read on Valentine’s Day.  But it’s a great read on a day when you’re not swamped in sentimentalism.  Like tomorrow, for instance.

Readers might also like… “The Dovekeepers,” by Alice Hoffman; “The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green; “Death Comes to Pemberley,” by P.D. James; “The Paris Wife,” by Paula McLain.

How To: Drop Off the Face of the Earth (and come back again)

17 Feb

Hey folks, just wanted to check in and let everyone (all 4 or 5 of you) know that I haven’t died, or worse, given up the Internet because I got religion in a really big, really Luddite way.  I have, in fact, been writing my senior thesis here at the good old University of Alabama, and applying to graduate programs, and generally stressing out about both.  BUT!  I have good news:

1. Good news for me: I’m going to grad school.  Can’t say where yet, but it’s happened, and soon I’ll be saying things like “why, that calls for a mention of reductio ad absurdum…” or “it’s Dr. Morales to you.”  In any case, nobody cares.

2. Good news for the blog: I haven’t stopped reading or reviewing, and while grad school might put me out of commission again, I have a few months of grace period between now and then, so I may have some more regular updates.

In any case, I have been writing more conventional (ie. not indie) reviews for the campus paper.  I’m including the link to my byline and such right here: http://cw.ua.edu/author/isabela-morales/ 

I’ll be re-posting those as well, and they include such titles as:

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (they made me write it for Valentine’s Day)

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (I made them let me do Thomas Cromwell)

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (read it before the movie comes out, you hipsters, or you never will out of pride, I know it!)

Oh, and also look for more television reviews coming up.  I watch so much tv, you see, so so much.

Better Living Through Chemistry? (Book Review: Limitless, by Alan Glynn)

15 Nov

Put away your half-started manuscripts and tragic hopes, creative writing minors. In an economy like ours, your chances of publication are bleak – unless, that is, you have unlimited access to a mind-enhancing “smart pill” called MDT-48. That’s the premise of Alan Glynn’s novel “Limitless,” anyway (originally published as “The Dark Fields” in 2001).

You might remember “Limitless” from theaters last spring – or maybe not, judging by its lukewarm critical reception. In any case, it was the movie with Robert DeNiro and that guy from “The Hangover,” and I guess it was pretty good. Some of the visual effects that critics like to describe with words like “stunning” or “experimental” were in keeping with the movie’s billing as a techno-thriller, sure, but in the end they just left me dizzy.

What I found truly stunning – dizzying enough to reverse that age-old tradition of reading the book first and seeing the movie second – were the ideas.

“Limitless” is a novel about human enhancement. And while our trans-humanist hero Eddie Spinola’s journey might end up in some unlikely situations (convincing a shady Russian loan shark to give him half a million dollars by promising to write him into a screenplay about the Mafia, for example), in terms of believability Glynn’s novel is light-years ahead of old-school science fiction that couldn’t see beyond evil cyborgs or disembodied brains in jars. Chances are, the future’s going to look a lot more like “Limitless” than “I, Robot.”

Eddie Spinola starts the novel writing his own novel (that’s right, it’s meta from the very first page), with a day job as a copy editor at some podunk publishing firm. There may have been a point in the distant past at which he had his life together, but it certainly isn’t now, fifty pounds and one failed marriage later.
Lucky, then, that his ex-wife’s brother hasn’t changed at all. When they serendipitously meet on the street one mediocre morning, Eddie’s drug-dealer-in-law gives him a sample of a mysterious substance that propels the intelligent but unmotivated Eddie to the stratosphere of genius and productivity. Lucky, also, that Eddie gets his hands on the entire existing supply of MDT-48 when his supplier gets offed in a very messy scene that I’ll happily leave to Alan Glynn for description.

Taking half, then one, then two or three pills a day, Eddie finds himself playing the stock market like a true Wall Street One-Percenter – with the spare time to wax philosophical about the global trading network as a “template for human consciousness” or “humanity’s collective nervous system.”
On a tangential note, that’s something I liked better about the book: like its original title, it’s deeper, darker and includes quite a few more discussions about the nature of free will and determinism.

