Review of The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

SFFaudio Review

The Magician's LandThe Magician’s Land (The Magicians #3)
By Lev Grossman; Read by Mark Bramhall
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 5 August 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 16 hours, 27 minutes

Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Wizard School / Meta Fiction / Alternate Worlds /

Publisher summary:

Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.

Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of grey magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica and the Netherlands, and buried secrets, and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcerous masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, a new Fillory – but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.

This series gets better book by book. I liked the story of the first but didn’t like any of the characters. I liked the story of the second and the characters grew on me quite a bit. This third book to the trilogy is definitely my favorite of the three. The story is interesting and has some throwbacks to the previous installments, Grossman’s dry humor is completely on point, and the characters are the best of this trilogy yet. My favorite part is Grossman’s use of humor throughout the book and his breadth of imagination with the use of magic throughout the book. Grossman brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion that you should definitely experience if you’ve already read the first two books of the series.

If you’re even considering reading this book, I’m sure you’ve already read the first two (if not, I’ll wait here while you go take care of that). Quentin is left shut out from Fillory so what is he to do with himself? Surprisingly enough, he does NOT turn into the miserable wreck of a creature he became after graduating in the first book – thank goodness for that. Quentin seems to have grown quite a bit from his past adventures and finds more purpose in his life. It’s really cool to see him develop that way across the books.

Grossman adds a few other point of view characters in this novel and all were nice additions to Quentin’s typical somber tone. You get to find out what other members of the old gang are getting up to as Grossman approaches the climactic conclusion of the trilogy. I particularly like Plum, a brilliant student at Brakebills that also gets involved in the adventure. Those who read Dangerous Women will recognize part of her story from Grossman’s submission to the anthology.

Grossman’s writing comes off smooth and natural. His dry tone and humor stand out as in the first two books and the book was completely enjoyable. He makes references to other works of fiction and modern influences like Harry Potter without feeling forced or making the book feel like it will be dated. There are some points in the plot where things come together far too well by happenstance, but that doesn’t hurt the story too much if you don’t focus on it.

As for the audio side of things, Mark Bramhall continues to perform his role as narrator superbly in this book. He handles the tone of the book so well – executing the voices of characters with all the sarcasm or droll tone you’d expect from these characters. Such simple ways of saying the lines Grossman has written actually made me laugh out loud in some places (“Wands out Harry”). I will definitely be looking for other books narrated by Bramhall.

Posted by Tom Schreck

Review of The Magician King by Lev Grossman

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - The Magician King by Lev GrossmanThe Magician King
By Lev Grossman; Read by Mark Bramhall
13 CDs – Approx. 16 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Published: 2011
ISBN: 1611760259
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Wizard School / Alternate Worlds / Gods /

What does it mean to be the Hero on a Quest? What does it cost? Perhaps this is something you might want to find out before you go looking everywhere for one.

It is two years since the final scene in The Magicians (Read the Review). Quentin Coldwater is now one of the Kings of Fillory, that Narnia-esque fantasy land from the series of books he read as a child. Fellow King and Queens are fellow Brakebills Academy graduates Elliot, the self-obsessed fop, and Janet with whom Quentin had a very brief dalliance, with tragic consequences. There are to be two Kings and two Queens of Fillory with Quentin’s pre-Brakebills friend Julia taking the fourth crown.

Quentin is still emotionally scarred from the tragedies of the first book and is struggling to find a reason in his life. Again this leads him towards a search for a Quest. Despite being a King in a magical realm where you would have to go far out of your way to prevent the land from producing a bountiful harvest. It still isn’t enough, Quentin feels the need to be doing something important. One thing the Fillory was good for in the books about it that he read while growing up, was that the Chatwin children always had a quest to complete when they visited.

After a false start on a quest involving a madly thrashing over-sized clock-tree, Quentin embarks on a trip to the most remote island of the realm of Fillory. To collect on unpaid taxes. He was getting desperate to find his quest and this come up at the wrong time. Never mind that the cost of outfitting the ship and getting there would out strip the value of the unpaid taxed several times over.

