Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
When it comes to war, America's self-image is that we're always winners. And that we're never monsters. And that each death will be justified by the achievement of some greater end goal. Such are the ideals that carry the confident men of the Ranger 2-16 Battalion, part of the 2007 troop surge, into Rustamiyah, Iraq, a violent, difficult-to-comprehend hellhole of a place that quickly begins to undercut simple truths.
To me, so much about the official decision-making behind Iraq is captured by a memory towards the end of the book. A Liberian soldier (visiting an army school in the US) expresses faith in the protective power of a sacred talisman that has carried him through many battles, then swings a knife at his own arm to prove it. The knife cuts through skin and flesh, and the man's eyes fill with astonished panic at the sight of reality's imposition on belief.
Perhaps this is war's first casualty. If so, The Good Soldiers brings that truth to readers at a visceral level, putting us in the boots of soldiers sent to make up for official misjudgment and getting us to experience things as they do. The story centers around the battalion’s leader, the ever gung-ho Lieutenant Colonel Kauzlarich, but includes about a dozen of his men in its focus. We hear the initial earnest belief of young officers that their strength and generosity will carry the day, destroying a vicious enemy and winning over the rest of the population of Iraq. We experience the shock and horror of IED attacks, the weird out-of-body unreality of watching friends and enemies die in firefights. The way those moments refuse to stop ricocheting through memory. The frustration and anger of dealing with a population that seems indifferent to America's helping hand -- and the vast disconnect between Iraqis' personal concerns and US policy assumptions. There's staring out the window and wondering if you'll have any warning of the one that kills you -- and what your last thoughts before that moment will be. The fatigue, disillusionment, resignation, burnout, and despair that come with reliving that moment over and over, with few visible signs of improvement. The alienating, dreary normalcy of returning to the States after the intensity of war (little about that experience seems to have changed since Hemingway's short story about a returned WW1 vet). The fearful, lonely life of Iraqi contractors, distrusted by American soldiers and in constant danger from their own people.
Finkel's writing is very good and gives the book more impact than most in the category. Though embedded as a journalist with the 2-16, he leaves himself entirely out of the text, and builds a narrative from interview snippets, reports, lists of details, and moments that carry layered emotions. At its best, the writing takes on a simple stream-of-consciousness feel not unlike Tim O'Brien's famous The Things They Carried. Officially apolitical, he offers no big-picture analysis, but juxtaposes different moments, images, and words in a way that challenge easy idealism. An optimistic platitude from President George W. Bush is followed with the image of an infantryman killing a dog lapping up a pool of human blood. Colonel Kauzlarich's avuncular sentiments while bestowing a medal on a dismembered 19 year old lying in a hospital bed ring hollow next to the young man's blank stare, and the obvious fact he will never again live anything approaching a normal life. There is the visual of a soldier's charred remains being removed from a bomb-wrecked Humvee, where he may or may not have died before the flames engulfed him. There's a tortured human corpse haunting the sewage tank of a building chosen as an operations base like a plot element from the novel Catch-22, because no one wants to be the one to remove it.
These are gut-wrenching images that hurt and anger to think about, and there are others like them. It's all the stuff implicit in countless Reuters articles about IEDs and counterinsurgency operations. All the stuff that Americans, for or against the occupation of Iraq, have formed various abstract opinions about, but are seldom made to contemplate in terms of their horrific costs to real human beings, who can't be blamed for signing up to be what all countries expect from their soldiers. For this reason, I consider The Good Soldiers and other books like it necessary reading for all Americans, regardless of your politics.
For me, the takeaway lesson came in the last chapter, as waves of insurgents swarm out of Sadr City, attacking government sites and threatening the 2-16. To Colonel Kauzlarich, it's validation, proof that the insurgency is growing desperate. To some of his men, it's one more demonstration of the irredeemable f-ed-up-ness of Iraq. But no one really knows. The battle, like the book, ends without obvious conclusion, the 2-16 shipped home again, and no one seems any better tuned-in to what's going on in the minds of Iraqis or why. And therein lies the tragedy of goodness alone: it's not understanding. Was the war worth it? We simply don’t know, and it’s out of our hands now. Meanwhile, our own crumbling democracy awaits our salvation.
