September 24, 2014

Forays Into Fantasy

In this thematic installment of reviews, I look at two fantasy novels. They're very different kinds of fantasies, and I had very different reactions:

→ I'm not usually drawn to works of high fantasy, in which characters undertake epic adventures in magical worlds that tend to resemble medieval Europe. But since one of the squares on my summer reading bingo card was Fantasy, I thought I'd push myself into trying something in this particular subgenre. I chose a book I'd heard good things about, THE KILLING MOON by N.K. Jemisin, which is notable for a setting based not on Europe but on ancient Africa.

THE KILLING MOON takes place in a city where life is focused on devotion to the goddess of dreams. Priests provide all the important functions of society: educating children, healing the sick, establishing laws, and sending the faithful to dwell permanently in the land of dreams at the end of their lives. When something goes wrong as the priest Ehiru tries to gather a man's final dream tithe, he's devastated, but the unfortunate incident also raises questions. Soon Ehiru, his apprentice, and a foreign diplomat are all working to find answers and get to the bottom of a terrible corruption that threatens the city.

While Jemisin drew inspiration from the culture and geography of ancient Egypt, she's created a richly developed original world. I was frequently impressed by the intricate worldbuilding as details of the religion, magic, and daily life were revealed -- and I appreciated that these explanations never bogged down the story, which has its own complexities. The plot that unfolds is one of political intrigue, and I enjoyed following the characters on their quest to get the bottom of it.

I recommend this book to fantasy readers, or to anyone who might read more fantasy if it didn't all look so similar. THE KILLING MOON is a refreshing change.

This book is the first in a duology, though it stands on its own. I'll definitely be reading the second book, THE SHADOWED SUN.

→ I expected to like Lev Grossman's THE MAGICIANS because I've heard so many good things about the book and the trilogy as a whole. The premise has great potential, and it plays around with the tropes of popular children's fantasy series such as Narnia and Harry Potter, which sounds like a lot of fun. Grossman knows how to craft a sentence and has a sense of humor that appeals to me, and he's a book critic, which suggests a familiarity with what makes stories succeed or fall short. Alas, I found this story tedious and poorly assembled, and it was a big disappointment.

As I said, the premise is promising: Quentin likes magic tricks, and he loves the Fillory fantasy books that everyone reads as a kid. Neither of these are cool interests for a high school senior, and Quentin doesn't feel he fits in, not just at school, but in the world itself. When he's mysteriously transported to a strange college and told that magic is real, it seems like his dreams have come true, and he's finally in the place where he belongs.

Quentin's new life continues from there, mostly in long expositional passages that describe events in summary rather than letting scenes come to life. The scenes that do play out often seem random, serving no clear purpose in advancing the plot or developing the characters. I kept holding out for the possibility that it would all tie together brilliantly at the end, but instead I had the sense that the characters and the author weren't even keeping track of earlier events. For example, in one important section, Quentin uses all his magical abilities to survive in a lethally cold environment. Later, the characters spend a while in a place cold enough that they're eventually forced to leave, and there's no discussion of whether Quentin might be able to use his previous experience to solve the problem. It all frustratingly fails to add up to anything.

Late in the book, one character yells at another, "This isn't a story! It's just one fucking thing after another!", and I felt like Grossman was messing with me. Maybe the whole book is meant as a commentary on fiction and I'm failing to grasp the genius of it? I know many of my friends enjoyed this book. What am I missing? I've had the experience of appreciating a book more in retrospect once someone else explained what they loved about it, so I'm hoping that can happen in this case.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Roxane Gay pays tribute to The Books That Made Me Who I Am: "I could not limit a list of important books to a number or a neatly organized list. The list, whatever it might look like, would always be changing because I too am always changing. I am not influenced by books. Instead, I am shaped by them. I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am also made of books."


Anonymous said...

Oh no -- I'm 2/3 of the way into The Magicians (also reading it on strong recommendations) and I've been feeling the same way. This does not give me hope for the last third! Grossman does write well -- that's the main reason I've kept reading -- but so far the summary-interrupted-by-random-scenes format is driving me crazy! I keep thinking there must be an overall plot coming up, some sort of -- I don't know, antagonist, maybe? Other than ennui. I hope someone else gives a compelling explanation of what we're missing...

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yeah, I'm sorry to report that the ending doesn't redeem the rest of the book.

I've probably scared off any friends who enjoyed the book, but I've been reading through Goodreads reviews to try to get some insight. The book has many fans and many detractors. Overall, it seems that people who liked the book were swept up by the worlds it portrays and the clever subverting of tropes. I can see that those elements are in there, but for me, neither was exceptional, and they couldn't overcome the problems with the storytelling.

Ah well. Since this has been a much discussed series, I'm glad that at least now I can have an informed opinion about it.

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