Friday, August 22, 2014

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what Fiction means.”
-Oscar Wilde

It’s appropriate that I find myself coming to this one on the heels of The First Law trilogy, as this rounds out another trilogy of high-fantasy deconstruction literature, albeit one that I’ve generally liked a whole lot more.  Anyway, I’d sort of like to critique this one more than I’m probably going to, but in fairness, the things that I found implausible were the things that I just said made The First Law so unpleasant in parts.  Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but maybe a little implausibility in fantasy literature really makes it work.

First thing – if you didn’t read The Magicians or The Magician King then for God’s sake don’t start here.  The second volume gave little refreshers so that you’d know what was going on, but this one only gives the barest of occasional reminders as to who people, places, and events were, usually foregoing them entirely.  So, go read those first.  But since the events of those novels are so prominent here, I will not have any compunction in referring to them.  I’ll try not to spoil this one too much, but those two are fair game.

Fair enough?

All right.  Let’s recap a bit.  In The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater was introduced to the magical world via a first-class magical education at Brakebills.  After graduation, though, he had nothing in particular to do, ended up cheating on his girlfriend Alice, and in an attempt to salvage this relationship took her and all his other friends on what he assumed would be a light-hearted fantasy adventure in the enchanted land of Narnia Fillory.  However, it turned out that following the advice of a bartender and a talking tree ended up with a desperate underground fight with a bunch of random monsters, followed by an encounter with evil demigod Martin Chatwin (a/k/a The Beast).  They would have died there except that Alice pulled a sacrificial trick which turned her into a demonic being of pure magic, burning her mortality away in the process.  Although Quentin and his pals got credit for saving the world from The Beast, this whole thing was only tangentially related to Quentin at best; Martin’s sister Jane had been manipulating time and space for nearly five decades in order to find someone that could defeat Martin.

So, Quentin learned the hard way that the world didn’t necessarily revolve around his needs, although it was Alice who paid the ultimate price for that lesson.  In The Magician King, Quentin has become one of four monarchs of Fillory, and is still looking for purpose in his life.  He decides that another quest would be just the thing – then gets sidetracked and involved in another quest, since magic is leaking out of all the worlds.  It turns out that his former high school classmate and co-ruler Julia is responsible for that.  She was rejected from Brakebills and ended up searching for magical power; she eventually got it, but at the cost of having her humanity stolen by a rapist trickster god, and furthermore summoning the god in the first place led to the great powers in the multiverse shutting down the loopholes in reality that allowed magic to operate at all.  Quentin actually saved the day this time himself, but agreed to take Julia’s punishment for the whole fiasco, and ended up being banished from Fillory and forever banned from the Far Side, which we never saw but which was described as a magical world’s magical world.  Julia herself embraced her now demihuman-demigod state, but passed out of the story, so far as we knew.

This novel begins in medias res as Quentin Coldwater, now in his 30s, is taking stock of his life as he peruses literature in a chain bookstore in New Jersey and waits to see who, like him, has come about a grey market magic job.  You immediately notice the change in him, and in the narrative style.  Grossman’s grown up too, and it shows, and Quentin is still noticeably himself but without being such a whiny prat.  In fact, the narrative specifically says that Quentin finds himself no longer thinking about everything in relationship to what it means for him in the future.  Instead, he is simply taking events as they come, thinking a little more deeply about things.  It turns out that he’d gone back to Brakebills, and they’d taken him in again as an adjunct professor, where he had a small room, a research project and regular meals, and was thinking about not very much.  How he went from there to getting involved in a heist orchestrated by a magical talking bird takes a little while to explain.

As it happens, Quentin is haunted by his past.  No, really, I mean his ex-girlfriend Alice who is a demon now has been sort of following him around.  He’d assumed that she was as close to dead as you can get without in fact being dead, but is now having to reevaluate this, although whether there’s anything he can actually do to or about her is an open question, since she’s channeling power on a completely different scale than Quentin does, or can.  Obtaining resources to tackle this problem is part of how he finds himself contemplating magical crime for money.

The first book followed Quentin only.  The second followed Quentin and also Julia.  This one has three major perspectives – Quentin, his friend and High King of Fillory Eliot, and a Brakebills alumnae by the name of Plum.  All magicians are pretty weird, and Plum is not an exception, and unfortunately she’s not given a whole lot to do.  She’s not undercharacterized, exactly, but she’s there primarily because of her family relationship to the plot, and she’s also there specifically not to sleep with Quentin, which for some reason everyone asks about.  To their credit, neither one of them seems especially enthusiastic about the idea in the first place.  I suppose she’s also there to show what Quentin looks like through other eyes, which as you might expect is quite competent but a little goofy.  And Eliot doesn’t get that much screen time, but what exists is pretty fun.