Accompanying Quentin on his fools quest is Queen Julia. In The Magicians Julia was the school friend that also sat the Brakebills entrance exam, but didn’t make the cut. Half of The Magician King is told from Julia’s perspective, as we follow what brought her from failing that exam to where we found her floating in the air beside Elliot and Janet at the end of The Magicians. This half of the book is the more compelling of the two as we learn about the world of Magic that isn’t controlled by the establishment as exemplified by the Brakebills Academy.

The main quest that Quentin and Julia follow, The Search for the Seven Golden Keys of Fillory, inadvertantly takes them out beyond the furthest isle of Fillory and lands them in the one place neither of them ever wanted to be. Back home of Earth. Although Earth isn’t as magical as Fillory, there are still wonders here to be found, such as Dragons.

Julia is the real treasure in this novel. A minor character in the first book, she rivals and surpasses Quentin for the position of protaginist. Although half the book is written from Quentin’s perspective, you should pay close attention to Julia. The two halfs tell of the terrible path that this poor tortured woman drove herself along after glimpsing the secret world of Brakebills. She is a broken and empty shell as Queen Julia, slowly finding parts of herself as she and Quentin struggle to find the Keys that will prevent Magic from dissappearing from all of the different realities. Especially important to Fillory as it can’t even exist without Magic. For the Old Gods have returned. No, not Cthulu. The Gods who created the Neitherlands, and accidentily left open the loophole that allows humans to do magic at all.  Something got there attention and now they know that there is a loophole, and they are working to close it.

Quentin and Julia are both compelling characters. Quentin is still a bit of the Emo kid he was in the first book and his desire to be the Hero teaches him the cost real Heros must be prepared to pay. Julia through the two storylines has a woderful depth to her. She isn’t necessarily likeable, she is even more obsessive then Quentin in the flashback story. An obsession that costs her dearly.

Grossman’s world of Magic, although having some of the trappings of a Narial-like fairytale, it has much more in common with the original dark fairytales before they were sweetened for Victorian children. Magic is powerfull and the consequences, when they come, are swift, severe and utterly pittyless. We do get to see the awesome potential of the Magic that Quentin wields as he finds in himself the real Magician King. What he and his friends had been doing before was just playing with kid-gloves.

Mark Branhall again narrates, bringing out each character well and maintains consistent voices for characters from The Magicians.

This is a more developed narrative than the first book, which stood well on it’s own and didn’t leave you feeling there was a need for a sequel. The Magician King‘s story is also self-contained, but you should have read book one to appreciate it properly.

Posted by Paul [W] Campbell

Review of The Magicians by Lev Grossman

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - The Magicians by Lev GrossmanThe Magicians
By Lev Grossman; Read by Mark Bramhall
17 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Published: 2009
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Wizard School / Meta Fiction / Alternate Worlds / Fictional fictional characters /

It would be too easy to simply compare this book to the Harry Potter series. There are obvious elements that are present in both, specifically the magic school. But Lev tells a story that only uses that as a means to bring the characters together and move onto the main story, which really kicks off once they graduate.

The main character, Quentin Coldwater, is a very bright high school kid who is busy applying to Universities. Despite his academic excellence, Quentin struggles to connect with the real world. He has a fascination with a series of fantasy books about a land called Fillory. In those books he can see a purpose to existence that he can’t find in his own life.

One university, Brakebills Academy, takes an interest in him and gives him an exam. It is during this exam that Quentin discovers that he is one of those few who have a talent for magic. He is enrolled in the school and goes from the smartest kid in his school to about average in his year. He pushes himself to excel and eventually finds that he is being skipped ahead a year. He makes friends and finds love. But his time there is not without upset. Eventually he and his friends graduate and we are not even half-way through the book.

Struggling to decide what to do with their lives, Quentin and his college friends drift through life for a short time. The world of the wizards isn’t challenging to them. This secret culture looks after their own, keeping a low profile and pretty much doing whatever interests them. Lacking direction and guidance Quentin and his friends have too much money and no responsibilities. They party. Drink, drugs and sex. But then they discover something that even their tutors didn’t know about. Fillory, the land from Quentin’s books, is real and they have a way to get there. They gear up and mount a small expedition to find adventure and fill the hole in their lives. They go into this with a tactics and planning of a group of fantasy role-players. They see everything in terms of the stories of Fillory. They expect quests will turn up to tell them what they need to do, and indeed one does.

