Friday, January 27, 2017

The Magicians By Lev Grossman

The Magicians
  By Lev Grossman

Published in 2009 by Viking Press (which is owned by Penguin Random House), The Magicians is a fantasy novel by Lev Grossman. Let me talk about him for a minute. Mr. Grossman comes from a talented family, his twin brother (Austin Grossman) is a video game designer and novelist, his sister Bathsheba is a noted sculptor and his father is a poet while his mother is a novelist herself. Mr. Grossman himself started out in journalism (as a number of the writers who show up on this series seem to do) where he's written for the New York Times, Salon, Village Voice, Wired, and the Wall Street Journal. He also wrote one of the first reviews of the Twilight series; yes the one with the sparkling vampires. So he was well versed in writing when he turned his hand to novels. His first novel Warp was published in 1997 about an aimless 20 something in Brooklyn. His second novel Codex was published in 2004. The Magicians and its follow up books are the most well received of his creations.

The Magicians is set in the modern day with the main character being Quentin Coldwater. Quentin is a genius, one of those kids whose gifts in certain subjects seem to have no limits but he's miserable. His parents have basically adopted an attitude of benign neglect towards him and his two best friends have paired up. This really sucks for him because one of them, the girl named Julia? He has a crush on her but she doesn't feel that way for him. At the beginning of the book they're all lining up for an interview into Princeton but things get off track. The interviewer dies and due to a couple events, Quentin instead finds himself testing for an entirely different school; a school where he's not gonna learn chemistry or Hindi or Western History. Nope, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy as you might have guessed from the title, teaches fucking magic. It's one of the greatest schools of magic in the world and the only magic school in North America. In fact Quentin is one of only 20 kids who get in. Everyone else who fails the exam? They’re supposed to get their memories wiped out and sent off to live in blissful ignorance of the opportunity they screwed up.

Brakebills is more like a real school than Hogwarts, the school work is difficult and boring, the teachers run the gamut from interesting and helpful to so unhelpful you think they're malevolent, but never unprofessional. It's a very realistic way school in it's own way, with the students given a lot of time to themselves since they're all high school graduates. Which makes a certain amount of sense. Magic in The Magicians is hard, finicky and requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail. The consequences for making a mistake can be pretty bad. In fact there are some magical works where making a mistake means lethal consequences... If you're lucky. If you're unlucky you'll attract the wrong kind of attention and learn real fast that humans are not on the top of this totem pole. If you're really unlucky you'll find yourself being moved up that totem pole and I don't mean as a promotion. Mr. Grossman doesn't spend a lot of time detailing how his magical system works beyond communicating that is incredibly complicated, complex, and somewhat tedious. On the flip side if memorizing 900 pages of grammar and moon cycles is all it takes to create a tardis in my backpack then so be it.
While at Brakebills Quentin falls in with the Physical kids (Magicians are broken down into specializations called disciplines, which in turn are lumped into groups which turn into student cliques) and... man these kids need some mentors! We got Eliot who is from a rural Christian family, bullied as a child for being gay and a semi-functioning alcoholic due to familial rejection. We have Janet, who is in love with Eliot and angry at the entire planet. We’ve got Josh, whose magical power and ability wax and wane randomly and he can barely pass Brakebills. We have Alice, who is smarter than Quentin and more responsible due to growing up in a dysfunctional magical family and losing her brother to a magic spell gone wrong, despite this she is, frankly, dumb enough to jump into bed with Quentin... no one's perfect I guess. We also have the in-and-out again character of Penny; a wannabe punk who is pretty anti-social and serves as kind of competitor for Quentin. Honestly he's the most like Quentin out of all the characters and I frankly dislike him for that. All these kids are carrying weights that any reasonable and interested adult could have helped them come to terms with. Which, you know might be a priority since we are handing them the keys to reshape reality to their whim? Maybe? Anyone? Frankly, if this is the kind of attention given to growing magicians, it's a wonder they haven't shattered the planet yet. That said, Brakebills has a higher survival rate than Hogwarts so maybe I'm judging them too harshly (send your kid to Brakebills! 30% more likely to survive here then other magical schools!). I also really wish we spent more time on these characters, as they’re all more interesting then our main character. There was a point when I was 2/3rds of the way into the story asking myself: why is Quentin the main character and not Alice or Eliot or even Josh? All of them are fighting much harder battles against greater burdens.

