Tag Archives: ebooks

Nerd Alert! Community Goes “Ready Player One”

18 May

To inherit the estate of a dead business tycoon, an underdog and his eccentric group of friends must work together to beat a fiendishly difficult video game rife with 80s pop culture references and all the while try to keep a step ahead of an evil corporate cheater.

SF fans might recognize this as the plot of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One.  But substitute “80s pop culture references” with “the racist stereotypes of a moist towelette magnate” and “evil corporate cheater” with “evil corporate Gus from Breaking Bad” and you’ve got the plot of “Digital Estate Planning,” the third-to-last episode of our favorite, increasingly-nerdy comedy Community in this, its third and darkest season.

Carlos Esposito channeling the Sixers in his OASIS haptic rig–I mean, at Hawthorne Wipes.

I love Community.  I wrote a lukewarm review of its second-ever episode years ago for another blog, which I heartily repent.  Not that I was wrong about Britta being self-righteous and super annoying in the first season, because I totally wasn’t wrong.  Now that Annie seems to be established as the new female lead (as Jeff says to Britta in Course Listing Unavailable, “You seemed smarter to me when I met you”), I have no complaints.

How could I, when Dan Harmon and Co. delight in proving their nerd credentials every Thursdays?  Like the red and blue universes at Annie’s Model UN UN-off (Fringe), or the evil Glee club Christmas episode (I completely believe that Will Schuester could secretly be a serial killer.  Sweater vests really are weird).

NBC seems to have a thing for pop culture cross-pollination.  And I don’t just mean Abed talking about tv shows, because that’s just what he does.  (As an aside–I think I remember criticizing Community for being too “postmodern” with the whole Abed-being-constantly-self-referential thing, but maybe postmodern grows on you.)  Anyone else notice that, on 30 Rock last night, the POW Avery communicating on camera through finger-twitching code sub-plot was pulled straight out of Homeland?

Anyway, “Digital Estate Planning” continues that tradition by taking a page (literally) out of Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One, which itself still strikes me as a gamer’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Of course, even for those of you who haven’t read Cline’s debut novel, released last summer to great fanfare from nerds everywhere, Community ep 3.20 is still as entertaining as ever, along with the two others that followed it last night.  Just thought someone should point this out, in the interest of introducing Cline’s fans to Community’s fans, and vice versa (though I imagine the respective fandoms have quite a bit of overlap).

Not much else to say, except, as always:

#sixseasonsandamovie!

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Tudor Thriller “Bring Up the Bodies” Captivates, Again

12 May

I’m far from the only person giving Hilary Mantel a glowing review for Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment in her saga of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII and his ill-starred wives.  The critical acclaim, international readership, and heaps of awards for Wolf Hall, published in 2009, may have surprised everyone (Mantel included), but there’s been nothing but hype for book number two.

We’ve heard the story a thousand times and, it would seem, in every possible iteration: histories and historical fiction, romance novels and bodice-ripping tv shows like The Tudors.  It isn’t as if the story’s going to change.  History has spoken.  The tale is a tragedy.  And so whatever book you read or film you see, Henry VIII is always going to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn will always find her head severed from her pretty little neck.

All of which makes Mantel’s trilogy-in-progress even more astonishing.  By showing us the mind of Thomas Cromwell–the man who usually features as the villain, if he features at all–in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel somehow makes the story new.

I reviewed Wolf Hall for the University of Alabama campus newspaper earlier this year–after reading it for the nth time since I first downloaded the historical novel onto my Kindle in 2009.  By that point I was getting very, very excited for the release of book number two.

Well, 3 years of waiting and I read Bring Up the Bodies in under 3 days.  I couldn’t help it!  As much as you want to savor every word of Thomas Cromwell’s sometimes-cryptic thoughts and Hilary Mantel’s always- and remarkably beautiful prose, Bring Up the Bodies is even more of a political thriller than Wolf Hall.

The pace ramps us as Henry VIII grows increasingly unhappy with the marriage for which he turned Europe upside down, as Queen Anne grows ever more imperious without getting any more pregnant, and as our do-everything Cromwell works to undo the royal marriage–whatever the cost.  (I think the title gives us a pretty good idea of the lengths to which Henry’s chief minister is forced to go.)

Of course, as we begin to see in this second book, being “the unknowable, the inconsolable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” takes a toll.  By the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536, Cromwell had been at the king’s right hand for about a decade–and we, the readers, can see the changes the years have worked in him.  He’s a far cry from the young lawyer of the first book, joking with Cardinal Wolsey at his apogee and doting on his young daughters (all of these people dead by the end of Wolf Hall).  Mantel continues to give us a sympathetic protagonist, but as Cromwell tells himself, a lesson he’s learned in the past 10 years:

“You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”

This is a harder, colder, more confident Cromwell than in Wolf Hall.  Even if he is still plain Master Cromwell (no lordship yet), he definitely has the authority to carry out his plans and the king’s orders (because he is nothing if not loyal to the capricious Henry).  But at the same time, the ground is shifting.

