The Magicians 1.11, “Remedial Battle Magic”

“Remedial Battle Magic” starts off as a calm interlude. We know that things are about to get real, but first everyone needs to gather their forces, gird their loins, etc. If The Magicians was a movie, this would have been the training montage.

Most training montages don’t end with my heart getting dropkicked, but you have the idea.

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The Free Traders

Julia and her friends are still working on how to summon a god. I really need more of this group interacting with each other. I don’t care about anyone but Julia and Kady yet. Julia making a bad joke to diffuse the tension when Richard gets too intense was a nice touch of group dynamic, but I’m not invested.

Richard reveals that he didn’t just bring Julia in because she fits the emotional damage profile. She was able to levitate because a local goddess took a shine to her, which is rare. Julia may have an affinity for communicating with gods and supernatural creatures.

All of this seems borne out when she’s continuously drawn to goddess imagery, mostly depictions of the Virgin Mary. For The Magicians’ purposes, Mary is less the mother of Jesus and more the modern face of the mother goddess. At the end of the episode the goddess visits Julia in a dream.

Julia feels like she needs to atone, and she’s trying to find her place in the world. Taken with her rocky relationship with her real mom, all that leaves her very receptive to the kind of love, forgiveness, and power that the mother goddess offers her. But who’s this servant that lives by the bridge, and what gifts does she need to bring him? Isn’t a mother’s love supposed to be unconditional?

The Brakebills

 The Brakebills gang has, at last, acknowledged that the Beast is their most pressing problem. I’m very exited about this, because it means Quentin et. al. are now united by a common cause. As much as they fight and disagree, they’re inhabiting the same scenes and contributing to the main plot.

Penny almost backs out, but comes back to the group after the Beast tries to drive him to suicide. I see a deliberate parallel between the travellers’ reactions to constant mental noise and certain types of real-world mental illness. The feelings of helplessness, the intrusive thoughts, seeking peace through drug abuse or suicide attempts… not subtle, but effective. I like that we see Penny getting a type of intervention from Sunderland, who had similar experiences as a psychic. She’s not very comforting, but she offers a plausible solution.

The literal bottling up of emotions is another heavy-handed but nonetheless workable metaphor. Penny and Alice are both repressed in their own ways, but the magical equivalent convinces them it’s maybe not the greatest idea. Quentin, who feels so intensely, relishes having a chance to be free of that. Overwhelmed, Eliot turns back to a less magical type of bottle. Margo finds herself craving emotional honestly. When Eliot won’t give her that, she gets it from Quentin.

Which brings us to Quentin cheating on Alice.

I love Quentin and Alice together, and I hate anything that separates them or makes them unhappy. They foil each other in so many ways (logical vs. emotional, practical vs. romantic) and I know those characteristics could compliment each other if they had time to grow together. So, I hate this.

But part of me loves it. Everything we’ve learned about these four characters has led us to this point. Quentin is constantly seeking validation, and what’s more validating than a hot person who really gets you? Eliot wants to love someone he doesn’t have to kill. Margo thinks she can cheer him up and repair their friendship by delivering Quentin, meanwhile satisfying her competitive side by stealing Alice’s boyfriend. Alice, who was just beginning to trust Quentin, is shattered.

That’s my interpretation, anyway. However you slice it, there’s going to be a battle, and we’ve got serious dissention in the ranks. With two episodes left in the season, Quentin, Alice, Eliot, and Margo don’t have time to work out their personal issues before they got to Fillory. They’re going to have to forge ahead, broken hearts and all.

Other Thoughts

-What is the thing that was pretending to be Kady’s mom? I thought they called it a lamia, but the cow tail reminded me of a hulder, and neither of those creatures traditionally served a goddess or were killed by shark blood, afaik.

-For that matter, where are all these gods and monsters coming from? Are they native to New York, or did they emigrate from the old country American Gods style?

-I really never expected to like Penny as much as I do, but here we are closing in on the finale and he’s been one of my favorite characters. Despite his issues with Quentin and his creepy behavior around women, I like that he’s always nice to Alice.

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Time to Read

When’s your favorite time to read? When I’m in the middle of a good book, it’s “all the times that I’m awake.” Even when I’m hooked on a story, other responsibilities intrude, like needing to write blog posts, or do laundry, or feed myself. I like having designated reading times to look forward too, even if I’m too much of a free spirit to always stick to them.