The parallels between Fillory and Narnia are much stronger than those with the Harry Potter series, and pervades through much more of the novel. In the Fillory novels, a family of children, the Chatwins, from rural England in the early 1900’s keep finding secret paths into Fillory where they have adventures, defeat enemies to the land and return home as if no time has passed. While there isn’t a Lion god, there is Ember and Umber the twin Ram gods, who clean up any remaining mess and sends the Chatwin children back home. The events and characters in these books are real and have a serious impact on Quentin and his friends as they try to figure out what really happened in Fillory. There are hints and clues throughout that a second reading would put into a clearer context after knowing the ending.

The narrator, Mark Bramhall, gives an excellent performance, keeping most of the voices distinct.

Although this is described as a coming of age novel, I would hesitate to recommend it to younger teen readers. There are several strong uses of offensive language, all fitting with the characters and their situation. Definitely not aimed at the same primary market Harry Potter was.

Posted by Paul [W] Campbell

Review of Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip

SFFaudio Review

Od Magic by Patricia McKillipOd Magic
By Patricia A. McKillip; Read by Gabrielle de Cuir
10 CDs – 11.7 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2009
ISBN: 9781433223983
Themes: / Fantasy / Wizard School / Monarchy / Herbalism /

I had a hard time, at first, getting into this book. I didn’t relate to Brenden Vetch, who lost his parents, then his brother and girlfriend left him because he spent hours and days in the wilderness listening to and talking to plants.

Then he encounters Od, a giantess, who invites him to go to Kelior the capital city where the King lives, and become the gardener at the school of magic.

Brenden goes to Kelior, and for me, this is where the story starts to get interesting. He meets the teachers and students and keeps to himself a lot. Brenden, I’m afraid, is boring.

Fortunately, it is also here that we are introduced to the secondary characters. Valoren, the King’s wizard and a nobleman, Yar, one of the wizard teachers, Lady Thiel, cousin to Valoren and amour of Yar. Sulis, the King’s daughter, Arnath, Quarter Warden over the Twilight Quarter and Mistral, daughter of Tiriman, a magician who is visiting the Twilight Quarter.

King Galin keeps a very tight control over how and when magic is used in his kingdom. You have to be trained in the school of magic and you can only use magic the way you are taught. Everything else is forbidden. You can see the problem and where the story is going.

Tiriman, a traveling magician, enters the Twilight Quarter and everyone begins to wonder if he is using real magic, or if he’s simply using tricks. Arnath is sent in to determine if Tiriman is a threat to the King or not. The King’s daughter slips into the Quarter to see Tiriman as she has been told of him by her great grandmother, Ditany.

The story gets more complex as Brenden is found to have magic (no surprise).

By the time the story gets to chapter 5, I can hardly wait to hear what happens next. And how everything gets resolved. The King’s daughter is betrothed and Arnath falls for Mistral, Tiriman’s daughter, as he tries to meet the illusive magician.

The story builds, the characters get themselves in trouble and I’m looking forward to a great resolution… and then it’s over. But things are not all neatly wrapped up. Some things are clearly resolved. There’s a moral, but I don’t mind it. To me, the ending feels too abrupt. Too sudden. I would like a little more… resolution.

Do I recommend the story? Yes, with reservations. I love the secondary characters and their stories. I really didn’t care about Od or Brenden. I still don’t. I think part of the ending is a bit too contrived. There were NO hints to look back on and say, “Oh! Now I get it.” I felt blindsided. That being said, if there were a sequel, I’d buy it just to see what happens next. There really needs to be a next.

If this had been the first part of a series, I’d be happier with the ending. As a stand-alone, I give it a 6 out of 10. Good, but not great. No RIddlemaster of Hed here. Alas. Her latest book is a sequel to “Tam Lin.” I’m going to go out and buy it.

*Disclaimer: I listened to the audiobook. I never read the book. So, if I misspelled any of the character names, I apologize.

