Wednesday, November 25, 2009


One of the pleasures of using a seriously cut-price bookseller like The Book Depository is that one can afford to lash out and buy random books purely on the basis that they sound cool. Under normal circumstances I never would have bought 'The Magicians' by Lev Grossman and 'Soon I Will Be Invincible' by his brother Austin Grossman, because at an Australian bookstore I'd be looking at $50. At Book Depository they were about $20. That's all the incentive I need.

Although the books are completely unrelated, they're interesting in part because they're so similar. Both take the standard tropes of two popular youth genres and try to reimagine them objectively; as if to say, "Okay, if this scenario were actually true, what would it look like and how would it play out?" Lev deals with children's fantasy, while Austin has superheroes.

Lev Grossman's book is probably the more ambitious of the two, as it takes on and almost clinically dissects two of the juggernauts of children's fantasy: Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. He tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a fiercely intelligent but socially awkward teenager who discovers that, rather than getting into Harvard as he had planned, he has been accepted to Brakebill's, a secretive college of magic. He finds that the study of magic gives him a sense of identity that he lacked, but at the same time it creates a whole new set of problems and neuroses. All of this is brought to a head when he discovers that a magic kingdom from a series of children's books he loved as a child is actually a real place, and that he can go there.

The reimagining of Hogwart's and the reimagining of Narnia neatly fill the first and second halves of the book respectively - it's almost as if they're two closely related but different stories. In the first, Hogwartian half, Lev develops his conceit that magic is horribly, horribly hard. It requires fluency in several dead languages, complicated hand gestures, and a borderline-autistic knowledge of everything from the phases of the moon to the range of the tides. The only people intelligent and focussed enough to use magic are the hyper-intelligent but socially-retarded geeks on the fringes of your local high school. Studying magic at Brakebill's is like a combination of Japanese cram school and going to the Mathlympics.

The second half of the novel asks the question, "What would it be like to really visit Narnia? What would talking animals be like? Would they really want human royalty?" Lev’s magic kingdom is dark, violent and oddly empty, its inhabitants worn down and frightened by the constant threat of magic attack or interference. It feels more like a drug dream than a real place, except that death or injury can come for real.

Lev is at his best when he depicts what happens when the wholesome, awe-inspiring worlds of children's fantasy are occupied by the sort of adults who read too much children's fantasy. Like a lot of very intelligent modern nerds, brought up in an atmosphere of moral equivalency and a dearth of role models, Quentin is mostly unlikeable, with a sense of self-justification that works overtime to conceal his cowardice, his betrayals and his often weasely taste for power. While we appreciate the occasional good, upright characters who show bravery and self-sacrifice, it's more visceral to read about the students who drift off the proper paths and dabble in edgier magic. They tend to be devoured by monsters, tormented by demons or disfigured by their own hubris, and fear is a stronger emotion than admiration.

Austin Grossman's book looks at world full of superheroes and their supervillain nemeses. It's told from two perspectives in alternating chapters; first with experienced supervillain Doctor Impossible, then with newbie superheroine Fatale.

Austin's supervillains are the same people who make your life difficult every day: a mixture of bullies, blowhards, sociopaths and, in Doctor Impossible's case, the sort of restless, introspective geek who seems genuinely surprised that other people might get upset when he robs their banks, changes their weather or takes over their minds.

The superheroes are similarly dysfunctional: competitive, territorial, and elitist: some guy who buys titanium body armour and a flamethrower is considered rather gauche compared to a person who acquired superpowers via aliens, magic or the bite of a radioactive invertebrate.

The only problem with Austin's story is that it feels like a minor chapter in some gargantuan, unwritten book. It covers Doctor Impossible's umpteenth attempt to take over the world, and as it plays out it's clear that this is one of his less ambitious projects. Fatale proves herself as a superhero, but it's evident that her powers are fairly mundane compared to some others in The New Champions. Austin fleshes out the depth and history of his world by casually mentioning Doctor Impossible's previous time travel exploits or The Champions' earlier battle with an alien armada, but unfortunately all this does is suggest to the reader that there are stories more exciting than this one that aren't being told.

On the other hand, Austin has a neat trick of having his characters speak like normal people in private, then unconsciously switching to grandiose superhero and supervillain hyperbole in public. This is especially well done in Doctor Impossible, as the narrative flits between the ordinary, fretful thoughts running through his mind and the classic, "Prepare to meet your doom, puny mortals!" coming out of his mouth.

You can sort of see why he does it. After all, it's very difficult to speak the title of this book aloud without shaking one's fist in the air and bellowing. I've tried, and failed.

It’s tempting to look at these two books, written two years apart by two brothers, and make a call over which one is better. But I’m not going to do that, since there will then be the implication that the second-best one isn’t worth reading, and this isn’t the case. They’re both fun, inventive novels and I’d recommend both of them. Especially if you can get them cheap from The Book Depository.


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