[Review] Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”

I am not an enormous fan of fantasy* but I have been known to make exceptions for urban fantasy. Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” popped up on a book list recommend by the lit snobs over at Slate. As I cannot resist lit snobbery, and it comes in convenient e-book form, it appeared on my Kindle.

Quentin, our super brilliant emo protagonist who normally would be in line for the new Arcade Fire CD, is whisked off mysteriously to take a bunch of entrance exams for some mysterious Wizard College. He gets in after some brutal and bizarre exams, because he’s the main character, and he gives up all the vestiges of his old life to become a wizard. The first half of the Magician’s is a bit of Harry Potter meets College Angst meets the X-Men. Quentin meets a whole bunch of other proto-wizards, makes a bunch of friends, and learns to become content with his weird wizarding self. This part of the book is more “New X-Men” than “Harry Potter” frankly — it feels more than a little like Professor Xavier and his secretive school for Mutants in Upstate New York than Hogwarts, especially once the students start to differentiate into different magical power specialities.

The second half is post-college early-20s angst with magic. The book picks up here. It feels like the characters are in a holding pen until they are let loose to go wreak havoc on the magical world. The book becomes funnier and it moves faster once it acquires something that resembles the vague outline of a plot; before then it was just a coming of age story set in a fantasy background. This book does have a lack-of-plot problem. The big evil is not well formed. The fantasy on a fantasy world is pretty vague although, to be fair, it is supposed to be. The fights are written well and the plot ends satisfyingly enough.

The book is highly readable. It doesn’t feel bogged down with turgid prose and it moves at a brisk pace. It mixes modern sensibilities and pop culture references (D&D references; fight club; drinks and drugs of all kinds) with urban fantasy into a nice little whole. The writing gets better as the book goes on, leading me to believe this is a sophomoric effort and leading me to hope for a possible sequel — something with a firmer plot with the same characters would make for a better story.

Originally I gave this book 3 stars out of 5 because I read it immediately following Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” If you have read Umberto Eco, you know it’s hard for a fantasy novel, let alone any novel, to follow up that act. I docked it a star merely because it came after a better written book. It’s unfair and I give it back half a star and upgrade it to 3 1/2 stars out of 5. It is good. Not great. Not fantastic. It is solidly a good and entertaining read.


* Exception made for Game of Thrones.

So, Alaska!

So, um, hi!

For our 10th Anniversary (10 years? REALLY?) we took a cruise on Princess Cruises up the Inside Passage from Vancouver, BC to Anchorage, AK.* Fascinating thing about being in the middle of nowhere: a distinct lack of the Internet. Not that we missed it. We were too busy on an adventure. We had some mild peril. We had some not-so-mild peril. We saw stuff! Some of it was huge! Most of it had mountains!

Places we have been:

Vancouver, BC, Canada
Ketchikan, AK
Juneau, AK
Skagway, AK
Haines, AK
Whittier, AK
Anchorage, AK

Things we have seen:

Whales
Bald Eagles
Mountains
Alaskan Primary Campaign Signs
Glaciers
More Glaciers
Even More Glaciers
Fjords
Ford Seward
Crazy Native American Anthropologists with Awesome Fishing Hats

Thing we had to go to the zoo to see:

Bears**

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is the strangest airport I have seen. It was very clean, very neat, very tidy, and completely devoid of human life. I don’t know if we hit it in some sweet spot but people were few and far between. Canadian customs is like all things Canadian — polite. But the moment I hit YVR I no longer had phone service.

Now that we have seen Vancouver, we have decided to run off and move to Vancouver. Eventually. Someday. Or at least return for more than a few hours. We failed to see Scott Pilgrim in Vancouver but we did manage to see some of the city, and eat sushi there, and have a huge breakfast, and be asked by the cabbie why the Detroit Red Wings suck.  I had no real answer.

The ship itself (Diamond Princess) is a floating bar with bars inside of bars. The point of a cruise is to drink and spend money, and we drank and spent money. On a cruise ship, it is always booze o’clock. After a while the constant hovering service, especially in the dining room, got to us, but the ship was always nice, neat, and well designed to slice up the huge floating population into small groups so it did not feel crowded. For Glacier Bay it also boasted the US Forestry Service to give us a tour over the loudspeaker and, afterward, their own on-board crazy Naturalist. He was my favorite guy on the ship, that Naturalist. He was Very. Enthusiastic. About. Whales!