You don’t have to have seen the movie to guess that with great power comes great responsibility, and even greater plot twists (involving many, many terrible things happening to our Eddie Spinola as he spins out of control). But even if you did see “Limitless” in theaters, the original, words-only iteration is well worth the read. In fact, it might not be fair to compare the two versions at all: the book is so much more nuanced – subtle where the movie is showy – that it makes you think even while calling itself a techno-thriller.

Along those lines, what’s most impressive is how Glynn makes an apparently far-fetched plot completely believable – from the ideas about boosting human intelligence to the political context of the United States invading (pardon me, “liberating,”) Mexico (from drug cartel tyranny, ironically enough). By the end, you get the feeling that not only could this book happen – it could be happening right now.

Walden: Escape to Zombie Mountain (a horror novel somebody really needs to write)

11 Oct

So, I was sitting in English class today, poring over Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalist classic Walden, when I had a brilliant idea.  It was the kind of brilliant idea that comes without warning, a bolt of electricity shocking the torpid mind of a college senior in a freshman English class at 8 am on a Tuesday.  That kind of idea.  You know what I mean.  And the idea was this:

Somebody needs to turn Walden into a horror-fantasy novel along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Think about it for a minute.

Genius, right?

He's halfway to zombiehood already. Look at those circles under the eyes.

Walden, for those of you whose minds and imaginations also occasionally drifted off during your 8 am English courses, is a book (nonfiction) about a man who lives in almost perfect solitude in the woods for two years, communing with nature, building rickety shelters for himself, and all around disappointing the parents who put him through Harvard.

But take this 19th-century intellectual, Henry David Thoreau, place him in a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving bands of hungry zombies, and you’ll never look at Transcendentalism the same way again (“I went to the woods to live free of the undead,” or something like that).

I can see Thoreau escaping his little Northeastern town, overrun by hungry corpses, and hiding out at Walden Pond for his survival.  But, being Thoreau, and feeling all at one with nature in his hermit-like life, he finds himself realizing that the zombies have it right: They suck all the juices and marrow out of life like real men (literally).  The following is an actual quote from the real Walden:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way.

Thoreau naturally grabs his buddies Emerson and Whitman, and joins the zombie hordes just long enough to get brutally dismembered and die screaming.  But they lived, you know?  They followed their own Truth.  They didn’t conform to the conventions of a society that told them to run from the undead parasites taking over the world.  That’s the path to a life of quiet desperation.

Anyway, I think Walden‘s in the public domain, so: somebody get on this.*

* 50% of royalties to me, goes without saying, amiright?

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (or, how historical fiction gets really weird)

27 Sep

Click for the original article in the Crimson White. That's right. Print.

Armed with a flame gun, an axe and an unshakeable conviction in the rightness of his cause, the 16th President of the United States stands ready to fight for the nation his fathers brought forth four score and seven years ago—a nation free from the tyranny of vampires.

In the grand tradition of completely making things up and then pretending you have historical documentation, author Seth Grahame-Smith brings us his latest masterpiece (and I use the term very, very broadly), “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” The history is atrocious; the explanations are reductive; and suspension of disbelief while reading is patently impossible. But isn’t that the case for all conspiracy theories? And I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like this one before.

Grahame-Smith made waves some years ago with the publication of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Protectors of the Jane Austen canon were outraged! Fan fiction writers quailed at the thought that Mr. Darcy, the object of their ardent affections, might be undead! Book critics, wiping misty tears of frustration from their horn-rimmed glasses, bemoaned the public’s abysmal literary taste (or lack thereof). Voltaire and Mark Twain rolled over in their graves, and then, realizing that the novel was about zombies after all, thought better of it. I mean, the book wasn’t even satire. But readers enjoy an iconoclast, and shattering Jane Austen fans’ smug propriety was undoubtedly part of the appeal.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” seems to cause a similar sort of furor, a riotous mix of anger and enthusiasm. And with the title so refreshingly transparent, I don’t even need to include a plot summary to explain why.