Being in school always meant designated times for reading. In elementary school there were acronyms—SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) or DEAR (Drop Everything And Read). When I was in middle school, the lunch schedule made it so that fourth period was longer than all the other classes. It was decided that at the teacher’s discretion, the class could use the extra time for silent reading. I was so disappointed on the days when the teacher kept teaching into that last twenty minutes (totally unrelated to the fact that fourth period was Math, my least favorite subject).

My whole life, reading before bed has been a given. That last half-hour (or more) before sleep is non-negotiable reading time. Reading is an important step in the shutting-off-my-brain process. It doesn’t sound like the best way to retain content, but I usually do pretty well. I won’t say I’ve never gotten to a really good part and stayed up too late trying to find out what happens, but that’s a pretty standard hazard for readers.

Any time I have a long commute, driving time becomes audiobook time. The year of my longest-ever commute (about an hour) was also around the time I got into Mark Reads. Mark Oshiro writes very fun, insightful chapter-by-chapter recaps of books he’s reading for the first time. I downloaded The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, read by Casaundra Freeman. I would listen on the drive and then go read Mark’s reviews of whatever chapters I’d finished. It was a really nice way to start and finish my day.

Turns out the website I bought The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from was not secure, which ended in my bank account being frozen, which ended in me having to find the nearest bank after school and get a new one so I could buy gas and get home. BUT THAT'S ANOTHER STORY, I got to keep the book and it was good
Turns out the website I bought The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from was not secure, which ended in my bank account being frozen, which ended in me having to find the nearest bank after school and get a new one so I could buy gas and get home. BUT THAT’S ANOTHER STORY, I got to keep the book and it was good

This year, I don’t have a commute. I also don’t have to leave the house before my body feels like eating breakfast, so I can read a book while I have my coffee and oatmeal. I eat lunch by myself too, so I know I won’t look rude if I pull out a book. Luckily no one I care about has ever tried to lecture me about the dangers of “distracted eating,” because I’m never happier than when I have a sandwich in one hand and a book in the other. Solo mealtimes make great reading times.

Like I said, I don’t always stick to the schedule. Sometimes I actually do focus on my food while I’m eating it, or I decide to read the Internet instead of my book before bed. And of course on the weekends, vacations, or should less days, all bets are off. I can read whenever the mood takes me.

Everyone’s best reading times are different. Some people do their best reading in transit, on planes or the subway (depends on the book for me, sometimes I’m too distracted). My husband does a lot of reading on weekend mornings, which I think are for sleeping. How about you? When do you read? Tell me in the comments, and have a wonderful week!

Audiobook Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

When I was almost finished with Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, I made a comment to a friend about how it covers a lot of squares in “sad middle grade bingo:” there’s death, bereavement, racism, bullying, divorce, alcoholism, absent and neglectful parents, and eating disorders. What I’m saying is, keep some tissues handy for this one.

my sister lives on the mantelpiece

There’s also humor and joy here. The main character, ten-year-old Jamie, is an ultimately optimistic kid who loves superheroes, drawing, and football (soccer, for us Americans—it’s set in England). The audiobook is narrated by David Tennant. There was no dissonance for me in hearing a grown man voice a young boy, since Tennant doesn’t attempt any squeaky kid voices, which are my #1 audiobook pet peeve.

Five years before the beginning of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, Jamie’s older sister Rose was killed in a fictional terrorist attack based on the 7/7 bombings. Jamie, Rose’s twin sister Jas, and their parents survived, but the loss of Rose has torn their family apart. Jamie’s parents separate after his mother has an affair and moves in with her lover in London. Jamie, Jas, and their dad move to the seaside town of Ambleside, hoping for a fresh start.

Not much changes for the better, though. Jamie gets picked on at school, he misses his mom, and his dad is drunk most of the time. At first, the only bright spots in Jamie’s life are his pet cat, Roger, and his relationship with his sister Jas. In the absence of competent parents, Jamie and Jas become each other’s best emotional support.

Things start to get better when Jamie connects with Sunya, the girl he sits next to at school. Sunya is another outcast who loves the things that Jamie loves. Together they create their own superhero mythologies, make up inside jokes, and plot to get back at the bullies who torment them. The only thing that keeps their friendship from being entirely sunny is that Sunya is a Muslim, and Jamie’s father is has been outspoken against Islam since the attack that killed his daughter. Jamie tries to keep Sunya a secret, but struggles with loyalty to his father and to his friend.