I suppose this does tie into the main theme of the Magicians book.  Which is power by itself doesn’t really solve anything.  None of these people are made happier by their access to power and easy wealth.  It doesn’t make them better, smarter or wiser people.  If anything it just seems to increase the avenues for self destruction and delusion.  It’s an interesting choice of theme for the book and runs counter to a number of other such books where learning magic and gaining the power it grants does solve your problems.  Although in their defense I will point out that usually means tripping into new, bigger problems.  Here, while there is a monster or 10 lurking out in the darkness waiting to do bad things to our protagonists, their biggest problem and greatest danger is their own flaws and weakness… And the shit they do to each other because of those flaws of course.  The biggest problem preventing me from fully appreciating this theme and others however, is the main character himself.   

I refer to of course Quentin himself, who has the least issues out of all these kids but manages to be the biggest jackass of them all. Quentin's issue is that he can't stop feeling sorry for himself and just grow up. It's not until after he graduates Brakebills that he really gets stuck in my craw though. That when he decides despite being a genius, with the very stuff of the universe at his fingertips, being able to go anywhere and do anything he wants? He's gonna squat in New York City and get drunk and high every night with Eliot. I can understand Eliot's chemical dependency here, which frankly is a cry for help more then anything but Quentin? He is just being childish and letting himself rot. People like that frustrate me to no end. I'm not a genius, nor am I naturally gifted, most of us aren't and that's honestly likely a good thing. It teaches us to work and strive for what we want and to value our achievements, I think. Or perhaps I'm just clawing for silver linings, you decide my good reader! Quentin having gifts that most us can only dream of and options that are almost infinite, sees fit to whine and mope about his rather mundane and frankly solvable issues. If your life is in a rut you don't need magic to fix it, you need the willingness to break out of the rut. If your relationship is rocky, you need to sit down with your loved one and talk out your problems, maybe go to a professional for counseling. But Quentin of course can't do any of that because it's not self destructive enough. If you're like me, you'll want to smack him in the mouth by page 25 and by page 50 you want to grab him by the ear and force him to start growing up but at this point I think I hit old man screaming about those damn kids levels so I'll stop here.

Another major plot point is the not-so-imaginary land of Fillory, which Quentin is quietly obsessed about (in fact every magical kid seems to have read and been fan of this series... Huh). The Fillory series was written by a gent by the name of Christopher Plover who detailed the adventures of the Chatwick kids next door going to another world and coming back. The novel series was unfinished however due to the untimely death of the writer. So imagine everyone's shock when not only is this magical land real, but there's a way to get there. However, the land of Fillory has been through some rather harsh changes and isn't the same place as the books anymore. The guardian gods of the land are missing and the people are at odds and terrified of the various dark evils that now roam free without check. I have mixed feelings about Fillory because while it's a rather awesome set up, Mr. Grossman seems to also want to make it some type of sarcastic retort to Narnia and other child fantasy worlds. On the one hand, the image of a smoking birch tree in a bar with a bear who drinks peach schnapps is great and I love it. On the other hand taking swings at Narnia is rather silly. Yes, it was unreal and very black and white... Narnia is a Christian Children's Story! If you walk into a story like that expecting shades of gray, you're going to be disappointed. I'm also disappointed that Fillory was honestly a place where we spent very little time. I could have done with less New York City and less of Quentin going home. That said I'm willing to be forgiving as this book is covering over 5 years. Fillory however, does shine when you realize... this is a real place that's suffering a dark age, their gods have disappeared, they have no real rulers and their greatest hope is that 4 people from another planet will come along and pick up some crowns. That's pretty dark when your hope is that a band of aliens will take power and deliver you from elder beings who lurk in the darkness outside your window. Mr. Grossman doesn't shy away from this and is clearly working to make Fillory stand on it's own. So while I don't approve of his jabs, I feel them forgivable as we all have moments of weakness, but spending more time here and less in the mundane world would have real helpful in giving Fillory legs of it's own.

