On writing fantasy: it's Narnia business


I got a fancy education (Harvard) and then a fancier one (Yale).

-1 Flamebait

Anyway, sounds like this fellow never read the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever.

That´s about the same way I feel reading (most) fantasy.

It’s unfortunate that such an articulate writer created such an unlikable main character. Quentin Coldwater is grotesque parody of an intellectual - a supremely privileged egotist, who routinely whines about how difficult his life is.

Despite Grossman’s erudition, The Magicians is a master class in how not to write fantasy. Every interesting idea is either underdeveloped or undercut by a banal execution, every sympathetic character is sacrificed in favor of the shithead protagonist. The book ends with Quentin learning nothing and presumably growing up to the magical equivalent of an investment banker.

1 Like

Good point about the main character: Quentin is deeply flawed and more than a little difficult to sympathize with. I have never enjoyed a book with a main character I didn’t like.

However, I can’t go along with the idea that he learns nothing from his adventures. Most of the story is Quentin loosing his illusions about life: he’s not an outstanding magician, he’s not able to find an easy path into adulthood, Fillory in a lot of ways isn’t a very nice place, his carelessness in assuming it is causes death and grave injury. Things that he, in the later books, attempts to make amends for.

I routinely enjoy novel with disreputable, shady, or even downright villainous protagonists, but they need to either be sympathetic in some way or I fully expect the author to understand that they are unsympathetic (and therefore not expect me to like them). Lev Grossman doesn’t seem to get that. He wants the reader to identify with Quentin, but Quentin is an irredeemable piece of shit nobody should want to identify with.

His actions only seem to have negative consequences for other characters. He acts like a dick toward pretty much everyone who befriends him. He indirectly kills a student by letting Martin Chatwin into Brakebills. He is arbitrarily cruel to Alice (who would have made a much better main character, by the way) and eventually gets her killed too.

…and he gets away with it. Maybe he feels bad about what he’s done, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t sympathize with him, so I don’t care about his feelings. Perhaps Quentin becomes more tolerable in the sequels, but I don’t think I’d take the risk to find out.

The frustrating thing is that a Harry Potter/Narnia mash-up, populated with real people, rather than fantasy archetypes, is a pretty cool idea. In the hands of a master satirist, such as Terry Pratchett, it could have been both hilarious and insightful. Unfortunately, it turns out to be neither.

1 Like

I almost quit “The Magicians” halfway through because I was so irritated with Quentin’s self-pitying manchild narcissism, combined with the fact that once again, the core set of characters “just happens” to be white, and most everyone is drawn in incredibly vague strokes (what do we know about Josh, other than that he’s fat? And eventually grows a beard?).

1 Like

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do about that. Fantasy is very conservative (not even necessarily politically), so that the work most representative of the genre is about straight white men saving the world by stabbing things with swords. Presumably, this is because writers cater to the perceived target demographic (see also: comics, video games), or maybe it’s Tolkien’s fault. I can’t decide which.

We should start some sort of list of fantasy that isn’t about straight white folks. (I actually think women are pretty well-represented at most tiers of fantasy; it seems to attract more female readers and writers than sci-fi does.)

How about Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains? (And sequels, which I haven’t read.) One of the three protagonists is a big, beefy swordsman who like to get fucked by other big, beefy swordsmen and is not shy about it; another is a black lesbian.

Yeah, I stand by my “conservative” comment, but demographics have shifted a lot since I did most of my fantasy reading. Maybe Wheel of Time or The Sword of Truth are no longer representative of the genre. Harry Potter is a giant franchise, paranormal romance has become a big thing, George R.R. Martin is the “new” Tolkien.

Also, I only know Morgan through Altered Carbon, so I wasn’t aware he even wrote fantasy.

The seven literary Kickstarters I’ve funded (all for projects featuring work by women, POC, queer authors, etc.) beg to differ. :wink:

Also, this year’s Hugo’s beg to differ.

I see that “The Magicians” came out in 2009, which was certainly well after the 21st century version of “why are there so many white dudes in fantasy?” conversation (which has itself been going on since at least the 70s). Grossman could have done better than giving one line to the Indian “lab partner” and one line to the Hatian professor and turning everyone else into a shitty stick figure. He just chose not to.

Kickstarter was only founded in 2009. Using Kickstarter or Indiegogo or Patreon or whatever to bypass traditional publishers (which are fairly conservative, in the “don’t like taking risks” sense) is a very recent phenomenon.

I agree that Grossman should have known better. I’d like diversity in fantasy fiction for purely selfish reasons. As in, fantasy is stagnant. It almost exclusively focuses on retreading The Heroes Journey formula. Adding characters with differing genders, sexual orientations, races (and I don’t just mean “more elves”), etc. would be a way of bringing originality to a genre that sorely needs it. Assuming it’s done well, of course. Nothing quite as depressing as a story with just one Tolkien woman.

I didn’t mean to imply that the Kickstarter etc. universe was anything but recent; fortunately it has proven to be a good “thing we can do” about genre stagnation. Now if only I had time to read all the stuff I’ve recently recieved!

(Hanging about less on BB forums might help…)

Well hear, hear.

It’s just depressing to see some (white, male) author get the extremely rare blessing of mainstream attention for his genre fiction, and then find out that he’s just building the master’s house with the master’s tools all over again. (Which is probably why he got the attention, of course.)

It is getting better, though I still think genre fiction tries too hard to target specific demographics. Anyway, there are a bunch female sci-fi writers at the top of their game, so just switch to that. :smile:

Just bought “Anciliary Justice” and I can’t wait. :smile:

(I’m a bit curious about the Grossman sequels but I’m taking them out of the local e-book library, not buying them.)

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.