Quentin deals with four father figures in this novel – his real father, a quiet, inoffensive man who Quentin believes doesn’t actually like him all that much; Dean Fogg, the somewhat irascible but reasonably well-meaning head of Brakebills; Professor Mayakovsky, the deranged Russian magician living in self-imposed Antarctic isolation; and Ember, the Ram God of Fillory and all-round enigma.  His interactions with these four set the tone for most of the events, and show his increasing maturity as well.  For my money the encounter with Mayakovsky is the comic highlight of the book.  He was previously portrayed as a weird dude, and here he is again, dealing with Quentin on something of a more equal basis this time.  I say “something” because it’s clear that Mayakovsky is the greatest magician alive, and possibly the greatest ever.  He is also more or less insane and drunk most of the time on some sort of moonshine that he ferments out of . . . well, Quentin didn’t really want to know, and come do think of it neither do I.

Before too long, Quentin finds himself in possession of a couple of powerful spells; one of which literally floats down on him as he is hanging out in the space between worlds, the other stolen from the underbelly of Fillory itself.  These spells help make Quentin finally take the remaining steps from adept to true master, and also reflect the increasing maturity of this novel.  In the past, the more flashy aspects of magic have been restricted to fireballs, shield spells, and other destructive sorts of pursuits.  This time, there’s much more subtlety as magic is used to make things, and the nature of magic as a fundamentally creative enterprise is explored for the first time.

There’s also some destruction, of course.  If the first novel was a send up of (among other things) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the second one did The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this one picks up The Last Battle.  Early on, Ember announces that the end is nigh, and that Fillory is going to be destroyed.  Didn’t that happen last time, you ask?  Well, sort of.  Fillory isn’t just a magic land, it’s made of magic, so the threatened destruction of all magic in The Magician King would have resulted in its loss too.  But this has nothing to do with that, it’s just one of those things.  It turns out that it’s not the first Fillorian apocalypse either.  And this time, when threatened with the impending destruction of Fillory, Quentin does not immediately leap into action without thinking, and he does not sulk and complain.

He ends up involved anyway, of course.

His intervention and the book in general end up tying up or resolving most of the loose ends that have existed throughout the entire series.  It’s obvious that Grossman is a huge continuity nerd, and in truth I appreciate this.  Little details are nice.  It’s apparent that Grossman loves this world and has affection for these characters, and it shows on every page.

I don’t want to spoil too much or give away the ending, but the thematic troubles I have with this book are related to that same love.  Quentin took quite a beating in the first two books, and Grossman has now decided to throw him a bone here.  There’s a happy ending, which is nice.  In fact it’s so nice that it sort of elides the previous beatings.  If the message of the first two books was believing in magic does not equip you to deal with the realities inherent in existing among other people, the message of this one seems to be stick it out long enough and you’ll get everything you want.  If you’re good enough, you’ll save the world and get the girl – even if the girl herself may not be all that into the idea.  She’ll come around.  For that matter, the events just seem to unfold on rails especially in the last half of the book - keep on plugging and it'll all work out somehow.  It's destiny, man.

In a way, this message is entirely antithetical to everything that’s come before.  But at the same time, this is the best written and most internally coherent of the three novels.  At the end of a fantasy novel, can I really be that upset about a little fantasy fulfillment?  Not too much.  Maybe a little bit.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

The thing about Tolkien is that he wrote in an age where sincerity wasn’t looked down on as it often is today, and it’s hard to call his work cliché since he invented many of the things that were later used and abused by his legions of imitators.  He was also an unabashed monarchist, and it shows in his work.  When Aragorn comes to take the crown, everyone agrees that he’s the rightful ruler, and because he is a good man the land prospers under his rule.  We don’t find out about his treacherous viziers or hangers-on, presumably because he can see right through such people.  Aragorn himself spent decades fighting battles without becoming jaded or cynical, and armies that he commands were forces for good in the land, and didn’t commit war crimes or random atrocities.

Needless to say, that’s never happened in any real situation on planet Earth, even when the people in charge were generally what we would call good people.  For a while the trend in fantasy literature was to simply ignore this stuff.  However, modern fantasy authors have taken note, and many of them have of late tried to put more realism into their worlds than we typically see in classic works like The Lord of the Rings and its many imitators.  George R.R. Martin is a good example of this; he demonstrates in Ned Stark a classic fantasy hero, a righteous man with an inflexible sense of honor, who immediately gets chewed up and destroyed by the intrigue of even a moderately large bureaucracy.  Martin created a land where even the “good” armies have to forage to stay alive, and that means taking the livelihood and even lives of the peasants that work those areas, and men who make their living killing with melee weapons aren’t above a little bit of robbery or rape if presented with an opportunity.

But for some authors, even this doesn’t go far enough.  Richard K. Morgan explored this territory in his Land Fit for Heroes series, where everything bad in A Song of Ice and Fire is made even more horrible.  And now here I am reading this series by Joe Abercrombie, which takes everything that can go bad, wrong or unpleasant and makes it do so.  I can’t say that I enjoyed it exactly, but I will say that I’m happy to have read it, since now I know exactly where my limit is for so-called “realism” in fantasy fiction.  This far, and no farther.