The Minotaur in Steven Sherrill's novel is a being I can relate to. He has a hulking frame that tends to bump into things, is quiet and introspective, feels like a bit of an outsider in the ordinary human world, and doesn't always know the best way to verbalize his thoughts, so he often just says "mmmmm".
Unlike me, though, he's the very same creature from ancient myth. He's lived so long, his monstrous past has mostly worn away, leaving only a few dim memories. The same is true of his ability to provoke a reaction from the humans around him. To the denizens of the North Carolina trailer park where he now lives, or the greasy spoon restaurant where he works as a short order cook at, he's a slight oddity, but, really, no more so than the girl who suffers from epilepsy or the gay waiter who's also a Civil War reenactor. The Minotaur leads a fairly unremarkable life. He worries about losing his job, feels uncomfortable around dogs and electronics, likes to repair cars, and has trouble making long-term plans.
There's not much that "happens" in this novel, which has the feel of one those subdued indie films in which the characters carry out their normal lives in a way meant to show the profundity of everyday existence. Conventional urban fantasy, this is not. The writing is quite good at capturing the feel and character of the South, though, and I enjoyed the character study of the Minotaur, called "M" by others, who yearns for connection, or at least a place in the world, but doesn't know how to fit in. He becomes, variously, an observer of human nature, a sounding board for other people's feelings and worries, an object of antagonism, and a lover.
Of course, the story isn't really "about" the Minotaur, but about the way the primal permeates life, sometimes getting lost underneath it, sometimes boiling to the surface at odd moments. Add someone a little more primal than everyone else to small, backwater town, and the dynamic shifts subtly. I enjoyed the nuance with which Sherrill weaves in myth, religion, humor, absurdity, sexuality, the innocent directness of children, and human pathos (e.g. the death and subsequent "unburial" of Sweeney's dog).
Admittedly, this is a slow, languid cloudy day book (though everything comes together in a tense conclusion) and not everyone will enjoy it. I actually quit at several points to listen to other books, but found myself drawn back again. Some credit surely goes to audiobook narrator Holter Graham's excellent reading. He grasps the text well, gives different inflections to different characters, and injects the right notes into the Minotaur's many "hmmms" and "mmmms". He even does rather well with the "dialogue" from an overheard porn movie.
Another win from the Neil Gaiman Presents project, though this one more for tone and writing than storytelling.
I got this one in a Halloween sale at audible, and it's fairly enjoyable. The setting is 14th century France, and the Black Death is ravishing a countryside already ravished by war. To the survivors, it looks like the End Times are coming and the devil's supernatural minions are loose upon the Earth. And perhaps they are...
The story feels like a mix of George R.R. Martin and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, with some Heironymus Bosch-ian freakiness thrown in (if you don't know who he is, do an image search on the internet -- it's worth your time). A hardbitten fallen knight is roaming the hellscape with some outlaws when his compatriots take an unwholesome interest in a strange girl, who claims to hear instructions from angels. The knight takes issue, swords are drawn, and soon the knight is the grudging companion of the girl, whom he intends to dump at the next village. But, after an encounter with a monster and a hallucinatory vision, he begins to think her angels might be real...
The plot takes a while to find its feet as the two protagonists go from town to town, encountering new scenes of devastation, various creatures of the underworld, and the usual demons of human nature, and picking up a wayward priest and a mule, but tightens up as it approaches the last act.
The story isn't without cliches, some dialogue of dubious authenticity, and few scenes or devices straight out of a B horror movie, but its more deliciously nightmarish moments make up for the weak patches. The monster/angel/demon battles are a little "Hollywood", but, otherwise, Buehlman does a fine job with creepy imagery and some of the more human-focused scenes.
I particularly enjoyed the mini-narratives that set the stage for each new act, describing an ongoing war between the hosts of heaven and the hosts of hell (with humanity caught in the middle) in appropriately medieval terms. I'm not sure how much of what transpires really represents Christian theology, but, then again, one could ask that about The Exorcist. The epilogue, though, seems to reach a more spiritual and less supernatural understanding of the religion.
Audiobook narrator, Steve West, does pretty well with male characters, though I wondered why he represented Frenchmen with an English accent. Maybe he can't do a French accent? His German accent might be the most Jamaican sounding one I've ever heard. And I wasn't a huge fan of his falsetto for Delphine.
