Imaginative and unpredictable: Keith Rosson’s Smoke City

This book is mad. And I mean that in the best way. I don’t think I’ve read anything this imaginative or unpredictable in a long time. Smoke City has three interweaving narratives. Fistly, we have the story of Mike Vale, a self-destructive, alcoholic, washed-up artist. Secondly, we have Marvin Deitz, an unassuming record shop owner, who’s trying to convince his therapist he only has one week left to live. Finally, we have the mysterious spectres (smokes) who are appearing all over the country – silent, insubstantial, vaguely ominous. By the way, Marvin is also the reincarnation of Geoffroy, the man responsible for the death of Joan of Arc. The book traverses the 15th and 21st century, as we learn about Geoffroy’s experiences of executing and torturing: “The prisoners themselves became interchangeable. Bodies were interchangeable. There was little to differentiate one man from the next; such was the raw honesty of the flesh.”

Smoke City Keith Rosson

I spent much of the first part of the novel wondering how on earth all of these rather disparate storylines would weave together. Even though I was unsure of where the story was heading, I felt in safe hands, as Keith Rosson’s writing is just fantastic. It’s not every author who can cover the topics of death, torture, and art, and do so in a way that’s lyrical and vivid. His descriptions of the troubled lives of Mike, Marvin, and Marvin’s previous life, Geoffroy, are raw, brutal, and honest. In these two (two and a half?) characters, we have some of the least appealing protagonists I have perhaps come across. A reincarnated torturer and executioner. An artist whose reliance on alcohol has lead him to betray himself and those closest to him. And yet Rosson’s brilliance is in getting the reader to empathise with these characters, even cheer them on their way.

When those storylines finally weave together, it’s eminently satisfying. Everything finally makes sense. Of course this book is about a failed artist, ghosts, and a reincarnated executioner. What else would I want to read about?

Favourite quotation: “I was intimately familiar with death and its equations. I had long been intimate with the stilled architecture of the corpse. The decay, the sugary-sweet stink of it all, the odor like a mixture of shit and rotten fruit. The primacy of rotted meat. The simple subtraction of animation pulled from a body, a face. Doing all I had done throughout the centuries, I knew death. I wanted it. I sought it, courted it. And yet none of that mattered when I stepped onto the fourth floor. There, I raged against death, I leaned snarling against it.”

Keith Rosson, Smoke City (Meerkat Press, 2018)

I received a free advance copy of this book via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. 


Quotation of the month – Italo Calvino on how books change our lives

Mr Palomar is a collection of philosophical meditations, as beautifully written as they are stylistically inventive. This is a quotation about books and about life, and how we construct our own narrative. But it particularly appeals to me because I’ve always been fascinated by how a book can mean something completely different to you depending on when you read it. When I first tried to read Gwyneth Lewis’s Sunbathing in the Rain I gave up after a couple of chapters. Her writing about her experiences with depression was simply too raw, too painfully real, for me to continue. When I returned to it later, I found it full of hope. That second time, it quite honestly changed my life.

Italo Calvino's Mr Palomar

“A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but rather corresponds to an inner architecture. A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, ‘How could I have lived without having read it!’ and also, ‘What a pity I did not read it in my youth!’ Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading also assumes a form shaped by that reading.” – Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar – The meditations of Palomar: Learning to be dead

Adventures in Archives: Soundscapes and Tissue Paper

I have only been a volunteer for a few weeks, but I am already convinced that Milton Keynes Museum is an idyllic place to work. Sat in my ivory tower, poring over the intimate details of stubbed toes, lacerated fingers, and traumatic orchitis (yes, really), I am kept company by the unique soundscape of the museum. The rumble of excitement as the museum opens and children pile into the Victorian Garden below my window, the mellow oompahs and chiming melodies emanating from the music room a few rooms away from my own. I punctuate this soundtrack with a few interjections of my own whenever I encounter something particularly interesting, or, more often, when I need help.

