Monday, January 30, 2012

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, 2010

The summer's been scorching hot and dry as a bone. There's been next to no rain to disturb the piles of ash left by the attack. They shift here and there, in reaction to my footsteps. No breeze to scatter them. I keep my eyes on what I remember as the road, because when I first landed in the Meadow, I wasn't careful and I walked right into a rock. Only it wasn't a rock--it was someone's skull. It rolled over and over and landed faceup, and for a long time I couldn't stop looking at the teeth, wondering whose they were, thinking of how mine would probably look the same way under similar circumstances.

I stick to the road out of habit, but it's a bad choice, because it's full of the remains of those who tried to flee. Some were incinerated entirely. But others, probably overcome with smoke, escaped the worst of the flames and now lie reeking in various states of decomposition, carrion for scavengers, blanketed by flies.
I killed you, I think as I pass a pile. And you. And you.

Because I did. It was my arrow, aimed at the chink in the force field surrounding the arena, that brought this firestorm of retribution. That sent the whole country of Panem into chaos.

In my head I hear President Snow's words, spoken the morning I was to begin the Victory Tour.
"Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem." It turns out he wasn't exaggerating or simply trying to scare me. He was, perhaps, genuinely attempting to enlist my help. But I had already set something in motion that I had no ability to control.---- (pages 5-6)


Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the first two books of the Hunger Games trilogy. They were both interesting, action-packed and attention-grabbing, with reasonably compelling characters and smart writing. They were not, however, books that really moved me much or engaged me beyond the simple pleasure of good storytelling. They were definitely "good reads." I expected Mockingjay to be an entertaining end to a fun series. The good guys would win, Katniss and Peeta would ride off into the sunset, and the Capitol's evil would be eradicated. Simple and satisfying. The trilogy would go down as a really well-done series of YA thriller-romances that will undoubtedly make terrific popcorn movies.

I wasn't expecting this.

Mockingjay is not the peppy, candy-coated grand finale I was imagining. It's astoundingly dark and nasty and philosophical and even subtle in spots. Collins takes the series and characters to places I would have assumed were way too adult, and she wreaks merry havoc with her cast of beloved characters, torturing them with such brutality that she actually reminded me of Joss Whedon. This is easily--easily--the best book in the trilogy, topping the first two in nearly every way. Even Collins' writing is progressing from the young-adult-y tone that I have such little patience for. Naturally, I have quibbles, but even with its flaws, this was a book that actually engaged me, riveted me, moved me. I can't really say the same for 1 and 2.

After the apocalyptic end of the Quarter Quell, Katniss has been rescued by the District 13 rebels, while Peeta is still in the hands of the Capitol, enduring hideous torture. The rebels have begun a full-scale revolt that has all of the Districts battling against the Capitol in a no-holds-barred war. Katniss's unique position as a beloved public figure gives them an ace in the hole: she can act as the Mockingjay, a figure of revolution and defiance, and stir up the Districts against President Snow. Much to Katniss's chagrin, she is becoming the pawn of a new government that seeks to use her for their own benefit. All Katniss wants is to free Peeta, kill President Snow and bring down the Capitol. But what (and who) will victory cost here?

Mockingjay, unlike the first two books, doesn't revolve around a Hunger Games, which frees up its narrative considerably. The Hunger Games concept is a solid one, but it's also limiting, and the fact that Collins doesn't spend the last book chronicling a Games gives her the leeway to tell a more complex, involved story. The specter of the Games still looms over the novel, though. One of Collins' masterstrokes is taking the reality-television-as-propaganda angle and applying it to the war with the Capitol. Even when visiting war zones and fighting battles, Katniss is trailed by cameras, her every move recorded in the hopes that she will provide inspiring material. It's a cool way to keep the themes of voyeurism and entertainment politics alive without rehashing the Games. Another way that the Games' influence is felt is in the final battle in the streets of the Capitol, which have been extensively boobytrapped in a way very similar to the arena. Collins really does a nice job of essentially jettisoning the core conceit of the first two books and making the final act its own animal.