Ketchikan, AK is a disappointment but everyone who has taken this tour has said the same thing: Ketchikan, AK is a disappointment. It’s a tourist trap that exists only to fleece tourists on cruise ships. It’s full of horrible shops full of horrible, crappy things.*** It wasn’t even fun like, say, going to Ishpaming with its bizarre Yooper-based gift shops. We should have taken a tour to Saxman Island, as that’s the only thing of worth to do there, but live and learn. We did get a few nice pictures and luckily we only spent half a day there.

Juneau, AK is, on the other hand, neat even if it is unreachable by land.  Who puts the capital of a state where it can only be reached by sea or air? It’s an odd place.  Mendenhall Glacier! Top of Mount Roberts! I found the local knitting shop with my super tingly knitting senses! Juneau is very walkable as cities go. It’s neat and tidy — not the sparkling clean of Vancouver but a long way from dirty. We walked Juneau until I was convinced my knees were going to blow out and then we walked a bit more. Then it was drink o’clock.  My plan of living off the guide book worked well here.

Skagway, AK is like Henry Ford Village. It was a mining town in the gold rush but now it’s sort of a touristy trappy town preserved in time and tiny. But we were there only for an hour before we joined our tour and took a 45 minute ferry to Haines, AK. We took a bus to a mountain and then I drove a glorified 4×4 golf cart up a mountain on unpaved roads. Then came the more interesting part — driving the ATV back down the mountain. It was a complication I hadn’t though about. I thought about it very hard around the hairpin turns.  It was worth it, though — the view from the top of the mountain over the fjord was amazing. I absolutely recommend taking the insane Sub-Alpine ATV excursion in Haines, AK.

Glacier Bay is amazing but cold. Mountains! Glaciers! Mountains! Glaciers! Between the rain, the wind, and the air temperature, I was convinced I would never be warm again. They were selling hot spiced wine to go with the glacier and somehow I resisted until I caved to coffee.  We stared at the big glacier (Marjorie) for a while and went ooooooh but it only calved off some smaller bits of ice. On the way out, though, we saw 16 whales. 16! 6 in a pod! I had the binoculars so I didn’t get pictures but Eric did. 16 whales!

By time we got to College Fjord, though, I was tired of being cold so I don’t have any pictures of the Harvard Glacier. But that sucker absolutely did calve off great bit huge chunks of ice into the water with a huge thundering splash and because we’re all suicidal morons we sat in the bar that gave us a good view, drank, and applauded Mother Nature. Woo! Go Nature! Trying to kill us with ice! WOO! Do it again!

Only 250 crazy people live in Whittier**** but Anchorage wasn’t bad. The room was a bit dumpy but not somewhere one uses to dry out from their drug habit. We ended up renting a car in Anchorage. I wish I knew it was a “car is necessary if staying for more than 4 hours” sort of place because we would have a) gone straight to the airport and b) had a car waiting for us at some cheap rate. But I did not know. Now we know. Rent a car in Anchorage. The city is a grid. It’s simple to navigate.

We saw Scott Pilgrim at the local mall. We went to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. We went to the Alaska Zoo to see bears. We went to the Glacier Gardens. We drank the local beer. Mmmm beer. The local beer is fantastic.  Anchorage is like Grand Rapids with mountains. It’s very, very, very Northern Michigan with mountains. I could not shake the feeling of deja vu.

It was at the Heritage Center where, listening to a pat talk about Aleut Indians, we were invaded by above anthropologist who simply started talking to us. He was making a visor out of wood by planing the wood down to very thin and then planning to soak it in water. One of the people there was fascinated by the hat and would not accept that it was just a hat. But it was a hat. And a cool hat! It was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

We had fun. We spent a ton of money. We currently have 1800 pictures up for the brave — but I’ll post something weeded down in a few days. It was different. Different from going to the Caribbean. I think, yes, I would happily return to Alaska. It is much less psycho than it seems from the outside. People do not randomly claim they can see Russia from their house.*****  I would take a different trip. We’re more drinking and adventure people over drinking and shopping people. That’s something to consider on balance.

If I did another big cruise it would be with Princess as we were very pleased with the cruise overall but if I could afford it, I am tempted by the National Geographic offerings. I can recommend this trip. Except for Ketchikan, it was amazing.

The only sad thing was how obvious global climate change is up there. Go to Alaska and learn not to doubt.  A few of the glaciers are still growing but most are receding. They are growing apple trees on Kodiak Island.  See Alaska before it melts!