WWO 19 Wolverton Railway Works accident record book label.jpg
Cover of Accident Record Book from 1909-1910 (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/19)

This soundtrack accompanies me as I continue my work listing the accident record books of Wolverton Railway Works. Each of the books has been attended to and ordered by an unknown person, meaning that they’re roughly kept in chronological order, with the dates each book was in use written on a label on the front. The books themselves, dating from the late nineteenth century onwards, are quite fragile, with very thin pages, and disintegrating leather bindings. So someone has gone to great lengths to wrap each book in tissue paper. This is a mixed blessing. As we’ve all experienced, there’s a thrill to unwrapping an item in order to find out precisely what’s inside. But while these tissue paper parcels might have me thinking romantic and faintly idiotic thoughts like “making a present out of the past…”, in reality, it’s really annoying. I’m not sure how much protection this paper is giving since the books are kept in sturdy boxes. The tape used to secure the paper has sometimes been stuck to the books themselves, meaning I inevitably cause slight damage just trying to get at the books’ contents. I work in fear of those tiny ripping noises that accompany the unwrapping, especially as the pages themselves are tracing-paper thin.


edit Wolverton Railway Works beautiful calligraphy WWO-29 edit p.194 1919.jpg
Copperplate writing from 1919 (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/29, p.194)

Once inside, the books are as far removed from my expectations of accident record books as could be. My own experience of accident record books normally involves illegible biro scrawls in a notebook from Poundland. But these books are, well, beautiful. Marbled covers, faded with age. Maroon leather bindings. Careful cursive lettering. It is clear that huge care went into creating these record books, not just in their appearance, but in the level of detail recorded: the number of hours someone was on duty before they were injured, what equipment they were supplied with, what lighting conditions there were. Was this detail essential for Wolverton Works to protect themselves against potential lawsuits and compensation claims? But if the books were purely functional, why make them beautiful? And despite their flimsy pages, it feels like these books were meant to last.

WWO38 Wolverton Railway Works accident book disintegrating cover.jpg
Front cover of an Accident Record Book from 1925-26 (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/38)

As I continue listing the books, more questions than answers emerge. So far I’ve only covered about 30 years’ worth of books (38 records in total), so perhaps more will become clear as I go along. With each book consisting of 1000 pages, there’s certainly a lot of information to be unearthed.

Part One of Adventures in Archives: Milton Keynes Museum
Milton Keynes Museum website




Adventures in Archives: Milton Keynes Museum

Within the museum, there is a cellar. Within the cellar, there is a cupboard. Within the cupboard there are many boxes. Within these boxes there are books. And within these books? Well, within these books are listed the accidents that occurred at Wolverton Railway Works from the late 19th century onwards. Yep, Accident Record Books. Anti-climactic? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. I have no special interest in railways, beyond a long-held love of The Railway Children. I have no particular knowledge of accidents or their records (although I am insufferably proud I recently trained in First Aid). I certainly didn’t expect then, that within a few hours spent with these books, I’d be addicted. The thing is, these books aren’t just about railways, or accidents. They’re about people. Everything about these books, from the different hands painstakingly or hurriedly writing in the pages, to the accounts of the accidents themselves, tell stories about people.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been entrusted with listing these books, in the hope that Milton Keynes Museum can gain a better understanding of what their archive holds. This basically entails me going through each accident record book to figure out when it was in use, what details are included in its pages, and giving it a reference number. I also have to be aware of who created them, which for the most part, at the moment, is the London and North Western Railway Company.

I’ve been interested in working in archives for a long time, but this is my first real taste. Thanks to the patience of the Museum’s Archivist, I’ve already learned a huge amount. This includes really basic things, like the need to support pages when you’re turning them, or how to use a book sofa to protect the book’s spine. From my experience cataloguing medieval manuscripts as part of my Masters degree I already knew wearing white gloves (unless you’re working with photographs or need to protect yourself from dirt) was a useless fantasy perpetuated by the media. But I didn’t know that archivists had an ideal pencil. It’s a 2B—dark enough to see, soft enough to erase without leaving a mark. There’s a lot to think about, but this at least is easy for me to remember, thanks to my childhood obsession with a rhyme by Spike Milligan:

Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
I’ll draw a sketch of thee.
What kind of pencil shall I use?
2B or not 2B?