Not to overstate it, but it seems to me that Collins's writing has matured significantly between Fire and Mockingjay. Maybe it has more to do with the book's complex plot and themes, but it seems as though some of the more YA-y elements are missing. The dialogue is a little snappier, the descriptions a tad richer. The characterizations are definitely deeper. That's not to say that there aren't a few characters who get shortchanged in that department (Boggs and President Coin are two that jump to mind), and I could have done with a little more action and a more dynamic climax. But overall? A big improvement, writing-wise, on the first two books, which were good to begin with, despite a nitpick or two on my end.

For instance, I may have complained that Collins flinched away from the violence and brutality in Games and Fire, but that couldn't be farther from the case in Mockingjay. Here, barely a page goes by without something shocking or gruesome happening. Collins seems to be trying to give Stephen King a run for his money in finding creative ways to kill people. The action is relentless and gory; no one, even children, are safe. As a result of this, the book is easily twice as suspenseful as either of its predecessors--even though Games and Fire were intense, I never really feared much for the main characters, who seemed sure to survive every catastrophe. In Mockingjay, Collins is absolutely merciless. There are two major deaths in particular that are real jaw-droppers (the fact that one of the victims was my favorite supporting character didn't help).

The levels of darkness that Collins is willing to go to is nothing less than astounding, especially where the characters are concerned. Katniss spends much of the book teetering on the brink of insanity due to all she's experienced, and her moral code becomes more flexible as the war goes on (I mean, she actually kills innocent people). Gale has gone from being a boy filled with rage to a somewhat frightening man who's willing to destroy the Capitol no matter what--even if he has to kill innocent people. Perhaps the most surprising change is wrought in Peeta, who has been tortured with tracker jacker venom by the Capitol, giving him a bitter new personality and a hatred of Katniss. Frankly, the characters have never been my favorite thing about the HG series until Mockingjay, where everyone seemed to suddenly gain dimension. The Dark Peeta angle in particular gets huge points from me for making the Katniss/Peeta romance feel truly relevant and surprisingly emotional. There are some truly hurtful and affecting scenes between the pair, and Collins does a good job of setting the readers off balance by detonating the series' core relationship. It's a mature and thoughtful device, something I wouldn't have guessed she was capable of. The ultimate ending, too, is amazingly bleak and intentionally anticlimactic; I was reminded of the end of Jonathan Stroud's Ptolemy's Gate, one of the darkest, most brilliant conclusions to a young-adult series I've ever read.

Now, I don't necessarily agree with Collins's strident anti-war message, nor do I think that she argues the philosophical points with impeccable logic (her claim that District 13 and the Capitol are morally equivalent is kind of weak). But you know what? She makes the readers feel her passion and belief in a way that she doesn't for most of the series. Ending the series with pain and suffering instead of triumph feels like a shock, and yet, it also makes total sense considering all that has happened over the course of the novel, and the series. It's a fitting end, and one that still sneaks up on you and delivers a gut-punch.

NEXT UP: My review of P.G. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters.

ALSO: I am happy to announce that I have begun As I Lay Reading, a companion to this blog. Unlike this blog (where I will continue to write capsule reviews of the books I read), AILR will feature constant commentary and complex, heady, thought-provoking analysis as I read, as well as any stupid thing I think to post. It is the Damon to this blog's Stefan--funnier, sexier and less straight-laced (sorry, I've got Vampire Diaries on the brain). Please head over there and check it out!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin

Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin, 1994

His eyes were closed. If he opened them he knew he would see flecks of his own blood against the whitewashed wall, the wall which seemed to arch toward him. His toes were still moving against the ground, dabbling in warm blood. Whenever he tried to speak, he could feel his face cracking: dried salt tears and sweat.