It’s an interesting coincidence that I downloaded this around the same time as All These Things I’ve Done. Both books deal with similar topics from different perspectives, and in drastically different settings. Jas has a lot in common with Anya—they’re both teenage girls who are forced into the role of primary caretaker for their siblings. But this isn’t Jas’s story, it’s Jamie’s. Anya is old enough to understand and process the deaths around her. Jamie barely remembers Rose, so the grief that his parents feel is distant and incomprehensible to him.

For me, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece represents an intersection of two things that showed up a lot in my preadolescent reading: live-changing childhood friendships (The Changeling, Bridge to Terebithia) and parent with dead children being awful to their surviving children (The Other Shepards, A Widow for One Year). I don’t think that second one was a conscious or morbid thing, ever. I was just super into some authors who have “dead older sibling” on the top rack of their plot element toolbox. Like a lot of those books, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is emotionally harrowing but also full of hope and laugher—just like real life, on a good day.

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If you are on Tumblr, I now have a blog on that site that mirrors this one. If you prefer to get your content there, or you just want to spread the word about how great I am, a follow and a reblog would be a big help!

You can also follow me on Twitter, @andieinitaly. I post links to new blog posts and other deep thoughts. A sample:

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Fascinating stuff!

The Magicians 1.10, “Homecoming”

I yelled at the TV a lot during this episode. Most of it was good yelling.

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Two weeks ago I praised the show’s pacing. It had learned how to drop a charcter or a plotline for a while in the service of focusing on others. Not so with “Homecoming.” We got all the major players back, including Kady and Margo.

One of the problems here is adaptation. The novel The Magicians is told in third person limited, completely from Quentin’s point of view. We see nothing except what he sees. We get Julia’s POV in The Magician King, but that leaves all the other major players out in the cold. The show is obviously going to pad things out a little, I felt like this episode was squeezing in people at the expense of a cohesive whole.

The thing is, I don’t know what I would cut out. The obvious option is Eliot, Margo, and the Margolem. Still, I liked Eliot’s cautious acknowledgement that his drinking and drug use are out of control. And I can tell the Margolem, like the Buffybot before her, is going to become a plot point down the road.

Penny and the Neitherlands

I rolled my eyes a little at Eve, the Exposition Girl, but I guess we don’t have tons of time for Penny to figure things out by trial and error. Touching the button doesn’t take you to Fillory; it takes you to the Neitherlands. When you jump into a fountain you come out in a new world. It’s super disorienting and finding the fountain you want is needle-in-haystack tough.

There’s also the gorgeous underground library. The badass librarian, who has apparently seen Penny before (time magic, anyone?) encourages him not to read the book about his own life, but photocopies a few pages from Martin Chatwin’s for him to take home.

Alice and Quentin

 Penny’s whole situation turns into a contrived reason for these two to get naked. What’s the one kind of spell that’s going to be a problem for two smart, talented, but awkward magicians? Enter sex magic, the trope that launched a thousand porny fanfics. We learn that Alice grew up with extremely, uh, liberated parents. Combined with her natural shyness, that means she’s squeamish about discussing sex. Even when it hasn’t been great with Quentin, she hasn’t spoken up. Until now.

Contrivances aside, I still really liked this. Maybe it’s just because I’m an unabashed Quentin/Alice shipper and I want them to be happy. Also I really like it when characters talk about sex. You can only get so much across by looking into each other’s eyes and breathing heavily. Yay for enthusiastic consent and communication! (Dear Internet, Please send all your Dom!Alice/sub!Quentin fics directly to my inbox.)

Julia

I spoke too soon about Free Trader Beowulf not being a part of the show. That login screen was the source of my loudest yelling this episode. After everything Julia’s been through in The Magician King, these are the people who make her feel safe and accepted. We see a little bit of it in the show already. She cleans up her trashed apartment for them, and she looks so happy when they come through the portal.

The interesting thing in the book is that we never learn most of the Free Traders’ real names. They go by their online handles. While they are described pretty thoroughly, the show has thrown out those descriptions in favor of new characters. Except for Richard and, of course, Kady.

In the show, we now have a ragtag band of hedge witches. Some have something to atone for—Julia/Circe for hurting Quentin and her part in Hannah’s death (and maybe Kiera’s), Kady/Asmodeus for stealing and hurting Penny, and Richard/Failstaff for leaving his infant son in a hot car (didn’t see that one coming, yikes).