Regardless, I think that fans of horror fantasy and/or gritty action set in the Middle Ages will enjoy this book. 3.5 stars overall.
Keith Roberts's 1968 novel, Pavane, imagines an alternate 20th century in which England's 16th century split from the Catholic Church had never happened. As a result, all of the Western world is ruled from Rome, whose hierarchy has kept a jealous lid on science and technology. That which is permitted has taken on some pretty baroque forms, such as great steam-powered hauling vehicles and a communication system based on hilltop-mounted semaphors, run by a powerful paramilitary guild.
Such inventions might have been labeled "steampunk" had Pavane been published 30 years later, but that term is too hackneyed to do this book justice. While technology is part of Roberts's vision, it's also a window into a more mystical, pastoral England, where the ancient, primal religion of the past hasn't yet been supplanted by progress, and the supernatural world of Faerie still swirls around the edges of the Christianized one, playing its mischief on hearts and minds. For perhaps the old ways, both pagan and Christian, are meant to guide humanity, but in ways not fully revealed.
Pavane isn't a conventionally plotted novel, but consists of six loosely-connected "movements" that build on each other in layers. Each, centered around a different character, can be read as a self-contained story set in a shared world, but, together, they comprise a meditation on the way change can take hold of a person or society, the themes and actions of the earlier pieces taking on greater significance in the later ones.
A brief summary of the movements:
1. A young steam train driver suffers a broken heart, then is tested by bandits.
2. A semaphor operator in a lonely post is badly injured, but by who or what, we don't know at first. Flashbacks reveal his history and the nature of his guild.
3. An adolescent fisher-girl's transition to womanhood is associated with her encounters with a strange white boat, which the local folk aren't supposed to acknowledge.
4. An artistic monk is broken by a terrible assignment from his superiors, and leads a spiritual rebellion.
5. A significant death and a significant love affair lead to a vision.
6. A noblewoman faced with an unjust demand rebels against Rome. Maybe the most riveting piece.
Coda: the scientific revolution has begun at last, but with a significant difference from our own world.
While some of the stories, taken on their own, are more interesting than others, I loved seeing the connections between them unfold. I found Robert's prose to be lovely and sensory, and his storytelling quite good as well. It's not at all a surprise that Neil Gaiman used his influence to have this one brought into audio form. The major themes of the novel (discipline, change, awakening, the mystery of the unknowable) are more insinuated than spelled out, which might put off readers who require a strong, well-defined plot to hold their attention, but I'm not such a reader.
If, like me, you're drawn to the intersection between science fiction, fantasy, and literature, this book probably deserves a place on your shelf. For me, the wistful mood of Pavane, aided by Steven Crossley's fine, classically rich-voiced audiobook performance, secure it a place among my favorites. Kudos to Gaiman for calling attention to it.
14 is escapist slacker horror in roughly the same category as John Dies At the End, but with a less crass sense of humor. The setup is that Nate, a young guy with a dead-end temp job at a Los Angeles magazine publisher, moves into an apartment in an old building somewhere near Hollywood. The deal seems too good to be true, with cheap rent and a great roof deck.
Naturally, a few things are weird about the building. What's up with the green cockroaches with an extra leg? The permanently-closed elevator? The strangeness of the building layout? The cold spots? The tight-lipped, paranoid building manager? The padlocks on apartment fourteen?
As Nate investigates, he gradually meets his neighbors, including an exhibitionist artist who likes to sunbathe in the nude, a not-too-sharp movie crew guy, a female Indian computer hacker, a creepy religious guy, and an unusually fit older man whose backstory seems at odds with his skillset. Together, they form a mystery-solving gang, with lots of ironic Scooby Do wisecracks.
This really isn't heavyweight fiction, but I enjoyed watching the characters delve into the mysteries of the building and its basement, the constant banter between them, and Clines's imagination and humor. There's even a bit of sweetness, as romance blooms and we learn whom "Shaggy" really has the hots for (not Scooby). Audiobook narrator Ray Porter does a pretty good job of giving each significant character his or her own personality and accent.
The last act of the book takes us into some netherdimensional sci-fi/horror territory. The payoff isn't highly original or quite as much fun as everything leading up to it, but it's not bad, and that freaky tower towards the end is a great visual. Clines leaves a few threads unresolved and not everything makes complete logical sense, so perhaps there will be a sequel.