It was strange, the shape your life could take. You might be loved as a child but still go bad. You might have monsters for parents but grow up pure. His life had been neither one nor the other. Or rather, it had been both, for he'd been cherished and abandoned in equal measure. He was six, and shaking hands with a large man. There should have been more affection between them, but somehow there wasn't. He was ten, and his mother was looking tired, bowed down, as she leaned over the sink washing dishes. Not knowing he was in the doorway, she paused to rest her hands on the rim of the sink. He was thirteen, and being initiated into his first gang. They took a pack of cards and skinned his knuckles with the edge of the pack. They took it in turns, all eleven of them. It hurt until he belonged.

Now there was a shuffling sound. And the gun barrel was touching the back of his neck, sending out more waves. How could something be so cold? He took a deep breath, feeling the effort in his shoulder-blades. There couldn't be more pain than he already felt. Heavy breathing close to his ear, and then the words again.

Nemo me impune lacessit.'---- (pages 5-6)

The great thing about the recurring series character is the pleasure of an established world and cast. No one would argue that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't a gifted mystery writer, but it's the beautifully structured little universe of 221b Baker Street that caught the reader's imagination. Agatha Christie could spin out a whodunit with the best of them, yet her most successful novels, most fans would agree, are the ones featuring Poirot or Miss Marple, sleuths whose habits and methods are well established. Ian Rankin's Rebus series is likewise structured, although with more complexity than Doyle's world, or Christie's. Each Rebus novel is a treat just because we get to re-enter the world of Rankin's Edinburgh and the large cast of coppers, criminals and civilians who inhabit it.

Once you feel an affinity for a particular fictional character or universe, it sometimes becomes easier to criticize the plots as not being worthy of the characters, or not measuring up to what came before. With each Harry Potter book, readers held their breath, willing J.K. Rowling to spin a story that lived up to the rest of the series (the fact that she did, every single time, is one of the many, many things I love about the Potter books). Mortal Causes is the sixth book in the Rebus series, and it has a tall order to fill, considering how much I've loved some of the past installments. Causes, like Strip Jack and The Black Book, is a bit of letdown in terms of plot, despite some great elements and a handful of truly memorable moments.

Edinburgh's yearly Festival, a citywide event that attracts thousands of tourists, is in full swing when a gruesomely tortured body is discovered in a subterranean street. John Rebus is one of the first on the scene and the mode of execution immediately suggests paramilitary terrorists. Sectarian radicals, both Catholic and Protestant, have been waging a furious war in the UK, and the Scottish Crime Squad suspects that the victim was executed by a mysterious group of terrorists known as the Shield. Working for two separate agencies and hounded by gangsters, Rebus digs into the mystery and discovers a vast network of violent extremists with something deadly planned for this year's Festival.

While most of the Rebus novels are more classic murder-mystery narratives, Causes is set up as more of a thriller, with terrorists, spies and multiple government agencies in play. Unfortunately, the book's plot is choppy and a bit schizophrenic. Rankin packs a lot of characters and a lot of narrative into one relatively short novel, and the result is an overstuffed story with too many divergent subplots and separate threads. Rankin never totally commits to the thriller-like elements, instead vacillating between missing grenade launchers and routine police work. He can do ticking-time-bomb plots as well as anyone (Tooth and Nail is a compact, spring-loaded serial killer thriller), but Causes lacks the urgency its story requires. If the book was longer, the tangled plot threads and two dozen significant characters might have had time to breathe. Barely three hundred pages isn't enough.

Rankin's clue-dropping remains adept; he's very good at making an offhand reference to something that later proves vitally significant in a way that doesn't feel too obvious. It's his plotting that's a bit of a mess--haphazard,sprawling and overly intricate. It can be fun to follow all of his little threads, but it can also be tiring and confusing. In these last couple of books, Rankin seems to have trouble giving the reader a clear picture of the story; everything seems jumbled in pell-mell.