I also have to be reigned back on my enthusiasm when it comes to bits of paper. Coming across a crumpled bit of paper tucked between the leaves, I cautiously unfolded it, and found it was covered in scrawlings of various numbers. What could it be? Vital statistics about the lives or limbs lost at the works? A code concealing railway secrets? It was a bookmark, and I was gently dissuaded from creating a separate record for it.

Through these books, I’ve seen 30 years of history from a unique perspective. I find myself lingering over the pages in search of particular names, or trying to decipher faded ink to figure out exactly what happened in a certain incident. I’m already getting attached to various characters who crop up more often than others. I never particularly understood the craze for genealogy, but now I’m totally hooked—and these people aren’t even my family.

Part Two of Adventures in Archives: Soundscapes and Tissue Paper
For more information about Milton Keynes Museum, please visit their website.

In Defence of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This is not a great way of beginning a review, but I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about this film. I don’t have anything insightful or witty to add to the plethora of reviews. I just feel it’s important for someone to say something positive about this epic, beautiful, engrossing film. There are a lot of negative reviews out there, with the film gaining only 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 2 out of 5 stars in both The Guardian and Empire. And it looks like these have had a negative impact on the public—according to Nathan Rabin, as of 4th August, the film had only made back a fifth of its $177m budget in box office takings worldwide. And I think that’s immensely sad, because I absolutely loved this film.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gold.jpg

It’s epic, in every sense. Its scope is huge, conceptually and physically. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special operatives charged with preserving order across the 28th century universe. They travel across galaxies to prevent a threat deep in Alpha—a city that is an amalgamation of a thousand planets, where different species have converged to share knowledge and culture. This alone should be praised as a wonderful celebration of diversity in a time of fear of difference. We visit an inter-dimensional market, see a shape-shifting burlesque show, get suckered in by a telepathic jellyfish. If it sounds mad, that’s because it absolutely is. Mad and beautiful. An alien race with pearl-like skin. Treacherous luminous butterflies. Valerian catapulting through dozens of Alpha regions in the blink of an eye.

Valerian pearl people

Is the pacing a little off? Yes. On one occasion the tension is cranked up to breaking point, only to be interrupted by Rihanna playing a shape-shifting dancer—Cabaret plus aliens. Meanwhile Laureline is in the middle of a life-threatening situation that is more farcical than frightening. And after this quick burlesque/comedy break, we’re back to ratcheting up the tension. But that scene with Rihanna is just mesmerising, so I forgave Luc Besson immediately.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Am I invested in the romance? No. And maybe the reviews are right, the chemistry leaves something to be desired and the romantic dialogue is as corny as can be. But I wasn’t there for romance. I was there for two people uncovering a genocidal plot and saving multiple alien races across the universe.

Why does every film have to be something slick, to get us straight from point A to point B? Why does it have to be polished within an inch of its life, spoonfeeding the audience with the requisite action and romance sequences? I often had no idea where Valerian was taking me, but I was totally happy to strap in for the ride. Isn’t there something to be said for sitting back and enjoying a breathtaking, imaginative, well-crafted spectacle with the most mind-blowing world-building we’ve seen in a long time? Robbie Collin has put it far better than I could: “Valerian is a film to wallow in, not follow, and if you’re tuned to its extra-terrestrial wavelength, you wouldn’t cut a second.” Let’s learn to wallow a bit more.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Julius runs an independent bookshop in rural Oxfordshire and, listening to his customers’ woes and desires, acts as an informal therapist. When he dies he leaves a hole in the community and in the heart of his daughter, Emilia. She must decide whether to keep the bookshop open or let her father’s dreams die with him.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop Veronica Henry.jpeg