In sum, if you're looking for something deep, look elsewhere. If you want an audiobook that's fun to relax to, but has wit and a little creepiness, this is a great pick.
Lately, there's been a movement in fantasy away from the late medieval Western European milieu that predominates in the genre towards other kinds of settings. Why not a steampunk universe? Why not a Bronze Age universe, or a Russian-inspired one? Why not a universe where people travel in space and have "modern" sensibilities, as well as magic abilities? (See the popular "Saga" graphic novel series)
Robert Jackson Bennett is a young author who hops on that train in City of Stairs, and I took a chance on the book after it got a lot of praise online (I consider a plethora of gushy fans a cautionary sign). The novel reminds me a bit of China Mieville's The City & The City, in that the plot begins with a murder mystery and takes place in a city where there are two cultures with competing narratives, and a troubled, unspoken history behind everything.
But, where Mieville's novel was more metaphysical, this one leans more in the fantasy direction. As we learn, Shara, a foreign service agent from a country called Saypur, which has a roughly late-1800s level of technology, is one of the few people who knows much about the past history of Bulikov and the surrounding continent. This region used to be dominated by magic and a pantheon of gods, but Saypur invaded the Continent about seventy years prior, killed the gods and most of their creatures, locked up the magical artifacts, and suppressed all study of the divine. Except, of course, that being done by one prominent Saypuri scholar, whose murder begins the book. With the help of her secretary, Sigrud, a barbarian giant of few words, Shara begins a search for the culprit. And there are plenty to suspect of complicity, from an ultra-conservative Bulikov nationalist group, to an ex-boyfriend of Shara's, to her own government, to one of the gods (are they really all dead?). What was the murdered man looking for within a secret vault? And what of the legendary Saypuri leader who used a secret weapon of his own devising to slay the gods?
This was one of those novels that got off to a slow start, but gradually picked up steam towards the middle. I liked the characters, the smart but flawed Shara, the hard-headed female colonel, and the mysterious Sigrud, with his dark past. There are some great scenes involving battles with monsters, and some interesting ideas about the nature of the gods and their relationship to humanity.
The world-building, though, is a little muddled. Saypur feels like a vaguely Indian culture, but has some clearly modern and "western" attitudes. The Continent seems vaguely Russian, but is similar to "barbarian" societies we've seen in countless other fantasy and sci-fi novels. The technology and social attitudes are somewhat inconsistent -- on one hand, Saypur has cars and an advanced state of women's lib, but gunpowder and photography are relatively new inventions. And some of the magic gets a little silly, such as the final battle with the divinities. As a result, I had a hard time getting too engaged in the politics of the story -- the world never felt totally convincing.
Yet, in terms of plot, this is a pretty competent fantasy world spy/mystery thriller, and I think a lot of readers will enjoy it. The audiobook narration is good, and fits Shara well, but isn't spectacular. I had trouble distinguishing minor characters in places.
If you've read The Hunger Games and other dystopian science fiction novels, the premise of Red Rising is a familiar one. The hero of the story, Darrow, is a tough-beyond-his-years teenager from the lowly "Red" mining caste, which spends its days drilling under the surface of Mars. Turns out, though, that Mars has been terraformed for centuries, and the Reds, like other color-coded castes, are dominated by the "Golds", who consider themselves to be superior to all other humans and therefore the natural rulers.
The first few chapters are a little rushed and clunky. Darrow gets on the wrong side of his masters and nearly pays for it with his life, except a rebel group rescues him at the last moment to recruit him for a special assignment. They remake him to look and act like a Gold, with the goal of having him rise up to a position of power in Gold society. This was the point at which I nearly stopped reading, because the tropes felt so overdone.