Then there are the ones who have nothing to lose. Bender, the guy with the glasses, has drug-resistant depression. Menolly, the woman with the dark hair (wig?) who talks about being high is in chemotherapy. Silver/Silverkitten, the tall blonde who comes through first, is just described as “mentally dying.” They’re going to try to summon a god and do time magic. Nothing could possibly go wrong here, right?

Other Thoughts

-Sorry to be a fantasy nitpicker, but golems don’t steal a person’s life force. Also a little uncomfortable with stripping away the religious connotations (Jewish folklore, animated by the Hebrew name of God, etc). Can we maybe put the brakes on borrowing from other cultures before we fall into some of the same appropriation traps as Grimm and Supernatural?

-I appreciated the reference to Gödel, Escher, Bach, which I, like poor forgotten James, have not read.

-The entropy spell was a nice touch too, but I’m a little sad that this is all happening in Julia’s apartment instead of [redacted for spoilers, maybe].

-I cackled at both Quentin’s sex dream passing the Bechdel test and “But you haven’t touched your penis!”

 

Buying Books: A Personal History

  1. Childhood

Like many small book nerds, the peak book-buying experience of my childhood was the school book fair. Twice a year the library would be transformed into a wonderland of shiny new books waiting to come home with me. Part of the thrill was having my mom or dad hand me a ten- or twenty-dollar bill that I got to spend unsupervised. Every time I was reminded that the money was not for toys, erasers, or posters, but that didn’t seem like a hardship. I was there for the books.

One of my most-prized book fair acquisitions
The Egypt Game, one of my most-prized book fair acquisitions
  1. Adolescence

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite ways to waste a Saturday afternoon was in the Borders at our local mall. Alone or with a friend, I would wander through the aisles and read summaries. Usually I’d wind up in the manga section, where I’d power through a whole volume in 45 minutes and then buy the next one to take home. Yes, this try-but-don’t-buy behavior is part of why Borders ultimately folded, but I didn’t know any better.

Chobits, definitely my jam circa seventh grade
Chobits, definitely my jam circa seventh grade
  1. College

When I was in college, I had less time to read and less space to store books in my tiny dorm rooms. I got a little savvier about money, too. I’d like to say that I started borrowing more books from the library, but that would be a lie. Mostly I read a lot of fanfiction.

I was gifted with a Kindle right before my last semester. The storage problem was solved. No matter how small my living space was I could still fit hundreds of books. Gone was the need to travel to an actual bookstore (RIP Borders) or wait for my Amazon order to show up. Practically any book I wanted was available at the click of a button, plus download time.

Songs of Love and Death, the first ebook I ever bought (I came for the Jacqueline Carey story, obviously).
Songs of Love and Death, the first ebook I ever bought (I came for the Jacqueline Carey story, obviously).
  1. Adulthood

Not too long after graduation I got my first full-time job. It wasn’t great, but it paid me money and left me with more free time than college. In hindsight, it’s a miracle I didn’t spend more money on books during my first few years out of school. I did start going to libraries again. More libraries started to have a respectable e-book catalogue by that time. That meant I could borrow books without even bothering to know when the library was open.

This was around the time I got obsessed with Sharon Shinn, starting with Archangel. Still one of my favorites.
This was around the time I got obsessed with Sharon Shinn, starting with Archangel. Still one of my favorites.
  1. Now

Recently I’ve been trying to be smarter about budgeting in general. I downloaded the Mint app in January, and it’s been helpful. There was the one time I used my debit card to buy a bottle of vodka and Mint decided to read that as a “bank fee” and send me a panicky email, but otherwise we get along okay.

Part of my new grown-up budget is $20 a month set aside for book. That’s enough for two mid-priced e-books and a couple of discount ones. It’s made me think harder about whether I really need new releases right away (the answer is usually no, since the e-book will usually drop in price when the paperback comes out).

So far I haven’t gone over my budget, but delayed gratification has always worked for me when it comes to books—flashback to a glowing review of What Happened to Lani Garver that I clipped out of YM and hung up in my eighth grade locker, promising myself I could get it next time I made first honors.

I totally got first honors that quarter and then I got to read it. So worth the wait.
I totally got first honors that quarter and then I got to read it. So worth the wait.