Reading How to Find Love in a Bookshop was much like eating a slice of homemade chocolate cake. It’s sweet and self-indulgent; a slice of comfort-reading that might not be very nutritious but leaves you feeling warm and satisfied.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop consists of multiple romantic storylines which all link in some way to the bookshop. And when I say multiple, I mean multiple: there are at least seven different relationships. Told in the third person from the perspective of several distinct voices, it’s a short book at only 367 pages. Given how many different stories those few pages cover, it’s not surprising that it’s a fairly surface-level read. It’s also relatively sedate – there is little drama or tension other than the question of whether Emilia will keep the bookshop open. Even this is only one of several storylines, so the tension is lost in a sea of other stories. But each character even without much page-time is well-rounded, relatable, and the dialogue is great. It’s impressive we get to know the characters and care about them as much as we do.

It’s also wonderful to read a book that just oozes passion about books.  One character asks another, “Have you got a book about a man who takes ages to realise the person he loves has been right under his nose all along?” “There’s loads of those…” she responds (p.359). It’s a wonderfully self-reflexive moment. “Fine,” Henry seems to be saying, “I may not be doing anything new. But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it well and I just know how much you’re enjoying it.” Henry herself notes in the suggestions at the back of the book, “For me, the title is more thematic than specific – the idea you will always find something to love in a book shop. It’s about a love of books and reading as much as romance. Books will never let you down: they are there to provide escape, comfort, inspiration…What’s not to love?” (p.373)

Favourite quotation: “So that was why people read. Because books explained things: how you thought, how you behaved, and made you realise you were not alone in doing what you did or feeling what you felt.” (p.297)

How to Find Love in a Book Shop, Veronica Henry (Orion Books, 2016)

The Pursuit of Happiness by Ruth Whippman

A cynical Brit moves to America and finds that everyone seems to be obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. She examines what happiness means, how various people are trying to attain it, and whether the pursuit of happiness is making everyone feel worse than they would otherwise.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman

Each chapter addresses a different way in which people search for happiness, including religion, family, work, and social media. Whippman’s main goal seems to be dismantle the various ways in which Americans choose to pursue happiness. Each chapter seems to follow a rough trajectory of: Whippman suspicious of latest happiness fad, Whippman tests out fad, Whippman finds potentially interesting grain of truth buried deep within fad, Whippman successfully debunks pseudo-science of fad. It’s more an amusing travelogue than a ‘how to’ guide. The book perhaps didn’t uncover the profound truths I was hoping would revolutionise my own search for happiness, but it was still an engaging and interesting read.

My favourite moments included her assessment of social media, where the emphasis is not on how happy you are, but how happy you look: “we live in the era of the curated life” (p.197). I also enjoyed her investigation of the Landmark Forum, a personal development program in which you pay to have your understanding of yourself torn apart in front of an audience. You’re told that essentially, if you’re not happy, it’s all your fault. Whippman notes, “Buried deep within this unpleasant showpiece is an interesting idea. It is true that all of us are constantly constructing interpretations of the events in our lives, and failing to recognise that these are not facts…But I can’t help thinking that the stories we tell ourselves are built up over years, crafted for complex psychological reasons” (pp.50-1). Having a stranger tear apart those stories in front of an audience then, Whippman concludes, is perhaps not the best way to achieve happiness.