Posted by Charlene C. Harmon

Review of Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip

SFFaudio Review

Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillipOd Magic
By Patricia A. McKillip; Read by  Gabrielle de Cuir
Audible Download – 11 hours 33 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2009
Themes: / fantasy / wizard school / monarchy / herbalism

I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but Od Magic is one of those books I was immediately drawn to solely based on its whimsical cover art of bright pastels and its equally playful blurb.

Brenden Vetch has a gift. With an innate sense he cannot explain to himself or describe to others, he is able to connect to the agricultural world, nurturing gardens to flourish and instinctively knowing the healing properties each plant and herb has to offer. But Brenden’s gift isolates him from people and from becoming part of a community – until the day he receives a personal invitation from the Wizard Od. She needs a gardener for her school in the great city of Kelior, where every potential wizard must be trained to serve the Kingdom of Numis. For decades the rulers of Numis have controlled the school, believing they can contain the power within it, and have punished any wizard who dares defy the law. But unknown to the reigning monarchy is the power possessed by the school’s new gardener, a power that even Brenden isn’t fully aware of, and which is the true reason Od recruited him.

Od Magic shines brightest when it delivers on the promises of that introduction. Unfortunately, it’s also bogged down by lukewarm political intrigue and half-baked supporting characters.

Brenden Vetch has learned much from his plants. He’s even found a cure for the plague that swept through his village. Unfortunately, his discovery came too late to save his parents from the epidemic, and he has lived a lonely life in his childhood home with their ghosts ever since, refusing to leave even when his brother departs to seek brighter fortune elsewhere. Only when the giantess wizard Od invites him to tend the magical plants of her school in the royal city of Kelior does he pull up roots. Brenden’s story is emotionally potent, but sadly McKillip fails to capitalize on the possibilities for character development which it presents. Vetch’s grieving process is barely mentioned, and he develops very few meaningful relationships in Od’s school.

The cover summary is misleading in that it suggests that Brenden serves as the focal point of the novel. While he is indeed a pivotal character, the book’s focus widens to introduce other magical inhabitants of the city of Kelior. Contrary to the rigid belief of King Galen, Od’s school does not hold a monopoly on magic in the kingdom of Numis. Travelers from neighboring kingdoms, from commoners to nobles, have brought their own strains of magic into the land. Much of Od Magic deals with the resistence on the part of the king and on the part of Od’s school towards embracing these diverse magical traditions. In this sense, McKillip’s work provides an interesting anthropological examination of the exchange of cultural ideas, patriotism, and xenophobia.

Though part of Od Magic is set in a wizard school, the novel should not be seen as a Harry Potter or A Wizard of Earthsea imitator. The students remain at the periphery of the tale. There’s only one teaching scene reminiscent of the “student wizard” genre. In fact, only one, a brilliantly talented boy named Elver, appears regularly, and he’s an atypical sampling of the student body.

The novel’s stand-out performances are both suggested by its title. The giantess Od appears infrequently, as she takes a hands-off approach to running her school, preferring instead to roam the world offering aid to wounded beasts. Her enigmatic appearance and demeanor–she’s depicted with birds nesting in her hair and animals burrowing into her clothing–and her lyrical, poetic mode of speech elevate the few scenes in which she appears into high art. The magic itself as it manifests in the novel is similarly strange and delightful. Though characters allude to the dark potential of magical power, the magic in the book is playful, whimsical, and, yes, odd. In this sense, Od Magic presents a nice respite from the dark, gritty, and violent magic that populates many postmodern fantasy novels.

Gabrielle de Cuir’s narration of Od Magic captures the playful essence of the novel’s best passages. Her performance of Od’s dialogue chimes in the ears like a tinkling stream, and she carries the emotions and idiosyncracies of the other female characters comfortably as well. A male narrator might have better embodied the persona of Brenden Vetch, but since the magical gardener appears all too seldomly in the novel this is not a serious shortcoming.

As I said, the inviting cover image and tantalizing publisher’s summary really made me want to like Od Magic. I certainly enjoyed elements of it very much, enough to make me want to seek out some of Patricia A. McKillip’s other works. Overall, though, the novel’s lack of focus and cohesion leads me to endorse it only half-heartedly.

Posted by Seth Wilson