I haven’t been doing this for very long, so there may be something in the future that tempts me to go over my $20 limit. But if I’m being honest with myself, I shouldn’t ever need to do that. I’ve already bought so many books that my to-be-read pile could sustain me into the next decade if necessary.

What I’m writing, what I’m reading, and one more thing about The Magicians

Hi everyone, Happy Friday! This is another bits-and-pieces blog, just to let you know what I’m up to. I had more feelings about The Magicians since Wednesday. I put those feelings at the bottom of the post, so you don’t have to bother with them if you’re not into that. If you are into that, be warned that the last part of this post contains major spoilers for episode 1.9, “The Writing Room,” and also discusses sexual assault.

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What I’m writing:

I finished a short story yesterday! I don’t think I’ve done that since my junior year of college, when they were assignments. When I took my two fiction writing classes, any time I shared or work shopped a short story, I got at least one piece of feedback to the tune of “you could really expand this into a novel.”

I could never tell if it was a compliment or just a polite way of saying “you are bad at expressing yourself succinctly.” Probably varied, depending on the source.

Here is the ugly truth, then: I do not like writing short stories. Part of it is just that you get out what you put in. I read a lot of novels, so I tend to think in novels. The things I am inspired to write just don’t seem to lend themselves to short form.

However, I don’t actually require inspiration to write. It just be about trying out new ideas, whether they’re from my brain or a list of writing prompts or wherever else. Since I’m taking a break between revision cycles of my novel, I’ve made a commitment to try more short stories.

I’m proud of this one. The first draft is about 6,000 words long. It has no title yet, but after talking it over with my husband last night we’ve labeled it “genderswapped aromantic Beauty and the Beast in space” which is a hell of a tagline, IMO.

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What I’m reading:

Penryn and the End of Days, Susan Ee

This is actually a series, and I’m sort of not reading it right now, for a stupid reason. I listened to most of the second book in the trilogy while running. They’re good running books, interesting but not too complicated, so if I miss a bit because my mind wanders or I’m running by a weed-whacker, it’s not the end of the world (lol, apocalyptic fiction jokes). BUT when I went to download the third book to my phone, it refused. It has been in my Cloud, not downloading, for several days now. I have space on my phone. Other books have downloaded without a problem. It’s very frustrating. Please send help, or reassurances that the third book isn’t as good as the first two and I needn’t bother.

‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King

I’m realizing it’s weird that it took me as long as it did to get around to reading King’s books. I have two parents and one best friend who are longtime fans, not to mention I generally like horror so it’s kind of a no-brainer. I’ve started going after his books in the last year or so, and I have yet to find one I don’t like (everyone assures me it will happen eventually, but that’s a problem for future!Andie). So far this has been less outright scary than some of the others I’ve read, but I’m enjoying the story more. I really like vampires and claustrophobic small towns with secrets, so I’m here for this.

Friday’s Child, Georgette Heyer

This is for after the sun goes down and I can’t read ‘Salem’s Lot anymore.

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That thing that happened on The Magicians:

Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and wrote 1,000 more words about The Magicians and “The Writing Room.” Don’t worry, not going to make you read it, it was more of a getting-my-feelings-out re: the sexual violence exercise. I came up with two big things that affected the extremity (or non-extremity) of the reactions I’ve been seeing:

  1. This was mentioned in the novel. It’s one sentence, towards the end of The Magicians. Blink and you’ll miss it. Page 381 of the Kindle version if you’ve finished the book and want to go sleuthing. The promos for “The Writing Room” focused more on Prudence Plover abusing the housekeeper’s children, so I wasn’t sure the part about Christopher Plover and Martin Chatwin would come in it all. When it came I was braced for it.
  1. It’s male-on-male sexual violence. When it comes to TV, movies, and other media, women are more frequent victims of sexual assault. It’s still pretty rare for us to have men or boys getting raped on TV, unless it’s played for comedy. I think the fact that this was played straight, not to mention really well written and acted, made it much more shocking.

I think it’s okay to portray sexual violence in fiction. I’d even go so far as to say it’s necessary. That type of media can help survivors and the friends and family of survivors. It can also help to challenge harmful cultural assumptions about abuse. But I do think that writers are other creators have a responsibility to portray that abuse in a conscientious way. I think The Magicians did a good job with that for this one episode and I’m tentatively hopeful. I’ll be interested to see how they handle the topic going forwards.