I was also morbidly fascinated by her account of Tony Hsieh, a CEO who attempts to eliminate the boundaries between work and play. After selling his company, Zappos, to Google, he turned his hand to city planning. He purchased the 60-acre site of Downtown Las Vegas, aiming to turn it into a start-up city; a manufactured, utopian community where work and life were not considered separate. He pitched the idea as “playing SimCity in real life” (pp.93-4). People were allowed to join the Downtown Project if they were the kind of person Hsieh would like to have a beer with, not if they had a flawless business plan. Key to the plan was the way people interacted. Hsieh developed a system of measuring “collisions” (i.e. interactions between people). The more collisions, Hsieh and his team thought, the happier and more productive the community. They came up with ways of manufacturing more collisions, by making places hard to get to so people would have to bump into each other, including moving around key shops so that people would constantly have to take new routes (this idea, at least, turned out to be too impractical). They even measured the results by tracking people’s mobile phones, mapping their residents’ movements without their knowledge. The project doesn’t seem to have had the impact Hsieh was hoping for – Whippman writes that Dowtown is now mostly deserted.

There’s so much to like, even love, about this book. The pursuit of happiness, in its myriad forms, is a fascinating topic, and Whippman’s approach to it is rigorous, uncompromising, and wryly funny. I did have a few minor quibbles. Whippman’s book occupies that uneasy boundary between the academic and the popular. Her work is clearly well researched and thoughtful, though perhaps a little biased. It’s also very accessible and easy to read. Sometimes, though, I felt it leaned rather unnecessarily towards the accessible end of things. An example of this was the ends of chapters. Each chapter ends on a little cliffhanger, introducing the topic of the next chapter, for example: “But the deeper I get into middle-class Californian parenting articles, the more I start to notice some rather strange behaviour going on.” (p.118). It’s a little, well, dramatic. It felt like a Dan Brown-style hook to keep the reader turning the pages. It had the reverse effect on me.

My other minor quibble was with the final chapter. Having spent the entire book debunking the search for happiness, and the previous chapter obliterating the positive psychology movement, the book ends on an anti-climax. Whippman almost does an about-turn, essentially saying, ‘but I’m settling into America and it’s all good really and yay, happiness’. It’s an uplifting note to end on, sure, but it doesn’t fit with the cynical tone of the rest of the book. It felt a little jarring.

Whippman’s conclusions, though, were optimistic, if not groundbreaking. Happiness, she finds, “depends on other people” (p.32). The importance of community is a thread which is woven through each chapter. One of her most comforting insights emerges as she debunks the aims of the positive psychology movement: “Happiness is so individualised and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences and personality quirks – that anything averaged out over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.” (p.221). No one, not the positive psychologists, not the Landmark Forum, our Facebook friends, or Tony Hsieh, can tell us what our own individual brand of happiness should look like. So maybe we should stop worrying about it so much.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman (Hutchinson, 2016)


Quotation of the Week – Caitlin Moran, again, On Books, again

Yes, Caitlin Moran was the source of my last quotation of the week. And yes, I’m aware that my “quotation of the week” feature happens about once a month, at most. But since my ambition/optimism dwarfs my sense of reality, “quotation of the week” it shall remain. And look, I actually read something by Caitlin Moran this time, instead of just listening to her talk. Ok, I didn’t read the whole book, but sometimes you just need to read a chapter to know that it’s great. And a quotation this brilliant, on such an important topic, had to be added to the collection. Enjoy.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. One a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’. A mall — the shops — are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.”

Caitlin Moran, Moranthology (Ebury Press, 2012), p.211.

Books with pink covers – Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes

Ever the admirer of Desert Island Discs, I found myself listening to Marian Keyes one day. I’d never read any of her books, but writers talking about life and books and music has to be one of my favourite things, so I gave the episode my full attention. I was captured by how warmly and openly she spoke about mental health and addiction and how this finds its way into her writing. Early on, she talks about being pigeon-holed as a “popular” writer, and Kirsty Young asks her why she thinks she’s put in such categories:

“Because I’m a woman. And because, for good or for ill, lots of women enjoy my books, and they relate to them. And in my own little way I feel that they are quite empowering. And I think that anything that empowers women […] has to be slapped down. And so if we like something, by telling us it’s rubbish, it makes us feel a bit silly for having liked it in the first place. And I know so many men will be listening to this and thinking, ‘that’s not true’. But it absolutely is true. […] I am very proud of the books I write and the reach that they have. I’m prepared to put up with a pink cover if it makes me more accessible. I don’t see anything wrong with being accessible. It would sadden me to write a book that was only read by seven people. It’s that choice. But it means then that I am patronised, and categorised as […] not terribly clever.” (5:40-7:40)