Luckily, those separate elements, while not combined very smoothly, are usually pretty great on their own. The addition of Big Ger Cafferty to the mix adds a nice undercurrent of danger and a sense of continuity to the novel. Cafferty's weird, half-friendly rivalry with Rebus promises to be a really interesting story for the future. I also quite liked the return to the Pilmuir ghetto, now with a new youth center that seems to be doing more bad than good. It's an interesting little slice of Edinburgh life, and I would have appreciated it if it had been more neatly folded into the plot. The major "mole" reveal is another reasonably well-handled element; it's definitely unexpected, although it might have made more of an impact if the character in question had been more developed.

Causes is the first book in the series to rely heavily on 1990s current events as a backdrop. The conflict between loyalist paramilitary groups, IRA-style terrorists and UK law enforcement is the heart of the story, as well as the longer-running contention between the Protestants and the Catholics. A lot of the finer points were somewhat lost on to me, since it's not a subject I know much about, and Rankin logically assumes that a UK audience will be familiar with the conflict. The fact that I was a bit behind on some of the context definitely made the book's plot a bit murkier for me. That's hardly a real fault (since Rankin isn't writing for international readers), and it wasn't even a major distraction. Rankin's portrait of a place torn apart by splintered forces who are fighting over ancient grievances is interesting in of itself, and Rebus's detached observations are as amusing as ever.

Rebus's home life definitely takes an odd turn in this installment. Now living with Patience in her cozy basement flat (his own taken over by the amorphous group of students from The Black Book), Rebus find his relationship with the good doctor becoming ever more distant and strained. Things become more complicated when Rebus begins a fling with an unhinged barrister, who quickly goes Fatal Attraction on the hapless DI when their relationship turns sour. It's kind of a weird plotline, one that I kept expecting to intersect with the main story (even though it never did). Rebus's erstwhile paramour spraying him with paint--although darkly funny--is a bit more over-the-top than Rankin's domestic stories usually are. It's the tense, unhappy, dysfunctional undercurrent between Rebus and Patience that elevates the plotline beyond a bit of texture. Rebus's inability to find a functional relationship, and his increasing dependence on alcohol, is becoming one of the series' hallmarks.

Mortal Causes is another solid installment in the Rebus series, but the instant-classic feel just isn't there. Despite its many good points, there's not a lot that's especially memorable or noteworthy; it's just an entertaining, well-written crime novel with a terrific protagonist and a good supporting cast. If it wasn't for the fact that I know Ian Rankin can do better, I would probably have been perfectly satisfied (plot holes and a lack of narrative cohesion aside). Causes may not be as good as some of its predecessors, but it's still good enough, certainly. Maybe looking for the novel to recapture the intensity and pitch-perfect plotting of some of the earlier ones is unfair and unreasonable, although inevitable when reading a series. I will try to go into the next installment with suitably lowered expectations.

NEXT UP: The final book of the Hunger Games, Mockingjay.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, 2009

On alternate Tuesdays Quentin worked with Bigby, the Physical Kids' unofficial faculty advisor, who turned out to be a small man with large liquid eyes and close-cropped gray hair who dressed neatly, if extremely affectedly, in a long Victorian-looking duster. His posture was slightly hunched, but he didn't seem otherwise frail or crippled. Quentin had the impression that Bigby was a political refugee from somewhere. He was always making vague noises about the conspiracy that had ousted him, and what he would do following his inevitable return to power. He had the stiff, wounded dignity of the deposed intelligentsia.

One afternoon during a seminar--Bigby specialized in ridiculously difficult enchantments that transmuted elements by manipulating their structure on a quantum level--he paused and performed an odd gesture: he reached back behind first one shoulder, then the other, unbuttoning something back there. The movement reminded Quentin of nothing more than a woman unhooking her bra. When Bigby was finished four magnificent insect wings like a dragonfly's, two on each side, sprang out from behind him. He flexed them with a deep, satisfied sigh.

