All the Birds in the Sky

The end of the world—such a cliched backdrop for a fantasy novel, wouldn’t you say? Most of them have world ending (or at least civilisation ending) stakes. And speculative fiction, Atwood style, uses the end of the world as a given; it’s what you do afterwards that counts, and forms the meat of the story.

all the birdsCharlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky is a blend of two things: on the one hand, it’s a fantasy, about growing up different, weathering the alienating world of high school and its mainstream cliches, and finding a place when you’re older, a place that happens to have magic and/or incredibly advanced science and, perhaps best of all, people who appreciate those things. On the other, it’s a love story set in a teetering world, like Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy, where ecological disasters are on the horizon, and no one can do anything to stop them. Except maybe they can. Except they really can’t. Except…well, we don’t know.

It’s not a surprise that the co founder and editor of io9, one of the leading SFF/geek culture sites on the internet, should spin out a novel that deftly blends genres, traditions and continually defies expectations. All the Birds follows two characters: Patricia and Laurence, a witch and a scientist respectively, from their days of stumbling around in childhood, through a beleaguered friendship in middle school, and then the tests and trials of adulthood, where they find themselves on opposing sides in a race to save humanity from its self-created destruction. The binaries in the novel seem fairly simple: the witches, Patricia’s people, are ‘for’ Nature, while the scientists are willing to wreck what’s left of it in order to privilege and thus save human civilization. The witches cannot stand idly by while human ego dooms all other living creatures, and thus begins a face-off between two sets of powerful cabals. Laurence and Patricia will find their feelings and friendship tested, in the grand tradition of many, many love stories.

I’ll admit, it took me a while to really get ‘into’ the book. This is because Anders’s writing in the early chapters seems more redolent of a children’s book than a sweeping SFF saga—but this is a deliberate effect. Like the Potter books, Anders sought to make her narrative tone ‘grow’ with her characters, with the result that the first few chapters use simple language, and sentences are almost painfully blunt in terms of descriptive effect. The first Potter book followed an 11 year old; the first chapter of All the Birds follows a six year old—you can imagine the tonal difference between the two. But don’t let that seeming ‘immaturity’ throw you off, or let you assume that this is a book for ‘kids’. It proves, after a point, that it is very definitely not for younger readers.

My favourite part of the book was the closest it has to a ‘villain’—Theodolphus Rose. A trained assassin from a ‘Nameless’ school, the bits about him were almost Snicket-like, absurd and comic and in that wonderful territory between children’s and adult fiction. I felt like it was here, talking about his exercises, his strange messages from fellow ‘assassins’ that Anders really let herself have fun, and it shows. Honestly, I wish there had been more about him, or more writing that showed this hilarious side. Anders has a talent for it, and I hope she harnesses it more often.

Should you read it? Yes, because it’s just so refreshingly different, and yet familiar. Like I said, it uses some of the typical tropes of speculative fiction, and fantasy, but blends them in a manner I haven’t seen much of before. It is quite beautiful in parts, and also addresses the very millennial angst of growing up believing yourself to be special, and not having anything to do with that belief later in life. In fact, people are constantly pulling Patricia down as a matter of duty, telling her that ‘Aggrandizement,’ the idea that she is personally responsible for saving anyone, let alone the world, is a dangerous one, and can only lead to terrible things. This seems to be a theme in what I call ‘secret world fantasy’, like The Magicians, the problems that come with balancing the ‘real world’ and its adult mundanity with beliefs in ‘specialness’ or ‘Chosenness’ that are inherent to fantasy. Anders doesn’t dwell on it exhaustively the way Grossman does, but deftly pulls it like a running stitch through her embroidery of her characters, and leaves you thinking about it all the same.

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It’s not easy to be me.

The Magicians on TV…and Julia

The-Magicians-Book-Cover-e1317909429117The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a very cerebral fantasy book. It stands out from others of its genre for its self reflexivity, its almost painful self awareness. Unlike other fantasy authors who quite openly and intelligently engage with the tradition they are part of (notably Samit Basu and Terry Pratchett), Grossman doesn’t use humour to deal with the weight of ‘the canon’ in his writing. Or he does, but it’s not the dominant emotion in his relationship to it. His work is almost painfully earnest in its desire to deal with the question of what an existential crisis would look like for a modern day, culturally aware fantasy nerd, who stumbled onto magic but didn’t have a Dark Lord to fight.

The answer is apparently the existential crisis would just be worsened, because you would realise that ultimately, magic does not give your life meaning and you’re just stuck with having to create one, like everyone else around you.