Luckily, the story becomes much more engaging once Darrow and a crop of young Golds are thrown into the trials of the Institute, which is designed to find those with the most leadership potential and weed out the least capable. The Golds, as we learn, fear decadence and have a Darwinistic philosophy to keep it in check. Accordingly, the Institute is a vast competitive proving ground that falls somewhere between the arena of The Hunger Games and the battle school in Ender's Game. Students are assigned a house (each named after a different Roman/Greek god) and placed in a large, open preserve where they must figure out how to defend a base, make use of resources, and conquer the other tribes. Fans of the aforementioned books will probably enjoy all the scheming, combat, alliances, double-crossing, and tests of character. It's not original stuff, but Brown makes good use of factions, symbols, and the personalities of his central characters to keep the wheels of the plot turning -- and to make some deeper points about the nature of governance and social order, as they evolve from law of the jungle.
If the characters are a little too crafty and mentally tough to be fully believable as teens, the taut storytelling and good sense of pacing kept me hooked until the end. The echoes of the Iliad, with interfering "gods" and warriors trying to build names for themselves, might strike some readers as cheesy, but I enjoyed them. At this point, the youths-forced-into-contrived-war-games subgenre of science fiction is rather crowded, but Red Rising will probably please fans of it. There's plenty of setup for the next book, which promises dangerous political games amongst the grownups.
I enjoyed the audiobook narration, which uses an Irish brogue to suggest the Reds, and an upper-class British accent for the Golds. Tim Gerard Reynolds does a good job of switching between the two, for Darrow's inner monologues and spoken dialogue. A few of the side characters might have been easier to distinguish.
David Mitchell’s sixth novel is a globe-and-time-hopping six-part meditation on the way death shapes human existence, though we may try to deny it beneath the trappings of modernity. As in Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, there isn’t a traditional narrative drivetrain, but a loose story thread that passes through multiple characters, all of whom seem like they might have come from different novels, but are pulled together by a shared degree of separation.
While Mitchell has always played with magic realism, here he goes for out-and-out fantasy, an indulgence that editors might would have talked a less-established writer out of. If you recall the ageless villain in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell has expanded this mystery into an ongoing supernatural war between two factions of immortals, the Anchorites (who prolong their lives by sacrificing psychically-gifted victims) and the Horologists (who are reborn into new bodies each time they die, but also with a sacrifice of sorts).
For the first four acts of the novel (roughly 400 pages), this conflict remains mostly in the background, with bits of it spilling a la Murakami into the primary characters’ lives, usually in the form of visions or encounters that they don’t understand. The first act follows Holly Sykes, whom we meet through her own words as a teenager in 1984 England, when she runs away from home. In the second, she becomes an important figure in the life of a charming but manipulative young Cambridge University libertine, who has just schemed himself into a corner. In 2004, we see her through the eyes of her husband, a journalist covering the awful early days of the Iraq occupation, who has a glimpse into Holly’s psychic gifts at a crucial moment. And later, she becomes friends with a cantankerous 50-ish author whose star is falling fast, and a vehicle for some good “literary” wit.
As always, Mitchell’s ability to hop between tones, styles, places, and voices is impressive. The first four acts of the novel have to be read as separate stories, though the reader will notice shared elements, images, locations, characters, and ideas that ripple and reflect through them. And, of course, that each protagonist is older than the last, gradually shifting the perspective on mortality. However, several of the characters feel more like artfully crafted "types" than real people, and I wondered if so much time needed to be spent in the worlds of privileged students or famous novelists to make the point. (Maybe?)
The fifth act, where the paranormal Anchorite/Horologist war at last comes to the fore, dragging in Holly, may strike readers as a little silly, with its talk of “psychic voltages”, “old souls”, and “chakra eyes”. There’s an elaborate history here, and we take a trip back to Czarist Russia and 19th century Australia, but the essential struggle isn’t complex. One side seeks eternal youth via a system that exploits others; the other seeks deeper continuity, but has limited power. Looked at one way, it’s fantasy cosmology; looked at another, it’s the very struggle in our souls.
So we arrive at the last act, told from an older Holly’s perspective, set in a grim 2040s where the supernatural good guys have been unable to save humanity from the consequences of its own actions, though there’s a ray of bittersweet hope. In trying to hide from our own individual mortality, do we collectively hasten it for civilization? Good question.
Probably more than Mitchell's other novels, this one is written in the security of a fanbase, and might frustrate the non-initiate who randomly pulls it off a shelf. But, I'm part of the club and I couldn't help but enjoy the ambition, ideas, craft, storytelling, connections, and resonant themes. I also had fun reviewing it in my mind afterwards, working out deeper meanings -- as one needs to with Mitchell.