The wings were gauzy and iridescent. They disappeared for a second in a buzz of activity, then reappeared as they became still.

"Sorry," he said. "Couldn't stand it a minute more."

It never stopped, the weirdness of this place. It just went on and on.

"Professor Bigby, are you a--" Quentin stopped. A what? An elf? An angel? He was being rude, but he couldn't help it. "Are you a fairy?"

Bigby smiled a pained smile. His wings made a dry chitinous rattle.

"Pixie, technically," he said.

He seemed a little sensitive about it.
---- (page 109)

The Magicians is a strange novel, with an unusual and fascinating central theme: the pleasures and dangers of the fantasy worlds in which we immerse ourselves. Is escapism a blind attempt to shield ourselves from the troubles of our own world, or a healthy way to deal with stress and develop imagination? If we were ever able to actually enter Narnia or Oz, would those fantasy worlds really be a miraculous paradise, or would they be just as complex, challenging and screwed-up as ours is? Grossman has looted the most popular fantasy novels of all time for material: The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, the Harry Potter series, the Chronicles of Narnia, with references to Alice in Wonderland, Dungeons and Dragons and the X-Men thrown in for good measure. If Grossman wasn't such a strong and original writer, The Magicians would feel like a bunch of pieces ripped off from other works and tossed in a blender. Instead, it's a complicated, uproariously funny, sometimes lyrical novel that's simultaneously a parody, a pastiche, a homage and its own beast entirely.

Like so many stories of fantasy, the novel begins with a seemingly ordinary young man living in the ordinary world, who has no idea of his magical destiny. Quentin Coldwater is a gifted and brilliant student, but he spends his days in a nihilistic fog, wishing that he could enter the world of Fillory, the setting of his favorite series of fantasy novels (Fillory is about as close to Narnia as Grossman can get without legal trouble). When it comes time to enter college, Quentin finds himself accepted into Brakebills, a school for magicians located in a sprawling manor house in upstate New York. As he has long hoped, Quentin is no mere mortal; he's a powerful magician-in-training. But even Brakebills and a crowd of quirky new friends are not enough to staunch Quentin's existential ennui. For his life to have meaning, he has to travel to Fillory, which is not only real (talking bunnies and all), but far more deadly and menacing than it ever seemed on paper.

Only a truly capable writer could make a book like this work at all, balancing the inherently amusing metafictional aspects of the premise and the deep, dark ideas behind it. It would have been very easy for the novel to come off as a sort of ultimate genre fan-fiction mashup. Grossman avoids this by creating a world that, despite its strong resemblance to many other fictional universes, is very much its own animal in terms of texture and "feel" (if that makes sense). On the surface, the idea of a wizard college sounds like a blatant Harry Potter ripoff; in Grossman's hands, however, it feels more like a respectful homage, even if there is a suspiciously Quidditch-like magical chess sport called welters. The fact that his hedonistic characters spend a lot of time drinking, swearing and having sex also serves to further distance the book from the Harry Potter series--certainly nothing like that ever went on at Hogwarts.

It's a funny thing: by introducing a hipper, more modern sensibility and more mature content to classic genre tropes, Grossman hopes to shine a new light on familiar storylines. Yet the technique sometimes feels as though he's cheapening the story rather than enhancing it. Yes, I admire and enjoy his attempts to complicate and darken the world of fantasy fiction, but those old devices are old for a reason. Having your characters react to the impossible with cynicism, opportunism and occasionally lechery rather than wide-eyed enthusiasm is innovative, but it also feels disheartening and somewhat depressing. Of course, that's kind of the point.

