Month: January 2013

Saturday Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Despite how some critics have classified it, this book isn’t trying to be a “grown-up” version of Harry Potter or Narnia. It’s something else. It’s that delightful union of genre readability and gorgeous style that is such a rare and wonderful thing: Hannah Tinti, William Gibson, Susanna Clarke, Jeff Vandermeer, John Crowley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Michael Chabon, and this book. This is the real thing, people. It’s storytelling that ignores the bounds of genre and just is. It also has a lot of really, really cool magic in it.

It’s about Quentin, a moody honors student from Brooklyn who gets diverted from his Princeton admissions interview into an admissions process for an entirely different kind of elite New England college: a school for magic.  And that’s where I’ll leave you because I don’t want to ruin any more of the surprises than I already have.

I have the urge fend off this book’s critics the way I’d protect a friend from mean people. But instead I’ll just praise it. It will take over your imagination and present images and experiences to you with hallucinatory clarity. It has heart, and will move you if you let it. It’s full of beautiful, haunting scenery. It takes risks. It’s funny, but also savage. The plot and its characters go to deep, unexpected places. It’s a radiant book. It is the granting of a wish I was delighted to discover I still had. Read it.

Saturday Book Review: The Sword and the Stallion by Michael Moorcock

The Sword and the Stallion by Michael Moorcock

The Sword and the Stallion by Michael Moorcock

And so ends the six volume history of Corum. Like all the others in the series, this books seesaws between almost successfully concealed laxity of imagination and passages of delightful visual intensity and weirdness. The characters tumble through sometimes hallucinatory and sometimes mundane landscapes and situations, enacting grand patterns that are just unpredictable enough to keep me reading, and just familiar enough to comfort and sometimes bore me.

Moorcock is a virtuoso, and these sword and sorcery novels of the 1970s (often written over a matter of days) come across more like brilliant improvisations than orchestrated pieces. As improvisations, they are enjoyable, even brilliant. As finished novels, they are just good enough.

As period pieces and artifacts of charm, they are priceless. I have a rule with old sword ans sorcery novels. I can never purchase reprints–only the old covers and yellowed paper will do, and if I am purchasing a series, I prefer to have different, psychedelic or horrifically bad cover art on each book. Without the groovy old covers, the prose inside would be diminished somehow.

The New York Times on the Whiffs

I have resisted posting links here, because I don’t want this blog to become just a place where I post stuff that other people have written.  But in this case, I’ll make an exception.  The New York Times ran a piece today on The Whiffenpoofs, the a cappella group I sang with when I was at Yale.  If none of this makes sense to you, the article will explain.

I never thought it would happen, but I am now old enough to get all weepy and nostalgic about my time there.  What’s that line from the Yale College alma mater, “How bright will seem through memory’s haze, those happy golden bygone days …”

Incidentally, the author of the article mentions that he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to determine which of the Whiffenpoofs were gay.  What he did not mention is that each new class of Whiffenpoofs usually does the same thing, but about themselves.

And if you want to know what my Whiffenpoof nickname was, too bad.  I’ll never tell.

Saturday Book Review: The Moon Pool by A. Merritt

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The Moon Pool by A. Merritt

Here’s a quotation from this terrible, terrible novel:

“A sea stretched before us–a crimson sea, gleaming like the lost lacquer of royal coral and the Flame Dragon’s blood which Fu S’cze set upon the bower he built for his stolen sun maiden–that going toward it she might think it the sun itself rising over the summer seas. Unmoved by wave or ripple, it was placid as some deep woodland pool when night rushes up over the world. It seemed molten–or as though some hand great enough to rock earth had distilled here from conflagrations of autumn sunsets their flaming essences.”

Oh, there’s much, much more where that came from.

Turgid, saccharine prose and racist, melodramatic characterization just ruined this one for me. And it’s too bad, because there were some moments of genuine high weirdness.

The opening section set in Ponape had all the promise of a great adventure yarn, but then the whole thing unfolded into campy silliness.

The prose is way over the top, and the color palette and setting are second rate DW Griffith mashed up with Maxfield Parish — it feels that dated. It was published in 1919 and you can sure tell.

And there is also this occasional tone of solemn, Theosophical proto-New Ageiness about the whole thing that seriously bugged me. And bored me to death. Many long passages of pseudo scientific mysticism, mostly clunky exposition dumps by the characters, that explain nothing.

I have to give Merritt points for The Silent Ones (ancestors of the Sleestacks for sure) with their reptile/bird bodies, on a floating dais (pulp novelists from this era loved daises) surrounded by mist, adjuticating the mysteries of the universe. And the Frog people were a nice touch.

I was skimming as quickly as possible for the latter 150 pages. Only my indulgence of SF&F, and my compulsive need to finish every book I start kept me going.

Unless you’re a conoisseur of this stuff, you’re better off sticking with H.G. Wells, H.R. Haggard, and Conan Doyle.