The voice actors are mostly pretty capable, though Eddie’s and Crispin’s sound a little too old, and some accents might have been better.
I enjoyed Jon Ronson’s 2011 foray into the world of psychopaths and special interest groups out to protect or demonize them, and this seemed like a good book of his to read next. Though published in 2001, just before 9/11 and the Bush and Obama presidencies drove conspiracy theory and anti-government groups to new levels of hysteria, it’s an enlightening window into how fringe groups form around certain rallying ideas and code words.
As advertised, Ronson discovers that Islamic extremists in Britain, anti-government paranoids in the US, racist groups, anti-Catholic groups, and a man who claims that the world is ruled by secret alien lizard people all have something in common: fear that a shadowy cabal of bankers, businessmen, media elites, and politicians is scheming to impose some sort of Orwellian New World Order. In their own minds, these extremists are fighting a resistance against those who would turn them into, to use a well-worn internetism, weak and helpless “sheeple”.
As in the Psychopath Test, Ronson carefully humors his subjects and lets them express themselves in their own words, which sometimes veer towards the Monty Python-esque. Hard not to find the bumbling Islamic activist, Omar Bakri Muhammad, somewhat ridiculous, as he makes over-the-top pronouncements, then furiously backpedals towards a more genial facade whenever challenged. Same with KKK leader, Thomas Robb, who is trying to rebrand his organization with a more friendly image after being inspired by some leadership books from the self-help section. Ronson’s own self-deprecating wit is also amusing, if a little distracting at times.
Other people Ronson spends time with, though, seem like they might have a point, such as the survivors of the infamous Ruby Ridge Incident, in which the feds seemingly came down on a misunderstood survivalist family in Idaho with excessive force. His investigations into the claims of anti-Zionist groups raises a question: are Jewish film moguls really just acting out their own insecurities about being Jews in Hollywood... and giving some people the wrong idea? And when Ronson joins Alex Jones (of Infowars fame) and several others in investigating the Bilderberg Group, a publicity-shunning private conference of political, business, and academic elites, it’s somewhat unclear where paranoia ends and dull reality begins. Is a bacchanalian gathering in the woods of Northern California about rich old men celebrating dark, perverse rites of power, or just harmless, fraternity-like fun? Is it scarier to think that these people might indeed have a lot of influence over the world’s affairs... or that they don’t?
Ultimately, this might be a little too light-hearted of a book on extremism -- Ronson, not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time in the company of the most hateful or militant types of groups, such as neo-Nazis, so his character studies tend more towards crackpots and self-promoters. And this *is* a pre-9/11 book. Still the character studies are interesting.
Audiobooks narrated by their own authors are a mixed bag, but Ronson’s pleading voice adds a lot to the funnier parts, like when he talks about trying to “tone down” his Jewishness.
Though not a long book, All Quiet on the Western Front is the prototype for nearly every modern novel about going to war. Young men with their heads crammed full of patriotism and dreams of glory volunteer for the army. There is a strenuous boot camp with a martinet drill instructor. Then the horror and carnage of battle, which often amounts to hunkering down and hoping not to be hit by shells fired by a far-off enemy, while nearby comrades are randomly cut down by shrapnel, explosive, bullets, and poison gas, sometimes to die hideous, lingering deaths.
The story is told through the eyes of Paul Bäumer, an everyman character whom Remarque never defines in much depth -- though part of this is the conceit that Paul, at 19, sees himself as a person who was unformed before war claimed him. The novel, written in the immediate tense, reads more as a series of fragmentary scenes and impressions than an ordered narrative, which might put off some readers, but I think this adds to its effectiveness. Over the course of the novel, Paul and his companions experience all the usual responses to modern war. There's horror, disillusionment, shell shock, and alienation from the civilian world, with its self-satisfied values and artificial lives. To Paul, the ability to care about the things that his student self once cared about is lost, the only meaning now in small, primal acts of life and in his comrades-in-arms.