Elementary school social studies teachers taught us that “Honest” Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin somewhere in backwoods Kentucky. In American popular mythology, he epitomizes the everyman who rose to the highest position of power in the land (contemporaries might have given the honor to Andrew Jackson, but that whole Trail of Tears thing has understandably disillusioned modern Americans).  Grahame-Smith tells us that Lincoln was traumatized as a child by the death of his mother at the hands of rapacious vampires.

American civ professors emphasize the complexity of causes leading up to the Civil War. Grahame-Smith informs us that it was little more than Lincoln’s fanatic fight against vampire slaveholders. And all this on the basis of a “lost journal” that somehow fell into his possession, along with a handful of doctored photos scattered throughout the novel.

As a history major, I find the idea repulsive. But this book isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It isn’t meant to be an enduring classic. And, unless I have seriously overestimated the American public, there isn’t going to be a “DaVinci Code” debacle like we saw in 2003. Like he did with Jane Austen in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Grahame-Smith is parodying the conventions of biography itself.

Hey, maybe this is satire after all.

Most of the humor of the novel comes from the ridiculous juxtaposition of an absurd plot with Grahame-Smith’s staid, stuffy, David McCullough-esque writing style. He doesn’t break character for so much as a sentence, and halfway through readers might find themselves accepting Abe Lincoln’s flame gun as an accessory as natural as his stovepipe hat.

Ultimately, I’m ambivalent about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” But I will say one thing in its favor: at least the vampires don’t sparkle.

 

Readers might also like… “The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes” by McSweeney’s; “Android Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy and Ben Winters; “The Zombie Survival Guide” by Max Brooks.

5 Probably Horrible Science Fiction Plots I Dreamed Up This Year

23 Sep

So, there are a couple important reasons I’m studying history instead of, say, creative writing:

Cite your sources or die!

One: The stories practically write themselves.

Two: The characters are usually more interesting.

And three: I’m a wizard with footnotes.

But there’s always been a part of me deep down inside that wanted to write fiction, yearning to go all crazy second-person, present-tense, steam-of-consciousness on readers’ asses.  (Actually, in the first major original research I did for history a couple years ago, I did try to write the intro in the present tense.  My professor sighed sympathetically and simply said: “I tried doing things like that when I was starting out too.”)  I’m cured of that delusion now, but sometimes, on the dark, stormy nights of REM cycles, my subconscious rebels.

I’ve been writing down my dreams almost every night since fifth grade.  That’s… 12 years now.  Which is kind of messed-up in itself.  BUT, it also means I have a fantastic record of what I’d write if I weren’t sane.  Personally, I think they’d be awesome.

NOTE: These are actual excerpts from my current dream journal.  Otherwise known as Volume 23.

1. “Prepare to Suffer”  (Nov. 14, 2010)

Abe Lincoln says to the boy, as the kid puts on his floppy straw hat, long beige canvas-like coat, and picks up his staff in preparation for his journey—“Prepare to suffer.”  Lincoln has taken this trip before, and I think to myself, If I didn’t know better I’d say Lincoln’s read some Nietchze.  I am going on the journey then, and there’s a copy of a hardcover book (an old book with a spine that’s not very sturdy anymore) which says something to that effect.

Lincoln takes us to this man/prisoner being interrogated in a room.  His name is “Nikator.”  He’s calm and nonchalant, and tells one of the men in there (there are a number of FBI agents) that he could kill him and escape if they were alone—and says all of this with a smile and a laugh.

I have to leave because I’m an actress who gets these bit parts in some murder mystery show, where I’m stabbed with a sword in an elevator.  Of course it’s fake, but I still dread the part when it plunges in and then comes out the back, because I feel the pressure.  Then I fall over backward and the point coming out my back balances me above the ground.