Enemies are rallying.  As Cromwell gains more power, and more money, and more prestige, he (and we) can feel the baleful glares of the old nobility burning holes into his back.  This is a book about beheadings, don’t forget, and there are plenty of instances of foreshadowing–if you happen to know the end of Cromwell’s story.

Knowing how close we’re getting to that inevitable bloody finale makes Bring Up the Bodies a gloomier  book for me to read than Wolf Hall, but no less engrossing.  My heart was pounding by the end, but, I think understandably, it was my neck that I was clutching.

* * *

How to Converse with Silly, Stupid Ladies (Victorian Life Advice 2.0)

8 May

Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date.  Or not.  Probably not.

Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s  Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation.  And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”

You’d better be reading Godey’s Lady’s Book, Belle. Not that you could understand it any better than the sheep.

This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,”  a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act.  We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females.  But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common.  Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:

1. No Controversy Allowed

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”

We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family.  Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman.  You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.

2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up

I love this one.  Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:

“You can speak, even though you’re so clearly my intellectual inferior! It’s remarkable!”

“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited.  If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”

By jove, that must be it!  It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men!  Well, that makes much more sense.

3. That’s What She Said

You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season?  Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet.  And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.

“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”

Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on.  Lord knows there’s not much.

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“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.

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?

“How to Succeed in Evil” stands out among indie ebooks

11 Oct

Edwin Windsor is not a super villain. True, he has the perfect name for it, as well as the additional prerequisites of extraordinary wealth, cold hyper-rationality, impeccable taste in suits, a flawless golf game and a vicious attorney for a henchman. But that could describe any number of the successful business overlords those disgruntled Occupy Wall Street protesters despise, right? So whatever the appearances, Edwin Windsor is not a super villain. He simply advises them.

Click here for the original column in the University of Alabama's Crimson White.

This is the leading man in Patrick E. McLean’s novel “How to Succeed in Evil” (without really trying). And as our Mr. Windsor is not a conventional protagonist, neither is “How to Succeed in Evil” a conventional novel. For one thing, you won’t find it in proud stacks of glossy hardcover books in the checkout line at Barnes & Noble (or any other brick-and-mortar bookstore, for that matter). At the moment, you can’t get it in paper at all. McLean’s very clever, very funny, very smart superhero story is also very, very independent.

“How to Succeed in Evil” is one of the growing number of indie novels by new authors, self-published in electronic formats like Amazon’s Kindle e-books. But don’t let that dissuade you from picking it up (virtually, of course). While a disappointing number of self-published books rightly deserve the name “vanity presses,” McLean’s novel soars over the mass of mediocrity like a bird, a plane or Windsor’s cape-wearing nemesis Excelsior.

I’ll admit, there were some pretty bizarre proofreading errors. Like one spot where I couldn’t tell if the word was supposed to be “air” or “aether.” But that’s what professional copy editors are for, and if this book takes off — as I think it deserves to — then maybe next time McLean publishes a book, he can get one. And in any case, the occasional typo isn’t too distracting, considering just how good the quality of storytelling is.

Edwin Windsor, as I said, is not a super villain — or, at least, he doesn’t want to be. He finds violence distasteful, secret lairs vulgar and grandiose schemes of “giant lasers in space,” for example, quite banal. When confronted by the strongest man in the world, Edwin wants to put him to work as a one-man demolition team. And in Edwin’s mind, the most profitable use of zombies would be as a cheap, easily replaceable factory labor force. But as the consultant finds, his clients tend to be — in the highly frustrating fashion of wannabe super villains — a little too megalomaniacal to take his good advice. They just won’t listen to reason.

And thus Edwin commissions a sinister (but immaculately tailored) black suit and decides that maybe consulting isn’t his calling. “In a time gone mad,” he thinks to himself, “the only sane thing to do is take over the world.”

Naturally, havoc and hilarity ensue.

In “How to Succeed in Evil,” Patrick McLean breaks the mold. Yes, I know, I know, postmodernist anti-heroes are so common these days as to be almost cliché, but Windsor and Co. are truly outside of the box. Just try to find me another novel with a cast like this — Agnes Plantagenet (that’s right, history majors, Plantagenet), Edwin’s more-English-than-bulldogs-and-bad-teeth secretary; “Dr. Loeb,” a trust fund baby from Alabama with some serious mommy problems (understandable, considering that his mother is a delusional Southern belle who wants either the South, or Napoleonic France, to rise again); an obscenity-shouting, vertically-challenged lawyer with a Napoleon complex of his own; and Excelsior, the emotionally unstable American Hero with his chain-smoking handler Gus.

 

Readers might also like: “Johannes Cabal the Necromancer,” by Jonathan L. Howard; “Sandman Slim,” by Richard Kadrey; “The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart,” by Jesse Bullington

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.

“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.