Guiltily, I remembered how doggedly I avoid any book with a pink cover. “My God,” I thought, “I’m part of the problem.” My solution: to immediately go out and acquire a book by Marian Keyes. Lacking the funds necessary for a trip to the bookshop, I set off to my local library. I found three books by Keyes. This Charming Man was just too pink. I baulked. The Woman who Stole my Life seemed an improvement, but didn’t immediately grab me. The final book I found was Sushi for Beginners. Not too pink, and about editing, a topic I love reading about. Perfect! The editing of a women’s magazine, to be sure, but better than nothing. It’s also a decidedly thick book at 564 pages. I took this as a good sign.

Sushi for Beginners Marian Keyes

During the first few pages I was nervous. The women in the book talked a lot about shoes and make-up. Horoscopes were mentioned. I was out of my depth and dangerously close to becoming judgmental. I can spot the precise moment Keyes converted me. It didn’t even take long. 18 pages, in fact. “Trix…had the glittery, luscious-sticky look of a devotee of the more-is-more school of slapplication.” I laughed aloud, disrupting my fellow quiet café-goers with my unrestrained mirth. Soon I found myself abandoning the other book I was reading (The Long War) in favour of Sushi for Beginners. Me! Abandoning science fiction for women’s fiction? What was happening to me?

The short answer is that I had discovered that not all women’s fiction has to have bland, stock characters, or predictable storylines. Keyes’s writing is witty and knowing, accessible but not patronising. And the characters are just so likeable. At numerous stages I found myself wishing I were their friend, or thinking, “other people feel like this? I didn’t know!” Yes, the characters talk about men and handbags and lipstick. But they also talk about depression and homelessness. Even the obsession with horoscopes has a genuine, character-driven reason for being there. It’s about the character’s need for control and order, growing out of her disordered, disrupted childhood. It’s not just, “because she’s a woman. And women who read books with pink covers like horoscopes”. Here’s one of my favourite moments of Keyes putting into words those feelings that don’t get talked about:

“She was surprised to find she was happy to be with a crowd and happy to be on its edges. Such contentment was rare: all Ashling knew was that she almost never felt whole. Even at her most fulfilled, something remained forever absent, right at her very core. Like the tiny, pinprick dot that remained in the wash of black when the telly used to shut down for the night. But tonight she was calm and peaceful, alone but not lonely.” (p.45).

There are so many insightful moments like this. Moments that hold a mirror up to your life, for better and worse, and then tell you it’s all ok.

Not all the characters are likeable. They are real people, bitchy, selfish, and they make mistakes. One of the characters ends the novel learning that not all of those mistakes can be forgiven. It shocked me that one of the main characters didn’t end up with the rose-tinted (pink) ending that I was expecting. It stayed with me for quite some time.

My name’s Anouska. I’m a feminist, and I like books with pink covers.

Favourite quotation: “He didn’t know much about girls’ hair, but he had a feeling that it was usually more elaborate than this one’s. Wasn’t it normal to have a kind of interfered look to it? Surely it shouldn’t just hang there on her shoulders, being brown?” p.20.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Marian Keyes, Desert Island Discs’, BBC Radio 4, 17 Mar 2017 [accessed 25 April 2017]
Marian Keyes, Sushi for Beginners (Michael Joseph, 2000)

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians follows the standard fantasy arc of: boy discovers magic is real, boy goes to magical school, boy and friends visit magical worlds and have magical adventures. But the difference here is that Quentin Coldwater is as angst-ridden a teenager as you’ll ever come across. This is not just a book about magical adventures, but the sex- and alcohol-fuelled adventures of growing up. The concept of a mopey, depressed hero who is constantly dissatisfied with life is one I find rather appealing. Add magic into the mix, and I figured Lev Grossman was onto a winning combination. However, on reading The Magicians I found myself disappointed at every page turn.