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I’m on my way to run. I’ll be listening to a podcast, thanks to the aforementioned technical issues. There’s a new Serial and I’ve actually been saving the last episode of Mystery Show for just such an emergency, so I can’t complain too much. Have a good weekend!

The Magicians 1.9, “The Writing Room”

I predicted last week that “The Writing Room” was going to be about ruining Quentin’s childhood, and I was almost too on the nose. It almost retroactively ruined my childhood. Julia’s storyline was lighthearted, by comparison.

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Julia

Julia is out of rehab and still hanging around with Richard. He’s introduced the idea of doing magical penance for her sins. As far as I can tell, those include (1) almost killing Quentin with the asylum dream and (2) really freaking out her friends and family by disappearing down the safe house rabbit hole. You could make a case for (3) the death of Kady’s mom, but I feel like that one is pretty squarely on Marina.

Richard’s idea is to have Julia use the spell that created Quentin’s dream to reach out to a catatonic woman. Kira is a brilliant magician and scientist, and she wants Julia to transcribe a spell she’s been working on. Once Kira and Julia have some bonding time in the dream world, Kira asks Julia to kill her in the real world. Julia tries to refuse at first, but Richard convinces her.

I have SO MANY QUESTIONS. When Kira said her “body turned on [her],” does that mean she has some kind of illness? Or was this the result of a spell gone wrong? Was the mention of her rainbow-casting girlfriend just a throwaway line, or is this woman going to show up later and want some kind of accounting from Julia? What is this spell?

Kira’s story of success sans Brakebills gives Julia hope, or maybe just false confidence. “If the world goes after you, take it as a compliment” is a nice sound bite, but the world isn’t really going after Julia. Both Marina and Fogg have let her off the hook. She’s been her own worst enemy from day one.

Julia’s happiest memory, reading Fillory books under the table with Quentin, is both super cute and retroactively sad, since Quentin’s off learning horrifying facts about the creator of the series.

Quentin

Quentin and Alice are still looking for a way to protect Brakebills from The Beast. They travel to England to search the house of Fillory author Christopher Plover, hoping to find a magic button that serves as a key to Fillory. Penny comes because he’s the only one who’s read Eliza/Jane’s manuscript. Eliot comes because he’s bored and depressed in the aftermath of the Mike situation.

Quentin nerds out over the official tour of the house, predictably becoming That Guy who corrects the guide on the finer points of Plover’s biography. The Brakebills quartet sneaks back after hours, at which point the episode transforms into what Eliot calls “a vaguely whimsical horror show.” Except we are pretty light on whimsy by the end.

The ghosts of Christopher Plover, his sister Prudence, their housekeeper’s children, and Jane and Martin Chatwin are roaming the house. Quentin and co. find out that Prudence drugged, tortured, and eventually killed the housekeeper’s kids, George and Beatrix. Prudence’s ghost also kills the tour guide. Plover was sexually abusing Martin Chatwin and occasionally drugging Jane so she wouldn’t find out.

It doesn’t get too explicit on screen—this is still SyFy—but it’s not easy to watch. Martin’s desire to get away from Plover is palpable, even before we know the extent of what’s going on. Plover exhibits some classic abuser behavior, mentioning all the favors he’s done for the Chatwin family. This kind of abuse is all too common in real life, and Martin’s youth and relative powerlessness makes it even more insidious.

Quentin eventually distracts the ghosts and finds the magic button, buried with George in the basement. Alice wants to help the ghost children who are still trapped, but apparently that’s not how ghosts work, so everyone leaves. No one seems concerned by mutilated tour guide corpse, the open grave in the basement, or their fingerprints all over everything. I’m sure this will turn out fine.

As dejected as the scene is back at the Physical Kids’ cottage, the trip to England wasn’t fruitless. They learned that Plover likely faked his own death. He was trying to find a way into Fillory, and he talked about a spell that would make him grow extra fingers. A sixth finger on each hand, like The Beast had when he attacked the lecture hall.

At the end of the episode, Penny touches the button and disappears. Next week, looks like we’ve got some Neitherlands scenery and Margo’s return. If you would like to share theories about how ghosts work in this universe or squee over Qunetin calling Alice “Vix” (can the rest of the show just be them in love and nothing bad happens?) please see me in the comments.

Little, Big

I like books with maps in the front. Maps are especially good for stories where the action depends on a journey, like Watership Down or Sabriel. Another thing I like, but see much less frequently, are books with family trees in front. Family trees, like maps, let us see something vast laid out in a small, organized way. If a map shows us the outer world, a family tree can guide us through the characters’ inner lives.