Afterward, I realize that there’s a flap of skin missing on my stomach, and my intestines dangle out a bit.  I hold them in as I look for the doctor, who isn’t wearing pants and has an unbuttoned short-sleeve pint shirt in lavender and blue.  He’s been drinking, and doesn’t want to sew me up.

NOTE: I envision this as an alternate history sort of psychological thriller, with a lot of gnostic philosophy between chapters.  Kind of like a cross between Philip K. Dick and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

2. “Diarfa eb ton od, alebasi.”

Pronounced: “DARE-fuh eeb ton ood, al-EB-uh-zih.”

NOTE: Backwards, this reads “Isabela, do not be afraid.”  Obviously it would be incorporated into my novel as a not-that-cryptic-at-all message from the heroine’s (obviously Isabela’s) historical doppelganger Rose Hawthorne (daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), who keeps appearing to our heroine in vivid mystical visions.  Not that this has actually happened.  But compare pictures of us as children, and you’ll totally see what I mean:

Spooky.

3. F8

On vacation somewhere with mom and [my sisters], and we’d been there previously.  I find things I left for myself: like hints in a live-action game of Clue we played, only this time it was really serious.  I pass this little hill of rocks and bricks and sticks I’d been working on the year before, painting them blue to mark for future-me to find.

There are directions above an arch like a doorway without a door or walls outside.  It says to go over the “Giants’ Path,” and then a certain number of steps past a nail on a post, or sthng.  I go the direction indicated, through some trees, barefoot, and hit a pitch black lake.  [My sister and cousin] are with me—I ask her: How do we get across this?  We walk, she says.  But I’m up to my neck quickly.  She is out far into the middle really quickly, but I try and gesture to her—it’s near the shore, to the right, submerged in the water at this end: the Giants’ Path.  We go over a great royal blue plank bridge I’d forgotten was there.

Across the bridge is a house, very old, that’s like a library.  There are scrapbooked pages propped on a dresser, news clippings on pink and yellow floral paper.  The pictures from the newspapers, however, are of King Henry VII ordering the execution of someone.  This is the answer to a mystery, I realize.  And the picture shows Henry looking at the camera with his tongue stuck out, like that famous picture of Einstein.  I realize Einstein must’ve been photoshopped from this one.

The message above the arch had given a jumbled code starting F8.  I immediately knew this was Library of Congress cataloguing code.  The books are numbered so in the house, but the F8 one indicated isn’t useful.  On my last trip there, I hadn’t found the newspapers.  In the piano bench, though, I do find my sister’s Level 2 Spanish book—which she hasn’t done, even though now she has Level 3.

NOTE: I’m sure you already realize where this is going, but it seems obvious to me that the house at the end of the Giants’ Path will be my portal to Narnia, where I’ll either find religion or else go all Golden Compass and kill God.  I’ll ask my editors what they think.  A major subplot, of course, will be my decision to get a Masters in Library and Information Sciences.

4. The Traveling History Circus (that’s my title of choice)

Penta is a young girl with short blonde hair and a small braid on the right side; talking to her grandmother Penta, about the little green bugs that used to live on flowers, aphids, and the yellow stems coming out of the center of the petals covered in pollen.  Penta is also the name of the place where they live, now completely submerged in water, so they’re amphibious people.  They are a people of oral history, and every year they send two children to a workshop.  Penta is one of them; she leaves at night, choosing the steepest and fastest of three paths up the mountain.

Its purpose is to seek out the talented young of these people and turn them into mobile historians—visiting other places and telling the stories of their culture.  This was one of the projects instituted by the new king of one region, whose power extends to influence over others nearby.  The king is bearded and made this announcement over a dam that was being worked on and should be ready “in two weeks” (which wasn’t true—it’s more like a month or more).  They are all water creatures, and Penta’s people live completely underwater.  One man came to the dam—he was a charcoal-gray color over his whole body and the narrator says: He was pale and wouldn’t have been noticed (in the water).