* I believe a few others have taken this trip this year. To which I say: we were past the mosquito season.
** I was informed I should be thankful about the lack of bears-in-the-wild.  Eric was damn well not leaving Alaska without a picture of a bear.
*** Later in Anchorage I would pick up a pamphlet that helped to identify real Native American arts from the stuff in the gift shops. I wish I had it when we started — not that I bought anything — but it would have helped. They have a special seal on the real things.
**** When the locals describe someone as “strange” it is time to run.
***** We were tempted to drive to Wassila. It’s only 40 miles outside of Anchorage. But it is way too far to see Russia from anywhere. That assertion is just dumb.

Summing up a little online Fiasco

To (Addison, fade), Eric pages: I am declaring a scene! It is time for John to learn about Heroin.
You paged (Eric, fade) with ‘YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY.’.
You paged (Eric, fade) with ‘Oh wait. Heroin is bad.’.
You paged (Eric, fade) with ‘BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.’.

(Fiasco is this totally awesome game by Jason Morningstar you should totally buy and play. Seriously.)

Update: You can read a log of Act I of our BEHIND THE MUSIC game here. At this rate, one of us is going to end up being a Wacky Commentator on a VH-1 retrospective show.

What the Hell?

I missed this new development over the weekend. Islam is not a religion and thus isn’t covered by Constitutional First Amendment protections? That must come as one hell of a surprise to the 1.5 billion adherents worldwide. When did this one start? Did I miss a memo?

It says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It does not matter if you consider it a religion or not*. As long as they consider it a religion, it’s a religion! I don’t believe certain religions in this country are any more than fancy cults with Voltron Castle-like buildings but that doesn’t mean I can get them to go away by wishing it so. In the US we all suffer together.

But after this offensive little bit of xenophobia and propaganda, I am off political blogs for… at least an hour. My stomach, it turned.

* United States v. Ballard, 1944

New Conspiracy Theory!*

How did I miss this one? Where were you people? You are supposed to keep me appraised! That’s your job!

Okay, there’s this awesome new conspiracy theory. I haven’t cobbled it entirely together but so far it involves:

1. The Social Security Department of the US Government;
2. The Federal Reserve;
3. The Royal Dutch House of Orange;
4. The Bilderberg Group;
5. Judaism (of course — it’s no good without Jews)

First, look at your social security card. It has a number on the back! When you’re born, you are secretly sold into slavery to a bank. That number tracks your potential life earnings. We are all collateral for the banks. That number is tracked by the Federal Reserve that then puts the money into evil overseas banks promptly depriving you of your Constitutional Rights. Sure, maybe that number has no meaning but how can a number on a card issued from the Government have no meaning!**

If you can end social security you will be free of this bank that owns your soul! And get back some money or something? I’m not clear on that part.

Here’s a good summary of the conspiracy theory I found over here:

I heard an urban legend that the red numbers on the back of the social security card are your EIN, employer ID number. If you’re just a regular John Doe citizen, you’re an employee of the US Corporation, and are in fact yourself a corporation. That’s why you use the number on the front, your employee ID number (SSN). Supposedly, if you have a replacement card issued to you, the number on the back will come in red ink, and you can use it to declare that you’re a soveriegn American and not a citizen OF the United States. Basically the red ink is supposed to symbolize flesh and blood human being. Consequently, corporate entities use black ink, and banks (which operate under the maritime admiralty law of the high seas) use blue to symbolize water. You could use the FedWorker’s explaination of the serial number on the blanks as actually taking ownership of the card. If you use the SSN on the front, that card, per the Social Security Act itself, is the property of the US govt. They can come along and confiscate it at any time, without any reason. Same is true for your SS benefits.

If you use the number on the back, the “tracking number for blank cards” printed in red ink, you’re claiming ownership of the card and the chattel property it represents. You are the chattel property. If you don’t, they “own” you. You’re their chattel property, and you’re being used as collateral on the bankruptcy the US Govt. filed to the international banking houses back in the 1930’s, the time of the great depression.

Then it sort of goes into conspiracy on how it is backed by British Banks in conjunction with the Bilderberg Group who are controlled by the Royal Dutch House of Orange who are, in turn, running an enormous drug cartel and are also, somehow, Jews. It gets sketchy after this point but I can find a few dozen permutations of this on the Internets. Go look it up! Google is your friend!

This is breathtakingly awesome.

Meanwhile, my minions are finding me MORE links:

1. A fun link about STRAWMAN.
2. More about STRAWMAN from a site with an extremely suspicious URL. Nation Wide Shopping Cart 4? Really? But this one is particularly good.
3. Another fine post about STRAWMAN. Now, with a graphic!

Note: I’m free because my card was laminated when I was small. I want to go hide in a small room and write a novel. A STRAWMAN novel. With us all trying to become free of the horrible Royal Dutch House of Orange!