There's very little whimsy in The Magicians, although there are moments of wonder. Clearly drawing it's inspiration from a wide variety of fiction but putting his own stamp on it Mr. Grossman presents us his idea of what a hidden world would look like. This setting does however owe a heavy debt to the works that come before it and it shows in the writing. That's not a terrible thing but it is something to keep in mind. Still it is a world with wonders and delights to sate any desire but it can only be as great as the eyes that view it. This becomes a weak point for the story as the eyes we see it through are Quentin's and he is bound and determined to suck out all the joy. Honestly Quentin is my biggest complaint in this story. I cannot bring myself to like him and there are points where the story becomes somewhat bogged down with his constant childishness. That said there are hints of a much better person in Quentin, for example at the end of the book he accepts his mistakes and does his best to atone for them when it turns out he can't fix them. He overdoes it of course but at least he tried. The book is very well written, with great supporting characters who deserve more time and an interesting setting. As a result I am giving The Magicians a B. It's miles better than average yes, but between the main character and the heavy debt the setting owes and never quite gets away from, it still needs some work I think. That said if Quentin Coldwater doesn't make you want to chew someone's face off then it's easily a B+, bluntly this book comes down to how well you can tolerate the main character.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Log Horizon V By Mamare Touno

Log Horizon V
By Mamare Touno

Does anybody know what time is it?  Why festival time of course!  I mean when you've established a government, created an economy, won a war and made peace with the neighbors?  Why wouldn't you throw a party? And that is what the 5th installment of the Log Horizon series focuses on, the first Autumn Festival of Akiba and the consequences there of.  In case you haven't read the reviews on the last 4 books, let me cover the basics. The game of Elder Tales is the most popular MMO in the world, using a fantasy setting on a half sized world map, it's played in almost every nation on the planet.  So when the creators of Elder Tales announces a new expansion, people flock to be online during the release.  This turns unfortunate as everyone who was online for the release wakes up to find themselves within the world of Elder Tales.  It gets even stranger as the world becomes real, with the NPCs during into real people with their own feelings, thoughts, and desires.  Lucky for our heroes, everyone who did trasition over did so with their in game abilities and gear, meaning that they still have access to all their firepower and the ability to respawn.  That doesn't make battle any the less terrifying, or death any less painful however.  As 30,000 people hovered on the brink of despair and panic, our hero Shiroe uses his brains and his friends and every other resource he can to get everyone organized and give them a reason to keep going on with their lives.  Shiroe ain't the only person pursuing his goals in this brand new world however and not all of these people are as benevolent as he is.

The book opens with the Autumn festival about the begin and that means marketplaces, special foods, events and parties!  It also means manuevers of the romantic kind.  Honestly these days I tend to wince when I run across romantic plot lines.  Most writers simply don't seem to do them well, or engage in some really cringe worthy relationships (If I started listing authors who did that, we'd be here all day, feel free to insert your favorite one here and we'll keep moving).  There are the special snowflakes that do both of course, but thankfully Mamare Touno avoids that despite playing with fire.  I'll get to that in a moment but first I want to talk about the actual conflict the book.  Which is a group of People of the Earth (the natives of the world who were NPCs when this thing was a video game) are deliberately trying to cause a fuss in the festival as a sort of underhanded social/economic attack.  Shiroe needs to marshal his allies and organize them while not letting the regular adventurers and People of the Earth know that this is even happening to maintain confidence in the government and ensure that the festival goes off without a hitch.  Additionally he has to make sure that their best ally the Princess Raynesia doesn't get hit in this attack either, which may be easier said than done.  It's in this bit that I run one of the reasons I enjoy reading works from other nations, because it's always so interesting to see how people see themselves as opposed to how you see them.  For example when Shiroe notes that trying to undermine confidence in the government is a silly tactic because gosh darn it the adventurers are all Japanese and as such are to cynical to have any such confidence... Well I almost laughed my head off.

Like most of my readers, I'm an American but as a Marine I spent time in Japan (specifically Okinawa which has some cultural differences from the rest of Japan but is fairly culturally Japanese... (Just think the differences between say Florida and Louisiana as an example).  By my standards the Japanese had an extreme high trust (one could say nearly disturbingly high) trust in their government, then again I'm from right north of Texas, where a number of citizens lose their minds when a routine military exercise occurs...  You know what? Let me get back to the romance plot…

