Category Archives: Fairytale

The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanReview: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking Press, 2009)

Okay, let me get this off my chest first – and trust me, the reference is almost obligatory when reviewing this book. It’s not that I dislike JK Rowling and Harry Potter per se. Despite her opposition to Scottish independence I’m sure she deserves some credit for enticing legions of kids to pick up books. And I’ve been assured that the later books in the series are rather ‘dark’, although having seen the final movies I can only assume this means dark in the same sense as a particularly upsetting episode of Scooby Doo. It’s just that something really irritated me about seeing hordes of adults with their noses buried in the latest of the Hogwarts chronicles, all buoyed up and pretending to be part of some kind of reliving-our-childhood club. Just stop. They’re kid’s books. Young Adult I can handle, and even enjoy, but these are for children. Little ‘uns. Proto-humans. By wasting weeks on them (yes, it boggles my mind that it could take so long), people blocked themselves off forever from works far more fulfilling, squandering time which would never be given back.

And I was a little jealous.

Because I loved magic. I grew up immersed in everything from Pratchett’s Discworld series to the futuristic scientific magic of Asimov. Secretly I wanted in on the act but my principles, better known to others as stubbornness, got in the way. The only direction was forward, I could not risk regress in my tastes for fear of missing something new, something shiny. The urge to be part of the water-cooler conversation wasn’t strong enough to overcome my literary snobbishness until, thankfully, Lev Grossman happened.

The Magicians has garnered a lot of praise and that has inevitably been garnished with generous helpings of Potter references. It’s easy to see why. The first act of the story follows a group of unassuming yet precociously intelligent teenagers who, upon applying to various universities, find themselves spirited away to Brakebills Academy, a hidden school of magic lurking behind alchemical camouflage in the Maine countryside. Quentin Coldwater is a withdrawn prodigy, previously unaware of the very real existence of magic and wrestling with an unfortunate combination of bewilderment at his new circumstances and the general malaise toted by every discerning late teen.

Soon Quentin allies himself with a cadre of fellow gifted rejects and they begin their rigorous training in the ways of the wand (although such relics are looked upon with condescending mirth by mystical sophisticates). What follows is a warm coming of age story as Quentin comes to terms with his abilities and failings while those around him struggle to do the same and, y’know, quests happen. The usual puberty stuff.

Key to the success of The Magicians is the fiction-within-a-fiction series of Fillory novels, a Narnia-esque children’s series with which all characters in the book are intimately familiar. ¬†At first I found the books, a tale of children wandering through the looking glass to become kings and queens of a far-away realm, to be something of an irritatingly twee concept but as the plot progresses it becomes more tightly wound up with events and eventually part of The Magicians itself. Meta-fictions when done correctly can really add flavour to a story and this one is no exception, despite its saccharine ultra-Englishness feeling markedly out of step with the real novel’s more gritty consistency.

The writing itself is handled particularly well. Lev Grossman has a pretty wicked with and a wonderful way with language. His description of a “single malt Scotch that tasted like it had been decanted through the stump of an oak tree that had been killed by lightning” had me salivating at my work desk and desperately trying to identify the particular dram he was talking about. Another great surprise in The Magicians is the manner in which it effortlessly switches styles between sections. One minute you’re in pseudo-Hogwarts and the next it’s gone all Bret Easton Ellis meets Hubert Selby Jr in a magic shop. Then suddenly you’re playing D&D with Alsan. While this kind of transformation might unsettle some, I found it kept the pace up and made sure the story stayed fresh even during its inevitable periods of downtime.

With the following two books in the trilogy already loaded onto my ereader I’m totally sold on Grossman’s series. It’s the Harry Potter I never allowed myself to have but it’s also so much more. It’s a darker look at the fantasy kid-takes-on-the-world trope with the added bonus of containing an exceedingly honest, no-holds-barred look at the incredible rush and harsh dangers of young love. Whether you’re a Potter/Narnia fan, can’t stand them or just love good story-telling, go grab this one. Now.

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The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart

The Sad Tale of the Brothers GrossbartReview: The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington (Orbit, 2009)

So, having finished reading and reviewing Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark And Grimm for Mountains Of Instead I found myself in the mood for something in a similar vein (fairytales wrenched from their recently sanitised moorings and draped in darker attire) I picked up the only remotely suitable book in my collection – The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart, debut novel of Jesse Bullington. Admittedly the cover alone was enough to tempt me, apparently even more impressive in dead-tree format, but nothing could have prepared me for what lay between the pages. Where Gidwitz took the beloved tales of the Brothers Grimm and wrapped them in robes of humour and Hammer-style blood and guts, Bullington has travelled down an altogether darker route. Drawing on no particular tales he has crafted his own medieval Gothic Illiad, taking several well-worn archetypes and bonding them together with a paste of blood, entrails, vomit and foul language. Suffice to say it was right up my alley.

