I read two supernatural books this week that were/are bestsellers, and I found them both curiously flawed. One was Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which was a kind of grittier Harry Potter with weirdly cold sex, and the other Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping. Spoilers ahead.
The Magicians confused me because the book kept shape-shifting on me, first the story of a whiny nerd at a magic boarding school/college who is such a mystery to his teachers that they can’t discern what his magic major should be, then a dissolute young graduate acting like an arrogant jackass in the city (graduates without a major, so forget that plot point), and then the plot takes a stagger sideways and makes the protagonist a destined hero fighting in a fantasy land. I would have bought any of the three worlds–Grossman’s versions of Hogwarts College, New York City, and Narnia–but the protagonist doesn’t transition through the three worlds, he lunges. The protagonist also did something horrible to somebody who loved him, then became sociopathically outraged when the loved one returned the favor (because it was completely different when he did it than when it was done to him), and then the writer fridged the only character I cared about to give the protagonist man pain. I will give Grossman a lot of credit for just going for it throughout, no plot move too insane, because that takes guts. I just want some coherent structure there, a little foreshadowing to smooth out the lurches. A throwaway paramedic character and an obscure supernatural visitor turn out to be the key players, but each of them has only one scene near the beginning, and after that it’s a picaro plot until the two of them show up again at the end. And I did read it to the end, so I’m torn about how I felt about it, obviously the book is readable, but I think the proof is in the fact that it’s a trilogy and I have no interest in following Quentin through two more books.
I have a lot of interest in following Peter Grant through Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, which is why I pre-ordered Lies Sleeping, the seventh Peter Grant book, and I’ll probably buy the next one, too, but if it has the same problems as this one, that’ll be the end. Like Quentin, Peter is an apprentice magician, not in college but in the small supernatural branch of the London Met. The first book in the series, Rivers of London, renamed Midnight Riot in the US, is fantastic. After that the books vary in quality but not in imagination: they’re fast-paced stories full of vivid characters in intricate plots with excellent antagonists. (There’s one where Peter ends up Faerieland that I felt had a lousy ending, but then I thought Quentin endings up in Faerieland was lousy, too, so take my criticism there with a grain of salt; I may just be anti-Faerie.)
. Any push to the plot is kneecapped by the shifts in story intensity and Peter’s interminable lectures on London architecture and Roman history. I have no problem with the way previous books dropped this kind of info into the narrative because he didn’t go on forever and the information was always relevant. Here the relevant information is drowned in the pages of crap that Peter spouts. Why any of these characters spend time with is beyond me; a guy who was once smart and charming has become the guy at parties who stands by the bean dip to give you the history of legumes.
The one weakness of the premise which Aaronovitch has navigated well before is that the stories really need back story of history and mythology. Previously, Peter was swotting up on this stuff so we found out about when he found out about it; his research was part of his sleuthing. In Lies Sleeping, Peter just bores the reader with stuff he already knows that the he feels reader should know; I kept waiting for him to say, “And there’ll be a quiz at the end of the chapter.” That results in any push to the plot being kneecapped by Peter’s interminable lectures on London architecture and Roman history, the miscellaneous stuff drowning the relevant information the reader needs to understand the underwhelming climax. It also results in a lot of skimming. Why any of the interesting returning characters spend time with Peter is beyond me; a guy who was once smart and charming has become the jerk at parties who stands by the bean dip and gives you the history of legumes.
An even bigger problem is the way the plot heaves and subsides in tension. After six books, the Martin the Big Bad is on the run. Everybody knows who he is and what he looks like so is mystique is gone. He’s still a powerful magician, but at this point, so is Peter, and the Folly is full of powerful magicians since they’ve added the Russian who tried to kill them and little Abigail. They know Martin is doing big magic and they discover the physical object he needs to do his magic and destroy it. Then somebody says, gee, maybe he had two of those made, so they find another one and destroy it. Then they think, gee, maybe he had THREE of those . . . . The story wants us to believe we have a Big Bad that’s probably going to destroy London, a magician of incredible power (established in previous books but not in this one), but the danger isn’t so great that Peter can’t take a weekend off to go to a fair (which, to be fair, he pretty much had to since the river gods were throwing the party) in which everybody has a wonderful time and nobody’s tense or worried. Martin must have been taking that weekend off, too. Peter gets kidnapped and spends a week reading the Simarillon and posing for his guard before he escapes. The Tolkien never plays a part in the plot (although I was skimming a lot by then so I might have missed a connection) but he makes many references to the story anyway which like much of the architecture lectures are completely irrelevant. When he gets out, which of course the reader knows he will, he’s the protagonist, not much has changed on the outside; everybody must have been sitting around waiting for him to get back. It’s the weirdest book of the series because all of strengths of the previous books are gone. There are no new fascinating characters becausethere so many old fascinating characters (glass houses, Jenny) who do nothing new and are therefore much less interesting. Lesley is still doing her Lesley thing; Guleed is still being quietly snarky in her hijab; Nightingale is still the cool, wise mentor; Abigail is still talking to foxes and winning the most-likely-to-replace-Peter-as-the protagonist vote. None of them change during the story, including Peter, which pretty much tells you that none of the events of the story (which when we finally get to them are spectacular) had much of an impact on the characters. That’s a bad, bad thing in storytelling.
Aaronovitch established a rich world through the previous six books but he bobbled this one, and I think he knew it because at the end of the book, he throws in a creaky plot device that I think is supposed to leave the reader thinking, “Oh, no!” My reaction was, “I don’t believe it.” Peter is one of the most important cops in this world, protected by an extremely powerful mentor, doing a job that the rest of the Met doesn’t want anything to do with. At this point in the series, Peter should be untouchable, but if the writer hadn’t professionally fridged him, the reader would have been left with the same world the book started in (nobody changes, nothing is lost, although props for bookending this book with the beginning of the first book). I’ll still buy the next Peter Grant book because Aaronovitch has delivered so many times before, but I doubt I’ll read this one again. It’s definitely the weakest of the seven.
So what have you been reading this weekend?
(Also, Bujold’s Paladin of Souls was BookBubbed yesterday for $1.99 on Amazon and Apple, and I’m assuming it’ll be at that price today. Excellent book, but then Bujold is always excellent.)