The prose is haunted by bleakness and despair, though there are some scenes that are quite beautiful in their melancholy humanity, such as Paul's visit to a camp of Russian POWs, or of his regrets after being trapped in a shell hole for a few hours with a dying enemy soldier, who, now disarmed, is little different from himself. There are a few moments of levity, such a scene where a pompous teacher gets his just desserts, but they're few. For their part, the sequences set in the trenches are rich in images of dull, hellish squalor, such as passing time by killing ever-present corpse-fed rats, or the cries of a wounded man slowly dying somewhere out in No Man's Land. Yes, no surprise that the Nazis banned this one for "defeatism" (and got to relive it all at Stalingrad).
Though the specific causes of World War One are now buried in the dustbin of history, the reader doesn't need to be familiar with them to grasp the essential themes. All Quiet on the Western Front still maintains its timeless message of youth pointlessly squandered by the impenetrable stupidity of politics. When Paul's companions discuss the reasons they've been sent to fight and die, they can only observe that they never had anything against the French, nor the average French soldier against Germany, but, as always, the few people who make and benefit from policy aren't the ones deemed young and physically fit enough to die for it. While no 21st century generation is likely to experience the kind of wholesale meat-grinder warfare that could wipe out thirty thousand lives in one battle, we shouldn't forget the naivete that led to it, or the callousness it inflicted. These are aspects of modernity that have hardly left the world, even a century later.
Audiobook narrator Frank Muller gives a restrained but haunted reading that fits the spirit of the text well.
Fillory, the magical land in this series, is a flagrant riff on CS Lewis's Narnia. In Lewis's classic children's books, the young protagonists entered the world through a magic portal, had adventures, and got into trouble, but had Aslan the lion (and Christ figure) to set them on the right path again. Here, though, the heroes aren't children, but jaded young adults, and the gods are a lot more fallible. And magic is dangerous.
In the hands of other writers, such a premise might not have gone beyond parody, but Grossman's marvelous mix of creativity, snark, grimness, and squirmy truth shows that he had more serious things in mind. His story might be a metaphor for the messy process of growing up, for reaching that age where you've outgrown childish things, but haven't fully abandoned them. It’s when you find out that the world doesn't always answer your dreams with wish fulfillment, but with sharp edges. So it happens with the mopey, self-absorbed Quentin Coldwater and his disaffected friends, who, after learning magic at a special university that recruits the smartest misfits, manage to open a gateway to Fillory, which they become rulers of after removing a monster. Though not without death and suffering, and not without quite a bit of angst.
In this novel, the nearly-thirty Quentin, who was banished from Fillory at the end of the last book, returns to Earth, while his friends continue on as rulers of the magic land or go on other missions (in the case of Julia, the hedge witch now turned demigod). There, he takes up a post as a professor at Brakebills, until something/someone from his past comes back to haunt him. Along with a new character named Plum, who has her own secret, he joins a team of renegade magicians to carry out a mission for a talking bird, who wishes them to recover a lost suitcase. This suitcase, well-guarded and kept closed by powerful magic, once belonged to one of the Chatwin children.
If this is meant to be the last adventure in the Magicians universe, it finds its way to a somewhat expected, but not unsatisfying conclusion. Yes, Quentin finally matures and embraces being an adult, and his friends have their own growth. The plot is a little more rushed than previous entries, as Grossman works his way towards tying up all the loose ends, sometimes at the expense of spending enough time with his more interesting or likable characters or fully addressing some of the series' outstanding questions (who’s behind the Neitherlands?).
Still, he has talent as a writer, which stands out in more than a few moments. I especially liked a journal sequence that reveals, with fitting Britishness, more about the relationship between the Chatwins and Fillory. As in the previous books, there's plenty of snarky humor, with irreverent young adults talking back to monsters and one another, but Grossman can also do emotional honesty, existential doubt, and genuine wonder. There's poignancy to a few scenes, such as Quentin's emotional response to his father's death, or a surprisingly beautiful scene in which one world comes to an end and another is born. A creative duel between Quentin and a ghostly being has an otherworldly creepiness to it, as well as an extra layer of emotional tension.
Overall, I think that readers who enjoyed books one and two will like this one, even if it lacks many surprises in overall plot arc or character development. Grossman has created a world whose biting twists on traditional fantasy are as much of a pleasure to explore as the original thing was when we were kids. These books ain't for kids, and that's okay by me. Audiobook narrator for the series, Mark Bramhall, brings his usual droll style, though I felt he gave a little less personality to some of the characters than before.
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