A big subplot of this novel is a love triangle of sorts, in where Akatsuki and Minori have started competing for Shiroe's attention and love.  This of course leads to a lot embarrassment and confusion for Shiroe, who doesn't seem to have learned to decline things gracefully or deal with awkward social situations.  I have to admit I'm not huge fan of this sub plot, partially because I'm honestly kind of done with love triangles.  Let's be honest most of them are poorly done, take up to much time and used as a cheap way to inject unneeded drama into a plot (I'm looking at you, just about every bloody X Men writer ever who thought I wanted a poorly done soap opera in my superhero comic!).  It doesn't help that some writers seem to think they're a requirement for any group with more then 2 girls or 3 guys.  This love triangle is made extra awkward by the fact that Minori isn't even in high school and Shiroe and Akatsuki are both graduate students (or were before being transported to a medieval fantasy world).  Thankfully, Mr. Touno never lets it get creepy, Minori's feelings for Shiroe are a to be blunt about it a student crush on a gifted and kind teacher.  Shiroe for his own part makes it clear by the end of the book that while he sees Minori as a protege and gifted student and... that's it.  Of course Shiroe's relationship with Akatsuki remains stalled due to both of them having the social skills of drunken mice, not to mention that Shiroe is dense enough to qualify as some new type of black hole.  I got to be honest and say it's kinda aggravating.  Can we just have two people be attracted to each other and then have one of them ask the other one out?  Not every time, but you know... Try it out once!  Just to see if we like it?

Lastly we have new villain revealed at the end of the story that Shiroe of course already knows about.  This really flopped for me, not the new villain who is an adventurer not unlike Shiroe who pulled her own adventurer city together, organized a government and made peace with the locals.  It's just Shiroe knows all about her and her city without having made any efforts on screen.  It's a cheap way to make him look smart without giving the reader a chance to follow along and it's very tell don't show.  Additionally not a lot of time is devoted to what should be a major reveal.  So there's not a development going on here either.  I found it disappointing.

Log Horizon Volume V is an alright book, but it doesn't deliver on being a slice of life or on being a good transition from one plot arc to the next.  In fact it's frankly the weakest novel in the series so far.  That said it isn't terrible and avoids a lot of the major pit falls of it's genre and plots here.  It just doesn't do anything beyond dodge those pitfalls and give us a lack luster transition.  Because of that Log Horizon Volume V by Mamare Touno gets a C.  There are worse ways to kill an hour or two but there are also a lot better.  

Friday, January 13, 2017

Maker Space By KB Spangler

Maker Space
By KB Spangler

Maker Space is the second Rachael Pen novel set in the universe of the web comic of A Girl and Her Fed.  Luckily you don’t need to know anything about the web comic to enjoy the novels as the premise behind the books can be summed up pretty quickly.  In the aftermath of 9/11, a wealthy industrialist, who interestingly enough became a Senator, donated a special kind of tech.  An implant that allows whoever is implanted to access and exercise a level of control over all sorts of information technology.  It also allows for instantaneous communication between people who are so implanted.  Five hunred men and women from across the federal services were implanted, the idea being that this would allow for greater coordination between federal organizations.  It didn’t go well and those men and women were left to quietly sink into madness.  Until one agent found a way to control the implant and regained his life and then helped others regain theirs.  Over a hundred agents died before that happened and some of them?  They had help in dying.  The agents quickly decided that going public was not just their moral responsibility but their best defense.  

Racheal Peng, an American born Chinese gay woman and Army vet, in the wake of this revelation was assigned as liaison to the Washington DC Metro Police and was promptly ostracized by the cops as a fed-freak until she helped solve a murder case.  That got her a promotion, a raise, the respect of her peers and co-workers, and a hell of a rep to live up to.  In this story Peng learns that getting a reputation for success often means you have to live with the expectations that it brings.  Which is that everyone expects you to keep secceeding.  Even if everyone else is failing.  

When the biggest terrorist strike since 9/11 happens right down the street killing an entire street full of people in broad daylight (seriously there’s only one survivor from the attack and he’s maimed for life), she’s going to have her hands full.  Because there are no suspects, no motive and damn few clues that she can find in the rubble and ruins of way-to-many people’s lives.  Worse, as the panic and anger builds, she has to deal with the fact that a lot of folks are thinking that this attack was an in-house job.  By which I mean they think the attack was carried out by the US government.  She needs to find those clues, figure out the motive, and catch the bombers before the concerned citizens of DC and perhaps the whole country decide that this was done to them by their own government and become a screaming mob.  Worst of all, Agent Peng also has to deal with the fact that the technology to do this is commonplace, easy to find and can’t be controlled.

