Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Review: The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

We come to the third and final book in the Lev Grossman Magician's trilogy. I almost loved the first book, I didn't like the second book, and the third book leaves me disgruntled.


The Good:

There is no disparaging Grossman's descriptive ability and his world-building skills. Pretty much damn perfect, as far as I am concerned. There is a beauty and mastery of the pen here, superb descriptions that leave the reader smiling. The visuals are stunning and intricate. I could literally "see" the images he was creating with his writing. All marvelous stuff. Which is exactly how I felt about the last two books. You cannot fault this writer's ability to craft a world. He's a master at it.

I also felt the ending was acceptable, although there was more of a "this is the way it needs to be" as opposed to "this is why it's happening." That said, the "death" of Fillory seemed manufactured to me. I kept asking why is it dying? The "first" near-death in book 2 made so much more sense. There was a definite why Fillory was collapsing. This second round of death didn't have an organic cause--although I will say that the scenes of Fillory dying are beautifully written. I suppose we're just supposed to go with the flow.

The Bad:

Oh, wow, this is really key to why I didn't like this book. With the exception of Quentin, who seems to have finally grown up, the rest of the cast of characters remains immature and stuck in their 17-year-old selves. The dialogue is trite, smarmy, and sounds like teenagers trying to be cool. This worked when the characters were at Brakebills, but now they are thirty frigging years old! I became bored with it and wanted to shake them out of their sarcastic, arrogant selves. Janet is especially odious, and it's not because she's bitchy. It's because she's odious. Well, there's this little bit of Fillory that should be ours and it isn't and I'm just going to take it because it's there and I'm bored. And if you don't like it, fuck you, I'm High Queen of Fillory. Eliot's character is similarly arrogant with a similar, hey, I'm bored, so I'm going to beat the shit out of guy and show him who is boss. His arrogance blinds him to why this invasion is happening.

Key question: If Fillory is so amazing and beautiful and is the epitome of all that is wonderful and magical, why are the majority of these characters so bored there? WHY? Quentin's boredom was the catalyst for the entire plot in book two, and it's a major issue that moves forward both Janet and Eliot's character trajectory in book three.

This is my main problem with these characters. They do not deserve to be High King and Queen of anything. With the exception of Quentin (ironically enough) who has redeemed himself and yet finds himself in exile again, albeit, by his own will, Janet and Eliot (Josh and Poppy are negligible characters and clearly only exist as baby-making machines) are not worthy of their honor. There is a delicious symmetry here that should probably be up in the Good section. Alice saves Fillory from Martin Chatwin in book one, and Quentin saves Fillory from internal destruction in book three. If ANYONE should be high king and queen of Fillory, it's these two.

Grossman's can write teenagers like anyone else, but he seems to be incapable of writing adults. The majority of these characters are immature jerks who get off on their power. Not only that, the scenes with them almost seem pointless. They are filler until we get to the heart of the story: Quentin's quest to bring back Alice. THIS is the heart of the story and yet we dance around this with manufactured crises and detours that do nothing to move the plot forward (even as they are described in beautiful language).

And this is another flaw. So much of the truly beautiful world-building is pointless. That whole whale thing? Gorgeous writing. Did it matter? No. Was it a bonding moment between Plum and Quentin (ala Quentin and Alice as foxes)? No, it was purely a mechanical exercise to show us Grossman's magnificent world-building skills. But it didn't matter at all to the story. Five pages of being whales for no reason. I could see this working if Quentin and Plum didn't trust each other and turning into whales dissipated that distrust. Nope, just because we can be whales, we are going to be really cool whales.

I think that there are two key problem with this book: (1) much of the magic in this book has devolved into filler material, basically there to show off Grossman's writing skills, e.g., Eliot's mano-e-mano battle, Janet's standoff with the desert people, and Plum and Quentin's decision to be whales. J. K. Rowling also had a similar problem as her series progressed, where story and characterization sacrificed itself to the world-building; and (2) the other characters (with the exception of Alice) are stuck in their selfish teenage selves. Quentin now commands our attention as an adult. I was irritated and bored with the others. Would be that there was a bridge to maturity for them.

I was thrilled to see a mature Quentin, and if his self-exile was to point out that Janet and Eliot are in an emotional time warp, that they can't grow up while in Fillory, then it's a very subtle, miniscule point that was lost on me. And if this is Grossman's intention, then it only underscores my point that you have this magical kingdom being ruled by immature teenagers, who are chronically thirty years old but mentally are seventeen.

In short, this is an uneven book with much beautiful writing that doesn't have a whole lot of purpose. If world-building is the cream in your coffee, you will be thrilled. If pacing and characterization float your boat, it won't work as well for you.