Welcome to Smugglivus 2014! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2014, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2015, and more.
Who: Kate Milford, author of awesome Historical/Fantastical Middle Grade and Young Adult books. Recent work include the novella Bluecrowne and the excellent novel Greenglass House. But really, we have loved everything she has ever written.
Give a warm welcome to Kate Milford, folks!
Generally at this time of year I start pulling out my winter reading lineup, which varies but usually includes at least a couple of the following: The Dark is Rising, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Box of Delights (although as discussed in a previous Smugglivus post, the problem with winter fantasy is that usually with victory over the bad guy comes a thaw, which annoys me because I like the wintry parts best). This year, I’m starting the winter books late because I’ve decided to indulge myself in a reread of not one but two series I only finished reading for the first time a couple months back. But both of them dug so deeply into me that I can’t bear not to reread them right away.
Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy begins with The Magicians, in which we find seventeen year-old Quentin Coldwater going to a college alumni interview only to find the interviewer dead on the floor. But there’s an envelope with his name on it in the interviewer’s house, and when Quentin opens it he finds two things: a notebook containing something that purports to be an unpublished installment of the classic Fillory and Further books (a Chronicles of Narnia-esque children’s fantasy series that Quentin has been obsessed with ever since he was small), and a folded piece of paper. The paper blows away, and when he follows it, Quentin finds himself suddenly not in Brooklyn in November, but on the grounds of a very great house, in summer. This house is Brakebills, a magical college, and Quentin has arrived just in time for the entrance exam.
I could absolutely write an entire post on all the things I love about the series, but for me, the really big thing is this: while I’ve heard this series described as Harry Potter for adults—which is a fairly accurate description in some ways—there is no Voldemort, and there’s no promise of happy-ever-after. After graduation, the magicians of Brakebills have to find ways to live and thrive in our world, where there really aren’t any monsters for them to fight. Magic turns out not to be the key to happiness, and fantasy turns out not to have any answers to offer. Even once he discovers that magic is real, even after he discovers there are worlds beyond our own, worlds of deeper and stranger magic, Quentin struggles to maintain a sense of wonder and to keep hold of happiness, which for him has always been particularly elusive. He spends most of his time trying to figure out what his story is—the one to which he really belongs and in which maybe, just maybe, he’s even the hero. Presumably if he figures that out, he can figure out how to be happy. That idea—that if we figure out where we belong and what we’re supposed to do, happiness will follow—haunts Quentin throughout the three volumes of the series, just as it haunts many of us in real life. These, I think, are important conversations to have: happy ever after is not a thing that exists in nature; only in books are there such things as clear quests or clear villains; and nothing external to ourselves will ever have the ability to deliver contentment or peace.
Now, I get into arguments with people about The Magicians. I started reading the series because one friend loved it desperately and convinced me I would, too. One bookseller pal, on the other hand, hated Quentin so much that she couldn’t finish the first book. Another friend had issues with possibly not-entirely-consensual fox sex in The Magicians. (Those who’ve read the series are probably thinking that’s a typo, because the seriously non-consensual fox sex happens in The Magician King; but no, I mean the instance in the first book, and if you haven’t read the series, yes, there are unrelated instances of sexual acts involving foxes in both The Magicians and The Magician King.) And if I’m honest, I didn’t like Quentin in the first book either, although he does grow into someone I came to like very much. No, it was the lore surrounding the Fillory books that really kept me going. I love when authors bring their worlds so far to life that even the literature of those worlds feels utterly real and compelling. The world of Fillory and the way in which it’s used in The Magicians was also deeply satisfying to me as an author of children’s fantasy; Grossman is obviously interested in discussing the way fantasy and fantasy novels influence us, both as children and as adults. There’s a particularly beautiful thing towards the end of The Magician’s Land in which Grossman describes the wonder of reading for the first time the book that changes your life and inspires you as a child. And (bonus!), as if the author had been privy to my personal complaints about winter fantasies, in the final book there’s a moment when, after an abnormally prolonged summer, the first flakes of snow fall and it’s the good sign everyone’s been waiting for. Thank you, Mr. Grossman.
The other series that’s going to put off my usual winter reading is Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. VanderMeer has been one of my favorite authors ever since I read City of Saints and Madmen, which was one of the first books that made me aware of how strong a character a place can be. Each of VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels (of which City of Saints and Madmen is the first) is a very different sort of book, but together they bring Ambergris so fully to life that, if not for things like the sentient and sometimes-violent fungus, you’d be completely convinced it was a real place. In many ways, the Ambergris books feel to me like a trial run for the Southern Reach, which is more beautifully written, more succinct and elegant, more challenging, more shocking.
In a country that must be, but is never explicitly stated to be, the United States, something has happened in a place that’s probably Florida. No one understands what, exactly, has happened in the district called Area X, but it’s now ringed by a border that can only be breached in one place, and at such risk to one’s sanity that those who pass through it to investigate have to be put under heavy hypnosis. The first expedition that went in returned to report on the strange, pristine wilderness inside the border. The members of the second expedition committed mass suicide. Decades later, the twelfth expedition goes in, and once again things go horribly wrong.
Much like in the Ambergris novels, the main characters of the series are not the individuals themselves so much as the territory known as Area X and the government agency called the Southern Reach tasked with making sense of it, and each of the three volumes approach those two entities in a way that’s entirely distinct from the rest. The first book, Annihilation, is all exploration, anthropology, ecology, and horror. The second, Authority, reads more like a spy novel. The third . . . listen, I lack the capability to sum Acceptance up in any coherent way, except to say that I closed it after reading it in a single sitting and immediately wanted—needed—to go back and re-read the entire trilogy, except I’d loaned out my copies of Annihilation and Authority already. (Now that the trilogy’s been reissued as a single hardcover, that problem is solved.)
What VanderMeer manages to do in such a relatively small page-count is remarkable: a rich and fascinating setting, fully-explored characters, a page-turner of a plot that raises a host of disquieting questions, and an improbably deep level of detail, considering how short the books are. The prose is magnificent. The first book, Annihilation, has become my go-to title at the bookstore when I want to convince customers that science fiction can be literary. (Which, you may be surprised to learn, a lot of readers who have only a passing acquaintance with sci-fi simply don’t believe.) The series as a whole is a thing of elegant precision. Each installment is lean and spare, and the three together are a perfectly sharp and destructive jab-hook-uppercut combination that’s somewhat at odds with unknowable, chaotic, entropic horror at the heart of the story, which can’t be contained or even precisely described. It drags you close against your better judgment, daring you to understand it, and then all of a sudden you finish that third book at two in the morning because you started it before bed and couldn’t put it down, and all you can do now is stare at it and curse at yourself for loaning out the first two, because you absolutely have to read the whole thing again immediately.
So although it means a horrendous breach of tradition, this year I’m doing something different. I’m splitting the holidays between Area X and Fillory. I’ll send you a postcard from wherever I wind up. Unless you want to join me, that is.
Thank you, Kate!