Penta is already unique, though few seem to realize it yet—she “remembered” aphids and pollen, wven though she’d never seen or heard of them before.  It was a sort of psychic collective unconscious.  Her grandmother, blind, sitting under a tree, had listened with a sense of wonder.

NOTE: This is one of those classic “coming of age stories,” with an Asimovian The Gods Themselves kind of twist regarding the lives of the alien people of Penta.  Naturally, there will be an incredibly complex background mythology, and the historians will ultimately foment rebellion across the countryside against the bureaucratic king.  Because that’s what historians do, am I right guys?  Shoot, I really need to think about what I’m posting… I’m applying to grad school this semester…

5. Terson Bragg

NOTE: Prepare for it.  This one’s seriously meta.

I suddenly remember that long time ago, I wrote a science fiction novel (unpublished) in which the hero was a man called Terson Bragg, who became a machine.  I have forgotten this book until recently.

Now, the technology is available to place human consciousness into a machine—I am to be the second to do it; My uncle was first.  The thing is that, for two seconds, the mind is placed in a machine way out in space, one of those out by the asteroid belt and Saturn, taking pictures.  So, this transfer can be done at a great distance.  And for two seconds, a person’s mind will be there, seeing what the machine sees, and all the vastness of space.  Uncle John says it was beautiful, so great and awe-some.  I am nervous, and worry that the two seconds will seem like such a long time, like a lifetime (Uncle John said it felt longer than seconds), and that I’ll be blinded by all the stars and celestial bodies.  But I know it is an opportunity I cannot miss.

I go to the front desk—the reception room all chrome and glass—of the company where this will take place.  I am holding my kindle, which is circular and about the diameter of the inner circle of our large Frisbee.  The woman at the desk uses that to ascertain my identity, but says that next time I should bring the proper paperwork [it had a name—sounds like ubiquitous], which looked like dark blue-green x-rays.  All the time I am frightened, like on the way up to the first drop of a rollercoaster, thinking all the time that I want to get off but knowing I can’t, and knowing I had to take this opportunity.

I return home.

Mom and my sisters and Uncle John and everyone ask me how it was, but I find—I can’t remember.  I literally can’t remember, and Mom suggests—maybe I didn’t do it after all.  Maybe I backed out.  But I don’t remember doing that either, and I know, I couldn’t have.  I was frightened, but determined.  I try so hard to remember, but I can’t.  I can’t.  And then they suggest—well, do you remember it four years ago?  Because four years ago I wrote the Terson Bragg book, and this robotic-mind technology is analogous—and perhaps when I shifted consciousness back the memories went to the place they thought they should be.  And I was panicked and said no, no, but I do have an image of space from a rotating spot, black but bright with a golden light, with stars and colors everywhere.  And beautiful.

Then the future.  The world has strange collapsing tendencies, and people sometimes float down from buildings I see on the empty streets.

FINAL NOTE: Besides the fact that the science is off, I kind of think I wrote that one pretty well, even half-asleep at my computer, probably not wearing my glasses.  And besides, when did iffy science ever stop science fiction writers?  And Terson Bragg is a badass character name.

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman: The Anti-Harry Potter?

7 Sep

In this bleak and empty wasteland of the post-Harry Potter world we live in, it’s inevitable that any book about twenty-somethings at a school for magic will come under the closest scrutiny. That would be daunting for most fantasy writers, but in “The Magicians,” author Lev Grossman relishes in the prospect.

His characters are us—college students who grew up in the pages of Hogwarts, Middle Earth and other classics of fantasy lit (including a Narnia-like universe called Fillory, complete with talking animals and thinly veiled religious allegories). And naturally, just like us, their expectations of what magic should be like are colored by these books. Quickly, they realize that they (and consequently we too) couldn’t have been more wrong.

Click for the original article in the Crimson White, the University of Alabama's campus paper

Quentin Coldwater is a genius. He, unlike a disturbing number of Hogwarts students, has more than a fifth-grade education in the traditional three R’s—which is all for the good at a magical college with a broader curriculum than the Hogwarts’ spell-casting of made-up Latin, wand-waving and jazz hands.