As you might guess, this is pretty complex stuff. It’s hard to showcase this in a  sexy, appealing manner on screen, and that was why I was a bit worried about the decision to adapt the book into a TV series. Sure, I’ll watch it, but I can’t help but be a little scared that the core of the book, its ‘meaning’ and ‘question’ as critics might call it, would be compromised in the name of entertaining a larger, not so existential-question-loving audience.

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So, worries in place, I watched the first episode of Syfy’s The Magicians. It was entertaining enough—good graphics, some nice showcasing of magic, and quick intros to all the main characters. There were some familiar faces (Ros from Game of Thrones! Ben and little Emma from Gossip Girl!), some sort of surprising changes (since when has pudgy, awkward loner Penny been a Kamasutra sex god? I thought Alice was brown haired and surly quiet rather than obviously Type A fragile quiet…) but I explained these away as either good moves for diversity casting (the former) and need to stick in at least one blonde girl (the latter). The move to age up the characters and have them graduate from college rather than high school before stumbling onto magic was also, I thought, a good one, as it was only after leaving the sheltered environment of undergrad that the aimlessness of existence sort of became obvious to me and several of my friends. Yes, I realise that’s our privilege talking, but since the characters of The Magicians are similarly (if not more) privileged, I thought it relevant to mention here.

What I did not expect, and did not like at all, was the weird scene with Julia.

I should expand on Julia here. She was, hands down, my favourite part of the series, once she came into her own in the second book, The Magician King. I identified with her, to a great extent, and thought it was amazing how Grossman developed her character from, primarily, being Quentin’s unrequited, unattainable love interest, to someone who really goes through a lot to get what she wants: mastery over magic. Julia acts as a brilliant foil to Quentin, making his angst and worries look like the griping of spoiled schoolboy, but still not robbing them of their centrality to the narrative that they hold up together.

In this episode, Julia, who has been turned out of Brakebills but still remembers the world Julia_Wickerof magic, has decided to do whatever it takes to get back the one thing that really means something to her now, magic. She teaches herself spells from the internet, we assume, refusing to listen to a condescending Quentin when he tells her she doesn’t ‘have it in her’ to learn, that Brakebills has not made a ‘mistake’ in turning her away. Julia then gets near-assaulted in a club bathroom, where is forced to reveal her magical abilities and then led by her creepy stalker to what we assume is a hideout and ‘school’ for the ‘non official’ magicians.

So far, so good? No. I did not see why the scene with Julia had to be so, for want of a better word, rapey. Her buttons pop off her shirt one by one, her shirt is stripped off, and she is pinned by an invisible force against what I think are pipes. Then a smiling man approaches her, and it’s obvious to us that he is the one responsible for it all. He asks her how it feels to know that he can do anything to her, to which Julia somehow manages to respond by yanking herself out of his invisible hold and making her hands flare with electrical surges.

I felt really disturbed while watching this. While I understand the writers might have wanted to push Julia into an extreme state of vulnerability in order to showcase her latent talent (a common theme in many superhero/magical stories), I didn’t see why they had to use such an obviously sexual way of doing it. Did she really have to be stripped down and threatened with physical and sexual assault to come out shining? I hate to ask this, but would they have done that if she were a boy? I somehow don’t think the sexual overtones would have been present if that were the case.

Maybe what got to me about Julia’s…experience was how absolutely nightmarish but simultaneously terrifyingly realistic it was. You don’t need to be in a fantasy world to be afraid of something like that happening to you, and I know plenty of people, women especially (me included), who are aware of just how easily that could happen to them. For this reason, I was not able to focus on the ‘magic’ aspect of it, or ‘appreciate’ what it revealed of Julia. I couldn’t wrap my head around why she had to be pushed specifically in that direction, in what felt like a very voyeuristic fashion. And it was quite literally voyeuristic, not inspiring, since her tormentor and near-rapist (though he explicitly disclaims the title) stands around watching with a creepy smile on his face.

Julia goes through some really dark places in the course of the series, but she always comes across as extremely strong. I don’t know if the show is going to explore all those elements (they’ve changed so much already, so who knows), and this may just be their disturbing precursor, but I don’t think that’s really enough reason. I can’t keep thinking this was a Game of Thrones-esque use of rape, or near-rape, to illustrate that this is a ‘heavy’, ‘serious’ show. My point is, you don’t need that to show that a character is releasing energies in a stressful situation. And while Grossman does deal with sexual abuse in his books, he never makes it seem voyeuristic, as the show did.

