As a rule, I like books about magic. Maybe it’s the influence that Harry Potter had on me in my childhood, but I can never resist trying on a book about magic, especially the ones that incorporate some aspect of realism with fantasy. For example, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is a prime example of my ideal fantasy drug. I know not everyone will agree with me, but I think this a fantastic novel and the way Gregory Maguire describes this world is so vivid that you’d never guess it’s not real.
And I love books like that–the ones that successfully marry fantasy with hard-core realism. However, there have been some duds every once in a while, and I recently ran across two. One is called The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and the other is The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White. I was extremely excited to read these books, but they ended up bumming me out for very different reasons.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
What else can I say? This book was a shocking MESS, I tell you. I’m rather astounded that a fantasy novel could make me this bored, pissed off, and brain-dead by the time I finished, and boy was I happy when I was finally finished.
But to be fair, I’ll start with the positives. I actually liked the climax of this story with Martin Chapman emerging as the antagonist. It was chilling as HELL, and probably one of the scariest villains ever dreamed up.
I mean, an innocent kid wandering off into a magical world in pursuit of happiness, yet ends up selling his soul to stay there and inadvertently becomes a cannibalistic monster?! How creepy and morbid is that? If I had one complaint about this villain, it would be that this evil man-child wasn’t utilized enough in the story because he was deliciously scary.
But now, for the negatives. *inhales deeply*
Besides the one or two redeeming features of this book, this book is a colossal JOKE. It seems like Lev Grossman had slapped together Narnia, Hogwarts, Camelot, Dune, Tolkien, and all the fantasy worlds we know and love, and then put a really fucked up spin on them.
I mean, come on–how in the world did he not get sued for theft of intellectual property? As a Potterhead, I’m insulted by the fact that the first half of the book is a blatant rip-off of Harry Potter (the Great Hall, prefects, Professors, sorting, potions master, thestrals?) and the rip-offs aren’t few or subtle for Christ’s sake.
Worst of all, I hated the characters to their very last bones. There might have been a few compelling characters in there (Martin, Eliot, and Penny), but the rest were superficial and decadent to the point of repulsive.
Especially Quentin–how flimsy is he as a protagonist? This guy goes about life stewing in his own bored ego that he doesn’t end up committing to anything or anyone. Oh sure, just because you’re a brilliant genius, you’re obviously bored by everything–great logic, Lev Grossman. I mean, I like conflicted characters as much as the next person, but Quentin was clearly a borderline sociopath, and I don’t get why I should be interested in this guy’s life.
So as desperately Lev Grossman promotes this as the Harry Potter for adults, it really is not. There are plenty of ways of making a mature version of Harry Potter without going down this twisted, hyper-sexual, and completely jumbled route. So beware Potterheads–do NOT fall for this “next Harry Potter” marketing bait because this book is to Harry Potter as 50 Shades of Gray is to Twilight. Utter fan fiction garbage.
And although Grossman was trying to be all goth and rebellious by taking this story to the extremes, it only came off desperate and confused. It’s funny how he attempts to channel the sophisticated prose of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling, but once you utilize 1) inane pop culture references, 2) the term “fucking” every other paragraph, and 3) non-existent adjectives like “metal-y,” making your book into a serious piece of literature is a lost cause from the get-go. And for a TIME critic, this is pretty embarrassing.
Therefore, I rarely tell people this, but stay away from this book. It is so beyond annoying that if you value your sanity, you would not even open it to begin with. UUUGH!!!!
The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White
Now I hate to pair this book with the Magicians because The Book of Merlyn is actually really very good. But unfortunately, this book was published posthumously as the “true” conclusion to The Once and Future King, and in light of that, this book felt like an unnecessary follow-up to an already satisfying conclusion, and that bummed me out.
I mean, The Book of Merlyn concludes on an even grimmer note than The Once and Future King did! And that is a depressing feat: Arthur dies conclusively, Lancelot and Guinevere never see each other again, and my heart was left in fucking pieces after reading this book. Check out one of the final excerpts of The Book of Merlyn:
Guenever never cared for God. She was a good theologian, but that was all. The truth was that she was old and wise: she knew that Lancelot did care for God most passionately, that it was essential he should turn in that direction. So, for his sake, to make it easier for him, the great queen now renounced what she had fought for all her life, now set the example, and stood to her choice. She had stepped out of the picture.
Lancelot guessed a good deal of this, and, when she refused to see him, he climbed the convent wall with Gallic, ageing gallantry. He waylaid her to expostulate, but she was adamant and brave. Something about Mordred seemed to have broken her lust for life. They parted, never to meet again on earth.
How utterly heart-breaking is that? I love a good tragedy, but this one really takes the cake. The conclusiveness of how the Round Table broke up is summed up in Lancelot and Guinevere’s relationship, and it is sad, sad, so fucking SAD. I mean, there is no room left for hope in The Book of Merlyn, and that’s why I prefer the conclusion from The Once and Future King better (below):
But it was too late for another effort then. For that time it was his destiny to die, or, as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days. (…) The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.
Sure, this ending in The Once and Future King is sad as well, but there’s at least something poetic and inspiring about Arthur’s decision to face the future with hope. So when The Book of Merlyn conclusively tells us that Arthur died in vain, all my hopes that Arthur might have survived the war was scattered and that is depressing.
Therefore, would I recommend this book? Despite how ridiculously sad this book is, as an independent work, I think everyone should read The Book of Merlyn. T.H. White’s prose is masterful as ever, the message is astounding, and Merlyn returns alive in this book. Yay for that last one!!!!!!! I mean, it’s such a nice and poignant touch to write Merlyn back into conclusion before Arthur’s death because it makes you nostalgic and somewhat teary that T.H. White is referencing all the way back to Arthur’s childhood in The Once and Future King. So beautiful.
So yeah, this book is great, but it can still bum you out if you’re set on the conclusion in The Once and Future King, so if you’re like me and have already read The Once and Future King before, I might caution you to stay away from this book. The conclusion to The Once and Future King broke my heart into a million pieces; but this book will grind those pieces to dust and scatter them in the wind. At least, that’s how I felt.