Magic at Brakebills Academy requires calculus, a working knowledge of quantum physics and proficiency in the very necessary languages of Estonian, Bedouin Arabic and Old Church Slavonic (just to name a few). Plus, giant spiders in the woods are nothing compared to the inter-dimensional Beast swimming up from the depths of the multiverse to devour students alive in the middle of class. In other words, practicing magic is actually kind of hard.

And that’s not the only difference. Brakebills, for one, is American. Located in upstate New York, the school caters to the uber-nerds, super-geniuses, hippie Wiccans and hipster intellectuals of the country. People like Quentin, our anti-hero, whose first reaction to the revelation that magic exists and he could be a magician (“wizard,” you know, is so passé) isn’t the wide-eyed wonder of a ten-year-old Harry Potter.

This is a world-weary high school senior we’re talking about, the kind who makes arch allusions to quidditch and the Anglophilia of American prep schools, quotes Borges and Cervantes alongside Star Trek references, whose professors curse often, turn their students into geese for a semester, and sanction a shocking amount of on-campus alcohol use, and whose headmaster tattoos battle demons into his students’ backs the night before graduation.

Not to mention that the central theme of the book is a whole lot more complicated than the clear-cut battle of good and evil we, the Harry Potter generation, have come to expect. Brakebills students are cynical, sarcastic and hardly heroic. They’re college kids, after all, with unlimited power and no small amount of post-traumatic stress disorder from battles with monsters out of H.P. Lovecraft’s worst nightmare. In “The Magicians,” Quentin and his cronies discover, as he says, “the horror” of getting what you wish for.

Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” (2009) is the anti-Harry Potter, a story that riffs on contemporary expectations of fantasy tropes and heroes. In its characters and plot, however, the novel is completely original—a trend that only continues in Grossman’s sequel “The Magician King,” just released last month.

This is a book you will devour, so get excited. But maybe not too excited. In keeping with the spirit of Brakebills and its denizens, try, at least, to affect an air of indifference. Hold your “retro” Kindle 2 casually aloft in one hand with the hip lassitude of the youthful literati, and just pretend you don’t wish that you too could be one of The Magicians.

 

“The Magicians” is available in that old-fashioned pulpy stuff called paper, as well as ebook form on Amazon, for $12.99

 

Readers might also like:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke; A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin; The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross; Johann Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

One Throne to Rule Them All

20 Jul

This month, TIME magazine christened novelist George R. R. Martin, author of the epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the “American Tolkien for a jaded age.” Possibly, it’s the two Rs for middle initials; possibly, it’s the grandiloquent series title; possibly, it’s the fact that both write in the fantasy genre with a cult following dissecting every word and chapter. Personally, I think it’s a facile comparison. Call me a blasphemer, but George R. R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms wipe the floor with Middle Earth, and here’s why.

Read my original column on the Crimson White website, campus news for the University of Alabama

The Tolkien universe has long been the standard against which readers and critics compare any fantasy work. The more mediocre sword-and-sorcery writers think that vomiting dwarves, elves, dark lords and half-baked mythologies onto a computer monitor makes a bestseller – Eru knows there are enough of those on the market. Plots are predictable: an evil menace, a chosen one destined to save the world, a malevolent piece of magical jewelry and a final battle between good and evil (I think I unintentionally described Harry Potter here). It’s boring, plain and simple. The sheer quantity of this kind of hack fantasy drove me into the arms of science fiction long ago, but George R. R. Martin has gradually pulled me back.

“A Song of Ice and Fire,” which begins with “A Game of Thrones,” has no hobbits or orphan boys on a quest to save the world. We have one dwarf, but he doesn’t go around swigging ale and swinging axes – he’s just a man with achondroplasia, and if he drinks a little much, it’s probably because his father tries to get him killed in battle. His sister, the queen, wants him dead too (along with a long list of other powerful people), and his only weapon is the ability to create really smart, funny dialogue. Tyrion might be the most likeable character in the book (he’s my favorite, at least) – and he also happens to be a member of the superficially villainous Lannister family.