Like any good fantasy world, this one has a creation story.  The world used to be overrunning with demons, until the half demon Euz sealed them up in the other world, then ordered his four sons to bring order to the human side of it, before leaving himself.  The four then engaged in various internecine squabbles and are also gone from the world.  They did manage to train the order of mages, who are capable of various magic feats and don’t seem to die of old age, but the age of magic is over, and they’re actually beginning to industrialize somewhat.  Incidentally, the “First Law” was made by Euz, and it is “don’t traffic with demons”.  The Second Law was also made by Euz, and that’s “no cannibalism”.  As it happens, this is a practical rule since in this world eating other people actually grants you some supernatural powers, but curses you to be unable to ever stop doing so.  The fact that such laws are necessary tells you a great deal about how much this world sucks.

And indeed it does suck.  As it turns out, the first of the mages, Bayaz, and the second of the mages, Khalul, have this blood feud thing going.  Khalul openly breaks the Second Law and has a legion of Eaters (those that have done the same) under his command, and he’s declared himself the Prophet of God, and has an Empire going on down in the south of the world.  Bayaz himself has formed the Union, which is a monarchy in the north (but not the far north, where the barbarians live, of course), and also has a couple of interesting side businesses of his own.  He originally looks to be something of a typical wizardly sort, but as time goes on you learn that he really doesn’t care too much about people as long as they do what he says, and you gradually discover that maybe some of Khalul’s complaints about him may in fact be pretty well based in reality.

The main viewpoint characters in all of this are Glokta, a former soldier turned government torturer; Jezal dan Luthar, a handsome but venal young officer of the Union, and Logen “Bloody-Nine” Ninefingers, barbarian warrior extraordinaire.  These are interesting ideas for characters, but I personally find that their characterization is not always as deep as you might like.  And there are some other sort-of-lazy touches, like the land of the stereotypical barbarians is called “Angland” and the southern empire is the “Gurkish”.  That’s a little bit hard to take seriously.

There is nonetheless a lot to like about the writing here; Abercrombie is not a transcendent writer by any means but he is workmanlike.  He knows what he’s trying to accomplish and there’s a fair bit of dark humor, but what is really impressive is how he is able to move the plot along.  There is world-building and long conversations, sure, but if he says someone’s going to invade then they invade in maybe two chapters, and you get to the action.  There’s also a bit where Bayaz is assembling some people to go on a traditional quest for an artifact in the far reaches of the world and the whole thing ends up as a huge fiasco, which I liked quite a bit.  And Logen is an absolutely fantastic deconstruction of the barbarian berserker archetype – it turns out that there’s actually quite a bit of downside to murderous rages wherein you kill everyone in front of you.  Who knew?

But there is also quite a bit to not like here, even structurally.  Take Glokta, for instance.  He was captured in a previous war and tortured for about two years, and the narrative continually describes his excruciating and constant physical pain.  He can’t eat solid food because of missing teeth, one of his legs doesn’t work, his spine is crooked, and this government torturer job was all he could get.  But he throws himself into it completely without mercy and is responsible for various deaths of the innocent and guilty alike.  He freely engages in activities that would be considered war crimes while in charge of a besieged city, for no net gain, and he quite gleefully abuses his position to make physical threats against people who have not done anything illegal.  He also enjoys causing physical pain to other people as revenge against the world for not suffering as he does, which is pretty reprehensible.  I will say this though – Glokta does in fact do one nice act that doesn’t blow back on anybody, which is something that no one else manages to accomplish in well over 1500 pages.

In fact, this whole thing reminds me of the Cyberpunk genre in its more baroque phase, where institutions existed for the simple sake of being Evil and doing Evil.  There’s definitely a place for realism in fantasy literature, but this veers so far into the squalid and depressing that it’s equally unrealistic.  The Inquisition that Glokta works for appears to revolve simply around grabbing people off the street and torturing them; all the institutions of the Union are also shown to be appallingly corrupt, racist, and inefficient.  Even with an immortal sorcerer as the force behind the throne, there’s no way that a government this terrible could survive long, with its complete inability to make political decisions, solve crimes, or effectively defend itself.  Case in point, the huge conscript army that gets wiped out to the last man since the corrupt nobles responsible for filling the levies just sent a bunch of derelicts on a winter campaign without adequate weapons or warm clothing.  Yes, that sort of thing can and has happened in the real world, but the thing is that you end up with violent revolutions or external threats at that point.  The Union might survive some of the screw-ups depicted in this trilogy, but probably not all of them and also not as a world power.

At the end of the day, I’m forced to concede that this was successful on its own terms, because it got me to chew through three big volumes and certainly made an impression.  At the same time, I also feel that it was more like rubbernecking at a particularly horrible industrial accident that kept me going out of sheer perversity.  So I don’t necessarily give this one a full-throated endorsement, but it does go places that the genre doesn’t necessarily go – albeit for the occasional good reason.