These two things are kind of at the heart of the novel.  The increasing distrust (both for good and bad reasons) of the government mixed in with the fact that the information and technology to do incredibly bad things at increasingly large scales is becoming more and more commonplace as well as harder and harder to control.  We the People find ourselves at the mercy of the most unbalanced among us, while dependent on the protection of a government that seems at time completely uninterested in actually protecting us and untrustworthy when it does.  While I personally do not believe the situation is as bad as it seems (because believe it or not I believe that the government is still made up of people who are trying to help more than people looking to lord it over others) I can understand why people feel that way.  All I can really do is point to the facts that tell us that violence is actually at a very low point in human history whether it be crime or warfare (There’s a book about this that I am actually going to review this year). I’ll admit that’s no assurance that it will stay that though.

All of that said this is not a bleak or despairing book, but a rather hopeful one all things considered.  Part of that is our introduction to the Maker Community, a group of young (and not so young) nerds who are committed to making things that help rather than harm and have created a working code to ensure they stay in those bounds.  It’s even better when you realize this group is based on real people across the entire country who live this ideal out to the best of their ability everyday.  Part of it is the fact that the book shows us people trying to help one another even in the middle of a riot.  While the novel gives us no easy solutions to the issues here, it also points out that if we continue to work together and remember that we are not enemies, then we can find a solution. It will take time, it will take effort but a solution will be found.

For that matter, this book is actually pretty bullish on technology, mostly in the person of Agent Peng who makes a valid if somewhat military centric counterpoint.  Because of social media, enlisted men and women can talk and air concerns at a speed and over distances unconceivable in prior times.  This means that the brass cannot simply ignore those concerns or bulldoze through the protests of the enlisted.  I'm sure that someone will come along and blubber about military discipline but my rejoinder is that maintaining discipline is not an excuse for lies, cover ups, and the use of rank as a club to silence real concerns and doubts.  As it is the enlisted men and women who do the actually fighting and work, not the politicians at home and not even the generals and other upper rank officers who lead them, they have every right to expect those concerns and criticisms to be meet in a thoughtful, honest and mature manner.  If we are expected to fight, sweat, and bleed for a cause, we should after all have a right to a full accounting.  Agent Peng frames this mostly in the context of crimes committed in the armed forces because she was a member of the military investigation branch (The Criminal Investigation Command, CID).  I will note that one thing that isn't covered is the perverse negative incentive that unit commanders find themselves saddled with.  See Officers and Senior NCOs get promoted if their unit does well and is generally clean.  A unit where someone was murdered or raped by another member of that unit is not doing well and is not clean, regardless of the circumstances.  So if CID finds one of your troops or god forbid one of your leaders is guilty, you can kiss your chances of promotion in many cases goodbye.  Even if you had nothing to do with it.   Now, there are a great many honest Captains, Gunnery Sgts and more who take the hit because it's the right thing to do or because it's their duty to their troops.  They get punished.  There are also those who work to block or slow investigations, if they are successful, they are rewarded.  I think most of my readers are clever enough to figure out where this leads in many cases. The great strides in communication and recording technology has made covering things up harder. This is a benefit not only to people who have been victimized but to everyone.  

 The book also brought up the benefits that technology can bring through the makers and the agents.  If the downside is the mass spread of often dangerous knowledge, that's also the upside as we are shown people using that knowledge to toil (often with little reward) for the betterment of their fellow human beings.  They are not presented as saints, having their own odd quirks and hazing rituals, but as people trying to make good and beautiful things for others.  This has the benefit of ringing a lot more truthful than an urban monastery of saintly tech wizards.  I have had some limited experience with the maker community here in Phoenix myself and I can tell you on the main, they tend to be good people with a strong desire to create.  So the book manages to convey a good experience on a small but driven and hopefully growing community.  The villains are themselves not painted in black, but as real people pushed to extremes by events beyond their control and by reasons that are all too heartbreakingly human.  Despite the fact that their actions were inexcusable and frankly mass murder... I found myself feeling sorry for the poor bastards.  More than I ever thought I would anyways.  Ms. Spangler seems to have a gift for showing us that even the people who do terrible things are still people.

I am glad that I picked up the second book in this series and I find myself being pulled to the 3rd (expect a review on that book to before too long at this rate.  Ms. Spangler used her novel to paint a picture with a great many different shades of gray that manages to avoid becoming a depressing slog through grim darkness.  That's a hard line to walk but she does it by reminding her reader that while there are always downsides to technology and changes, there are almost always upsides as well.  She also reminds us that no matter the changes we go through, there will still be good people out there trying to use whatever they can to make things a little better.  Maker Space by KB Spangler gets an A.