Similarly, Quentin has to be one of the most unusual protagonists in the history of fantasy. He's about as far from Frodo or Harry as its possible to get. He's every inch an antihero: whiny, snide, vindictive, self-obsessed, mopey, unkind and cowardly. Although he's an incredibly unappealing character in some ways, Grossman develops him nicely, and even though we may not always approve of his behavior, it's impossible not to sympathize with him. His obsession with finding happiness in the form of an escape is sometimes exasperating, but it's oddly touching, too. The fact that Grossman is not afraid to make his main character a total jerk is a good example of the kind of risks he takes in The Magicians, not all of which pay off. While Quentin's development is interesting and unusual, it can also be a pain to put up with him and his constant negativity, especially in the book's episodic middle section. One of the things that makes the novel a challenging read is Grossman's refusal to allow us to sink into the story the way we would a Harry Potter novel. Is this a storytelling slipup or a genius device? Hard to say.

The other characters are just as atypical as Quentin. His fellow students are not a loyal, courageous group of sidekicks, but a gang of squabbling, angry, messed-up friends whose closeness is always about to slide into animosity. There's Eliot, a depressed, gay alcoholic, Janet, an oversexed social butterfly with a mean streak, Josh, a wisecracking guy with unpredictable magical powers, and Alice, a shy, brilliant nerd. The characters are understatedly complicated, and Grossman does a wonderful job of letting readers see between the lines of Quentin's narration to the truth of whose these people are. None of them are any more traditional heroes than Quentin is (with the possible exception of Alice), and there are no cliched moments when they "prove themselves." This a seriously dysfunctional group of people. But hey, dysfunction is entertaining.

Grossman's plotting is decidedly strange. The first two-thirds of the book take place at Brakebills, while the characters only reach Fillory towards the end. The two stories feel strangely disconnected. The Brakebills segments are loose and episodic, while the Fillory ones seem too short. There's very little time spent in Fillory before the climactic fight, which seems odd since so much of the book is based around the prospect of reaching that world. The plotting could definitely have been tightened; despite the reviews claiming that the book was "gripping," I found the pace kind of languorous and sleepy. The middle in particular seemed to have fairly little by way of conflict. There's nothing wrong with a slower pace, but it's a strange authorial choice in a book like this. I think the finale would have been more satisfying if we'd spent more time in Fillory, and less time at Brakebills.

Fittingly, Grossman's prose is alternately beautiful and pretentious, sometimes shockingly insightful and dazzlingly descriptive, sometimes self-consciously overdone. It's entirely possible that some of the overly "literary" writing was intentional and was supposed to fit in with the character of the novel (which it more or less does; it'd be hard to find a more pretentious bunch than Quentin and Co). The dialogue is often sharp and finely tuned, but there's the occasional exchange or pop-culture reference that feels forced and overwritten. Again, this could well be a device, and if it is, it's a fairly effective one. If not, well, Grossman's writing is still impressive.

I do have to give him credit for weaving a highly skillful main storyline through the book, dropping clues even when we weren't looking for them. I may have found some of the book slow, but the groundwork for the denouement is nicely laid throughout. The climax is a real barn-burner, and the Big Bad is genuinely scary, as well as very clever. There's a bit too much falling action for my taste (especially since the book is only the first in a trilogy), but the novel definitely goes out with a bang, and the very ending manages to both tie up the novel thematically and set up the sequel, 2011's The Magician King.

Is The Magicians quite as profound and moving as it hopes to be? Not quite; Quentin is just a shade too unlikable and the novel's tone is just a bit too whiny. But even if Grossman doesn't absolutely nail it, he comes dizzyingly close at times. There are scenes, paragraphs, sentences, where he achieves small flashes of brilliance. There are few fantasy novels out there as unusual and thought-provoking as The Magicians. By denying us the satisfaction of simple heroes and friendly talking animals and flawless magical worlds, he makes us really think about why those things matter in the first place. Are those idyllic fantasies utterly impossible, or is happiness a state of mind? Will Quentin Coldwater ever find the satisfaction that he seeks? Only the next book will tell, and if it's half as good as this one, it'll be quite a read.

NEXT UP: The next John Rebus novel, Mortal Causes.