Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Lessons

At first I was a little embarrassed that I was going to write three entries to run a full analysis of lessons learned from Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians.  I was able to contain a short review, analysis, and lessons learned of the short story discussed in my first “Interrogating the Text” series in a single post.  And then I realized: waitaminit… a novel is a lot longer than a short story, and there’s a lot more depth to what’s going on in a novel.  It only makes sense that a complete textual analysis for a novel is going to be longer than for a short story.  Heck… I’m probably missing a lot even confining it to three overlong posts.

That said, to get the full benefit of this post, you’ll probably want to check out the prior two posts discussing my reading of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: here and here.  The first is a relatively spoiler-free review that discusses my initial reactions to the book.  The second is a deeper and more thorough (and far more spoilery) analysis of why I had the reaction I had.  Now, I want to bring it all together to talk about the lessons I think I can take away from all of that.

The short version, then, is that I enjoyed reading the book.  The reason I enjoyed it was, mostly, for the high-quality prose, style and voice of the book, first of all, and for the clever twists and tweaks on common and sometimes-cherished, sometimes-maligned fantasy (and YA fantasy, especially) tropes. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Analysis

Last time I picked up the pieces of this “Interrogating the Text” series and gave you a general review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  But I wanted to talk a little about the writing lessons I learned from this book: what I liked, what I disliked, why I liked or disliked it, and what I can learn from that to apply to my own writing.

The remainder of this discussion won’t make much sense if you haven’t read The Magicians, I’m afraid.  And if you haven’t read it, and think you might like to, this post will contain spoilers for the ending of the book.  If you’re not sure if you’d like to, may I suggest you take a gander at my review in last week’s post, or this review here.  And one last warning: I’m going really in depth here, so this post is rather quite a bit long.  So settle in for an epic journey, if novel-writing-lessons are your cup of tea.

First, I want to make it clear, in case it wasn’t in my earlier post: I really enjoyed reading this book.  It was compelling and interesting.  For much of the book, it was a page-turner.  But I wasn’t satisfied by it’s ending.  Something felt off about it.

So let’s dig into that.

What did I like about The Magicians?  I liked the book’s style: while not as lyrical or poetic, for instance, as the works of Cathrynne Valente, it was nonetheless composed with a very compelling and interesting style.  It’s intelligent, and it makes no excuses for its intelligence.  It comes with a clear literary pedigree, but instead of eschewing the conventions of genre or speculative fiction and especially of YA fantasy (despite being decidedly not a YA book). 

I especially liked the manner with which the book played with genre conventions, and the clever use of a book (series)-within-a-book.  The Magicians plays up the tropes of the normal-person-enters-magical-world (i.e. “portal fantasy”) at every turn, and cleverly lampshades these conventions several times.  (For example, the Harry Potter books are mentioned by name in the course of the narrative, as is Tolkien’s Middle Earth.)  And there’s a lot of cool meta-fictional layers to the whole idea of Fillory in the book.  For example: Christopher Plover, the fictional author of the Fillory books, has a webpage.  There are even web pages for “fans” of the Fillory series.

But there were some difficult things about The Magicians as well, and they relate primarily to the characters and to the ending.

The characters are somewhat problematic in The Magicians because most of them, with the exception of Alice, are to a greater or lesser degree unlikable. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Review

Some time ago – back in August, now – I started a new, very occasional series of posts focused on critically reading and reviewing published works of fiction that I call “Interrogating the Text”.  The series, so far, has had a grand total of one entry (on the subject of Catherynne Valente’s “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While”).  Today marks the second entry in that occasional series.

I recently finished reading Lev Grossman‘s send-up to the fantasy genre: The Magicians.  It was an interesting read – I enjoyed it but, as I say, with caveats – and at about the two-thirds mark I resolved to blog about my reactions to the book: what I liked and what I disliked and why.

I’m going to start this off with a relatively spoiler-free review of the book, in a general sense, before I load up with an extra helping of spoilers and do the in-depth analysis that someday if this series ever gets more than two entries will be thought the hallmark of the “Interrogating the Text” series.  I’ll be breaking this down, then, into two posts.  One for the review, and one for the spoilery analysis.

So… Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  I liked it, but with caveats.  I keep saying that.  What does that mean?  It means that I found the writing and story to be engaging and interesting.  It was very well-written, stylistically.  The prose was at times poetic, clean, and evocative.  I kept reading because I found I had to know what happened next.  And yet, at the end of the story, I wasn’t satisfied. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #1: Cat Valente & Fairyland

I read a short story recently, and I wanted to share it.  I figured: what the heck, I’m a writer writing about writing on my blog, and especially about Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and the Greater Speculative Fiction Metropolitan Area.  So I can just post a link to a short story that I think deserving of attention!  Besides, it’s my blog, so nyeh!

But then I thought about it a little more.  I don’t often give writing advice, per se, on my blog because I don’t know that I’m really qualified to do that.  I do talk about how I do what I do – how I write.  But, if there’s a story I decide I particularly like, might it not benefit me to dig a little deeper into it to try to understand why?  And, if so, might that deeper exploration be of similar value to my readers?

Hey, why not?  Long ago, when I was in a middle school art class, I had a teacher who encouraged us to learn art technique by trying to copy the works of more famous authors.  (I attempted a rendition of Winslow Homer‘s “The Fox Hunt“, committing a terrible replica of which I am oddly still a little proud.)  As it turns out, studying the techniques of more advanced, more skillful, and more worthy artists is an excellent way to improve your own technique.  (I’ll never be a famous painter – probably because I’ve put more effort into learning the craft of writing than of painting, because as much as I enjoy painting I enjoy writing more – but I’m a passably fair artist with a pencil or a brush.)  So today begins a new, occasional and periodic feature here at “The Undiscovered Author” that I call “Interrogating the Text” in which I do a little analysis on a story that I’ve read – and let’s see if together we can’t learn a thing or two about the craft of writing.  Most – possibly all – of my example stories will be Speculative in some nature, and I’ll try  to reference stories that I can link to so you guys at home can follow along.

To kick this off, I thought I’d point you all to a delightful little story called “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While” by Catherynne M. Valente.  It’s available to read for free on Tor.com.  “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland” is described by Valente as a prequel to her recently published novel “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making“, and as a bridge to that novel’s sequel.  I have not read the novel – it was on my list, but after reading this story it may have to be bumped up the list by a few slots.  This story is really quite remarkable in ways that are difficult to understand right away. Continue reading

Writing Quote: Metaphors

Today’s writing quote comes from an author whose work I’m rather fond of (I’ve read several of his books, and they are very intelligent and articulate books).

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. 

~Orson Scott Card

Metaphors are one of those tools of style that writers have at their disposal, but few writers master their use.  In the wrong hands, a metaphor becomes a blunt instrument, good only for pounding the nails of common things, or worse, it becomes a cliché.  But in more practiced hands, they become as Lyra’s Alethiometer, revealing the truth of things in unexpected ways. Continue reading

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 
     
     

                                                                  

  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!