I hope this was a one-off, and am crossing my fingers that things don’t continue in this fashion further down the line. As we know, the magic only gets weirder here on out.

Living with Magic: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Image What would Harry Potter have been like if it had been packed with self-conscious allusions to The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland? If ‘magic’ and its science had been explored, not at high school level, but in the considerably more dangerous and research-intensive corridors of college, complete with flying hormones and long-term relationships both—can you imagine it then?

Well, if you can’t, there’s someone who’s done it for you. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a fantasy fanboy’s homage to the tradition his own work hails from and seeks to be a part of. Grossman takes the traditional elements: the quest, the imaginary world, the ragtag bunch of fellows, adds the boarding school flavours of Rowling, and creates a thoroughly believeable sub-world of magic, intrigue and terror.

Quentin Coldwater, along with his friends James and Julia, is on his way to a Princeton interview when his life abruptly changes course from the gifted-and-talented track he had seen it following. Not only is his interviewer found dead, but Quentin receives a mysterious book, the unfinished last in a series about a land called Fillory that he has loved since he was a child. Unable to contain his curiosity, Quentin flips the book open during his walk home and a piece of paper floats out. For some reason, he decides to chase the paper and suddenly, inexplicably, magically finds himself in a compound in upstate New York, staring at the edifice of a building that turns out to be Brakebills Magic Academy.

You know the drill: Quentin gets into this private college, Quentin cannot believe magic exists, Quentin meets a bunch of oddball professors and students, Quentin starts to feel more at home in Brakebills than he ever did with his distant parents. Grossman introduces his own changes to the set formula though, the biggest, perhaps, being the fact that he condenses Quentin’s entire Brakebills tenure (a four year period) into one book and even has room left over for a chronicle of what he and his friends do post-college.

What did I like about this book? I loved its references, its teasing of magical theory that was absent in (nor, indeed, the main focus of) Harry Potter. But what I found most compelling was Quentin himself—how Grossman managed to make him evolve through the course of the book, capturing the change imparted by college, something that comes over most of us. The boy who starts out as idealistic and eager to impress gradually becomes a cynical, jaded figure, one for whom magic is not ‘foolish wand waving’, but the result of long, laborious hours of research and practice.  Magic, Quentin realizes, is bloody hard.

But what Grossman really seems to be interrogating is the ‘purpose’ of magic, especially in a world where a) there doesn’t seem to be any ‘dark lord’ or identifiable force of evil and b) the magicians’ powers are hidden from the knowledge of other, ordinary people. It’s Harry Potter without the politics and Dark Lords, without the societal rot. So with no evil to fight, what do all these brilliant magicians do? Quentin reflects on this on the eve of graduation:

It was not considered the thing to look panicked or even especially concerned about graduation, but everything about the world after Brakebills felt dangerously vague and underthought to Quentin… What was he going to do? I mean, what exactly?…This wasn’t Fillory, where there was some magical war to be fought. There was no Watcherwoman to be rooted out, no great evil to be vanquished, and without that everything seemed so mundane and petty-ante. No one would come right out and say it, but the worldwide magical ecology was suffering from a serious imbalance: too many magicians, not enough monsters.

Without any ‘great evil’ to fight and the world at their fingertips, the young magicians collapse into puddles of drunkenness, debauchery and general lassitude. These kids, once the best and brightest from their school, do nothing after college. Until a Quest rouses them and they embark upon it, glad to have ‘meaning’ reinstated in their lives. Of course, none of them find exactly what they expected, as might, of course, be expected.

The Magicians is not exactly an easy read. It took me a while to get through it, but when I had closed the covers it was with a feeling of having taken a long, leisurely stroll through a museum full of fascinating ideas. Grossman subtly underlines the many assumptions readers bring to fantasy fiction and shows why they exist. He’s right—without ‘evil’, where does magic go? What do you do with your life if you’ve achieved everything you ever wanted by 22 and no longer have to work for a living? Doesn’t it make life a ‘little too perfect’? Dean Fogg, the ‘Dumbledore’ of this universe (only middle-aged and a lot less paternal) says to the graduating students:

‘If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart—reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. …

‘ ..The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded. But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. ..Language gets tangled up with the world it describes…

 ‘Tell me this: can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?’

And that’s the question you’re left with at the end of the book. Has Quentin really grown up? Have his friends? And, most worrisome of all, do we, the readers, trapped in our humdrum depressingly ‘real’ world, really want magic in our lives?

Think about it.