The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart starts as it means to continue, with murder most foul. The self-orphaned twins Hegel and Manfried and, descended from a proud line of violent, illiterate grave robbers, run afoul of a rural farmer, Heinrich, in their Germanic homeland. In a staggeringly cruel and vicious opening act they massacre his young family by blade and fire, leaving him alive as an act of either mercy or torture, it’s hard to say which. Following their rampage they embark upon a quest to seek out one of their more eccentric ancestors in ‘Gyptland, rumoured to contain tombs the like of which they have never clapped eyes on, all ripe for the plunder. Armed with brute strength, Hegel’s uncanny ability to sense impending danger and a conviction that the Virgin Mary (not her pathetic molly-coddled offspring) is looking out for them they pursue their goal with a religious zeal which will suffer no obstacles.

Of course this is the real world and crimes as grotesque as theirs cannot be seen to go unpunished. Soon they find themselves pursued by Heinrich’s townsfolk, sparking yet another bloody slaughter. Retreating into the woods to lick their wounds following their hard-won victory things take a turn for the strange. From nowhere a manticore – part man, part beast – attacks, mortally wounding Manfried before they can dispatch it. Stumbling through the snow they finally find a cottage inhabited by a twisted crone of a witch who can cure Manfried – for a price. Having feasted on her previous litters of children she is in need of more offspring, a task for which she requires Hegel’s, erm, assistance in one of the more stomach-churning scenes of modern literature. With Manfried recovered the brothers set upon the vile harpy, leaving her for dead but little realising that their failure to complete the deed will result in Hell being unleashed to follow them.

The ensuing odyssey seems like the result of an absinthe-drenched drinking session comprising the Marquis de Sade, Comte de Lautreamont, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. No taboo is left inviolate and there is no recess of the human spirit too dark to explore. The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart is an exercise in gleeful malevolence, happily mocking the idea of just desserts and nice guys finishing first. As the scope of the novel expands to take in demonic possession, pirates, sirens, false Popes and fallen priests you soon find you have discarded any sense of disbelief and – shockingly – may sometimes actually sympathise with these two magnificently warped creations. Having the imagination and literary knowledge to tell such a familiar yet undeniably original tale is talent enough but to have it suck the reader in to quite this degree.

Aside from the gore it is easy to overlook the fact that Bullington must be something of a Gothic scholar, so wonderfully detailed is the world he’s created. Dirt and disease line every single page and you can almost smell the decay and waste in even the most opulent of the book’s settings. The tattered clothes of the villagers, the drunken fellow travellers, the crooks and swindler, princes and (mostly) paupers and above all the sense of living in an era which the gods forgot, they’re all perfectly rendered here. At one point I actually couldn’t get Monty Python and the Holy Grail out of my head while reading – “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” – the levels of squalor and insanity being roughly parallel.

Being James Bullington’s first full-length attempt it is no surprise that The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart (damn, even typing that name makes me wish Nick Cave and t’other Warren Ellis would write a score for it) isn’t quite perfect. Despite an utterly unrelenting and exhausting opening the book unfortunately loses its way around the halfway mark. On reaching a speedbump in their quest the storytelling itself seems to stumble and you can’t help wishing Bullington would just move to the next chapter – instead there is an overly long period of stagnation and political manoeuvring where you are craving more profanity, flying limbs and spurting fluids. Thankfully it doesn’t last forever and we’re eventually treated to something of a double climax and a bizarrely abrupt ending which is rendered all the more humorous and poignant for its brevity.

Should you read this book? It’s a good question. There’s no doubt that the content may be regarded or puerile by some and simply offensive by others. If child murder, drugged-up witch-fucking, extreme blasphemy, torture, maiming, murder and many-mouthed, plague-ridden hellspawns born of hatred and babyteeth give you the heebie-jeebies then by all means stay away. If however you are made of sterner stuff, don’t take your literature too seriously or felt that all de Sade needed was a few more dick jokes then seriously, this is the book for you.

Oh, and their beards are amazing.

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