Squee.

* People who know me — you know, YOU PEOPLE — know that I collect conspiracy theories as a hobby. I have several bookshelves full of nothing but books full of this stuff. I am so excited to learn a new one. OMG! I’m going to EXPLODE!

** Sadly, it turns out through some digging and cross-checking on the Internet that those numbers are paper inventory control. It’s called a sequential control number. There’s some reference to it re: Identity Theft. But perhaps that answer is a lie. A vicious, horrible lie!

Today in a Daily WTF

“Tea party” activists drawn to Williamsburg and its portrayal of Founding Fathers.

Amid the history buffs and parents with young children wandering along the crushed shell paths of Virginia’s restored colonial city, some noticeably angrier and more politically minded tourists can often be found.

They stand in the crowd listening closely as the costumed actors relive dramatic moments in the founding of our country. They clap loudly when an actor portraying Patrick Henry delivers his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. They cheer and hoot when Gen. George Washington surveys the troops behind the original 18th-century courthouse. And they shout out about the tyranny of our current government during scenes depicting the nation’s struggle for freedom from Britain.

“General, when is it appropriate to resort to arms to fight for our liberty?” asked a tourist on a recent weekday during “A Conversation with George Washington,” a hugely popular dialogue between actor and audience in the shaded backyard of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.

I’ve got nothing.

The 14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment is not getting amended or overturned. Not now, not tomorrow, and not ever. The hill to climb to ratify an amendment to the Constitution is monstrous. But Congress has to do something to keep itself busy. After all, there are no wars going on and the country isn’t in any sort of economic crisis!

In the last 20 years, from 1990 to present, Congress, one side or the other, has tried to repeal some or all of:

– the 26th Amendment
– the 2nd Amendment (to explicitly allow for bigger guns)
– the 22nd Amendment (to allow Reagan to run again!)
– the 16th Amendment
– the 8th Amendment — and replace it with explicit language for parking offenses!

I have heard:

– Obama is from Kenya and not an American;
– Al-Qaeda is impregnating women, sneaking them into the US, making them have their babies, and then whisking the babies off to Al-Qaeda training camps*;
– Single, pregnant Mexican women are sneaking over the border to have babies so they can get themselves access to some fine US welfare better known as the noxious term “anchor babies”;
– They themselves are not recipients of the 14th Amendment because Native Americans are all old, white xenophobes and none of their ancestors ever settled here without proper documentation.

This round of hatred from the Republican mouthbreathers is putting me on edge. Instead of sneaking in xenophobic hatred of “the Other” into debate or commercials or television clips on Fox News, they’re holding hearings on modifying the Constitution. Sure it’s election year posturing but it sets my teeth on edge. Maybe we should go back to former slaves not allowed to become citizens of the United States? Let’s get back to our true Conservative roots. All hail Dred Scott!

Yes, I am aware of the immigration problem in this country. Yes, I also am aware of the economic disparity between two countries that share a border. No, this is not the way to discuss it. Xenophobic hissy fits turn my stomach. It used to be Jews and Italians and Eastern Europeans and Former Slaves and African Americans. The flavor of the week are people from the South.

I also know xenophobia and hatred of “the Other” is a favorite horse to flog during major economic downturns. See re: Eastern Europeans and the Great Depression. Someone who is weak and powerless must be to blame. We cannot go after the powerful, those truly at fault, so we’ll go after the weakest and least protected. Whipping up constituents over issues with no possible delivery is a great way to make short term electoral gains.

I watch this process and I’m always relieved that Alexander Hamilton hated people and James Madison felt the unwashed American masses weren’t properly qualified to tinker with the Constitution. The hill to climb to make any modifications is steep. We’ve screwed it up pretty badly once — see Prohibition — but after the Bill of Rights, we’ve only managed to amend the Constitution 17 times in 250 years.

Also, I heard that the 14th Amendment is giving gays the rights to marry, so it’s all good here today. Yay Abraham Lincoln!

* This is my favorite tin foil hat conspiracy theory going around.

Links on the Prop 8 Decision

Nate Silver has some analysis on Ted Olsen and the conservative dynamics as this goes up to the Supreme Court (which it will).

Dahlia Lithwick on Slate calls it a brilliant decision.

Interesting commentary from Orin Kerr (and others) over on the Volokh Conspiracy here and here and here and here.

Some facts from the case on the Atlantic.

The NY Times Subject to Debate website on the gay marriage decision which has several essays worth reading.

There’s lots of stuff everywhere but this seems the least mouthbreather of the lot.