Unlike Tolkien, Martin gives us no clear-cut good versus evil. Instead, we get a five-sided civil war (six or seven, counting all the madness across the Narrow Sea) in a world peopled by people best described as anti-heroes, or maybe just human beings. Instead of epic quests, Martin delivers realpolitik and plotlines as complex as his characters. Oh, and by the way, in this fantasy universe, women actually do stuff. And I don’t mean the token Eowyn, or elf princess Arwen who (movies to the contrary) actually spent her time sewing Aragorn a battle standard. For real. For three books.

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh on J. R. R. After all, even the new HBO series “Game of Thrones” cast Sean Bean, alias Boromir, as this season’s lead (and I say this season because, spoiler alert, Sean Bean’s character kind of has an unpleasant encounter with a sword and his neck). Which brings me to another point: the bloody-minded George R. R. Martin will kill, maim, torture or torment any of his characters. No one is safe. Plot twists might leave you crying or leaving profane notes in the virtual margins of your Kindle, but they keep you guessing, and originality is the holy grail of fantasy novels.

There’s only one downside as I see it: fans probably have another five years to wait before book six comes out. Of course, with five books at 1,200 pages each, new readers might just take five years to catch up. I highly encourage it.

 

You might also like… “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan; “The Worm Ouroboros” by E. R. Edison; “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch; “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke.

Updates from a Horrible Review Blogger

17 Jul

Okay, so you know how whenever I post a review calendar I write something like this?

The reviewer reserves the right to be dishonest, off-task, irresponsible, untrustworthy, unscrupulous, untruthful, mendacious, perfidious, snarky and sarcastic at any time.

While I always intended that in itself to be nothing but superfluous snark, the last few months of nonexistent updates (when I was supposed to be reviewing, like, a dozen deserving novels) have proven that I really am unreliable, irresponsible, faithless and inconstant.  And because I am so terribly devoid of integrity, I’m going to tell you who’s to blame.

You.

You are to blame, you smart, funny, creative indie authors who send such nice messages requesting reviews.  You with your clever blurbs and quips.  You who get me all excited about new fiction to read until I can’t help but agree to review every single book that passes through my gmail.  It was fun while it lasted, but it can’t go on forever.  Because I think I just explained really well why it’s not me: it’s you.

Anyway, to make a sob story short, I let things get out of hand. By May, I was booked up into March of 2012, leading to delays that piled up into uber-delays, leading to me hiding from my blog because I  didn’t know how to catch up.  Reviewing had gotten more stressful than fun, which is a bad thing, considering the only reason I started doing it was for recreational purposes.  And considering that in March of 2012 I’ll be preparing to start a doctoral program in history, that sort of stress is not going to work.

So ignore the review calendar I posted for 2011/2012.  I’m cleaning house.  And because it’s all your fault for being smart and funny and creative, I had to dump a number of indie authors’ books.  This is the new the Scattering, and guess what?  It’s going to be fun again!

For me, anyway.

Check the About page for new submission standards.

Here’s what I’m still reviewing off the old list:

Heroes Die Young, by T. M. Hunter

Ghosts of Rosewood Asylum, by Stephen Prosapio

Shard Mountain, by Joe Mitchell

Outies, by Jennifer Pournelle

Encrypted, by Lindsay Buroker

Exchange, by Dale Cozort

Welcome to Gehenna, by Darren Scothern

Take the All-Mart, by J. L. Greco

Two-Fisted Tweets, by James Hutchings

The Valkyrie Project, by Nels Wadycki

Gods and Galaxies, by Aaron Smith

Keepers of the Rose, by D. J. Dalasta

Reich TV, by Jeff Pearce

Peace Army, by Steven L. Hawk

Deja Vu, by Ian Hocking

Stockholm, by Kian Kaul

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