TheMagicians by Lev Grossman

Grossman is deeply indebted to various other fantasy franchises, and is hyper-aware of this. His central character, Quentin, constantly compares his own magical experiences with a series of children’s books he never quite grew out of – the “Fillory” books by Christopher Plover (which are modelled on C. S. Lewis’s Narnia). The Magicians felt to me like it lacked really detailed world creation. I feel like I could ask J. K. Rowling any question about how magic functions in her world, and she’d be able to give me a detailed answer, probably with citations of magical academics of her own invention. I’m not sure Grossman would be able to do the same. What lore there is seems to have been borrowed from other sources. Grossman writes in depth about the various allusions in The Magicians:
“I had a rule for myself with The Magicians, which was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in the Magiciansverse. So for example, even though the characters go to a college for magic, I also thought that they all should have read Harry Potter. Inevitably little references to him creep into their conversation. I didn’t go overboard with it, because that would have gotten too cute and meta. I just thought it was realistic. Like Hermione hasn’t read the Narnia books a million times! But she never talks about it.”
I get it, I do, it’s a good rule. But the fact that Grossman has to break his own rule about Narnia, because he’s borrowed so much, just undermines it. To be fair, he admits this himself: “(Though if I’m being honest, I broke my own rule with Narnia. In the Magiciansverse, C.S. Lewis was never born. If he had he and Christopher Plover would have collapsed into each other and formed a space-time singularity. Which would be cool in a different way. But that would have been a whole other novel.)”

Despite his borrowing, Grossman seems to buck the trend by creating a hero/anti-hero who is not ‘chosen’ to contribute to a cause greater than himself. Grossman, then, is attempting to do something really interesting – creating an almost anti-fantasy novel. But his indebtedness to the books he’s attempting to rewrite just undermines his attempts. He invites comparisons with Rowling, C. S. Lewis and others, and does not come out on top. Unfortunately his writing often comes off as heavy-handed fan-fiction.

There was a lot to like about Grossman’s prose style. But I felt it was spoiled by his obsession with being ‘gritty’ (gratuitous arctic fox sex, anyone?). The other problem I had with The Magicians is the narrative itself. It is told in a series of anecdotes, or vignettes – with the first four or so years of Quentin’s magical education crammed into the first half of the novel. Any time you think the story is going somewhere, following a traditional story arc, the incident is abruptly closed off, unresolved. (This is perhaps also because of its ‘anti-fantasy’ leanings – because Quentin hasn’t been ‘chosen’, there is no driving force.) An example of this is in the magical “discipline” each student has a particular aptitude for, determined during the first few years of the student’s magical education. After the standard tests, Quentin’s discipline remains undetermined. It’s intriguing, and one of the occasions I finally thought the novel would have a sense of purpose. But after Quentin is temporarily assigned a discipline for the purposes of teaching, it’s never mentioned again. It creates no further tension or interest. After not being mentioned at all, it’s brought up in the last few pages of the book, as a bizarrely underwhelming cliffhanger.

The lack of direction certainly reflects Quentin’s meandering attitude to his own life, but it makes for uncomfortable reading. Most of these incidences are wrapped up in the final quarter of the novel, but by the time they are, I’d stopped caring, when I could even remember that far back. The loose ends, or most of them, are tied up. The pay-off, when it comes, is nearly worthwhile. But for me it was undermined by Grossman fairly immediately afterwards brutally killing off one of the main characters. Any sense of satisfaction at the resolution is immediately replaced by a sense of futile emptiness. It’s almost like Grossman is aware of the escapism we readers crave, which Quentin craves, and has decided to punish us for it. It’s clever, and I won’t deny it had an emotional impact on me (beyond frustration). But it results in a deeply unsatisfying read.