It’s apt, then, that there’s a family tree in the front of John Crowley’s Little, Big, a book all about inner worlds and families. It’s about five generations of one family in particular, the Drinkwaters.

It’s also about fairies.

This book has some amazing variant covers. Get ready.
This book has some amazing variant covers. Get ready.

Violet Drinkwater, née Bramble, is up near the top of the family tree. She grew up in England, seeing fairies, talking to fairies, and having those talents exploited by her spiritualist father. She immigrated to America to marry John Drinkwater, and she brought some of the fairies with her. Or maybe they’re the ones who brought her.

There’s a scene early on in the book where an older Violet sits down at a typewriter to record her knowledge of fairies for future generations. She begins “they mean no good to us,” but then adds “they mean us no harm either.” The opposite of every truth is also, inexplicably, true.

When I try to write about Little, Big, I feel like Violet. I could tell you that the story is set at Edgewood, the sprawling house in upstate New York that John Drinkwater built. I wouldn’t be wrong, but I would be neglecting the strange and delightful parts that take place in New York City. I could call it historical fiction, but that wouldn’t be fair to the pieces that take place at the beginning of the 21st century (the book was published in 1981, so for John Crowley, that was still twenty minutes into the future). I’ve already said it’s about fairies, but that doesn’t mean it’s not about fortune tellers and shape-shifters and a despotic presidential candidate.

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Little, Big opens on Smoky Barnable. He’s walking from the city to Edgewood, carrying a few sandwiches and a secondhand suit. It’s the 1970s, and he’s on the way to marry Alice Drinkwater, Violet’s great-granddaughter. Smoky is the reader’s point of entry into the strange world of Edgewood. He doesn’t quite believe Alice when she tells him about the fairies, but he wants more than anything to be a part of her strange but loving family.

I read Little, Big for the first time in my senior year of college. I found a gently used trade paperback edition in Raven Books in Amherst, which felt right. It’s the kind of book that wants to be discovered. Like Smoky and his secondhand suit and Violet’s tarot cards, the fact that someone else held it before me makes it more appealing.

This is the cover I have, not my favorite but not the worst
This is the cover I have, not my favorite but also not the worst.

That first time I read Little, Big beginning to end, like most people do with books. I’ve rarely reread it start-to-finish since then. I like to pick out my favorite parts and leave the rest. There are sections that make me uncomfortable. There are two (non-violent, non-explict) rape scenes that are handled poorly. What non-white characters there are are subject to embarassing stereotyping. There are parts that would be called out as homophobic if this book were written today, but those are comparatively few.

Still, I keep coming back to these characters, to this world. It’s such a completely different take on the subgenre. The fairies that are so important to the plot are out of sight for much of the book, and when they do appear you might not recognize them at all. Little, Big fits the definition of magical realism better than most books that get that label these days. Not only does it subtly fold magical elements into the real world, there is a real sense of mystery. There’s also political critique, something that was essential to genre-founder Gabriel García Márquez valued as much as magic. The last third of the book could be read as a caution against electing a bad politician who does good PR, which seems as timely as ever, just now.

Probably my favorite
Probably my favorite

The language is amazing. It’s dense, for sure. But the work you put in is so, so worth it. I think I could open this book up to any page, at random, and find at least one sentence of surpassing beauty. Here, I’ll do it now.

Page 140, Smoky goes hunting with his father-in-law:

“Smoky went where he was told. He held his gun, and old English over-and-under, at the ready, the chased safety off. He didn’t, like the rest of the family, much enjoy long aimless walks outdoors, especially in the wet; but if they had a token purpose, like today’s, he could go on in discomfort with the best of them.”

Today, writers are praised for keeping their sentences short and their dialog snappy. In this climate, there’s something luxurious about reading words that meanders a little. Every one still seems perfectly chosen, though, and removing one would make the whole structure crumble.

I still like it, but it screams FAIRIES too much for this book
Probably the worst. 

One more quotation, because I’ve been saving this one for years and I can’t help myself. The Drinkwaters go ice-skating, there are conflicts simmering under the surface, and someone brings out beverages:

“He wrung the neck of the thermos and decapitated it.”

Does it get any better than that? Crowley’s taking such an innocuous action and making it match the mood of the scene so perfectly. At this point the reader doesn’t know what’s wrong yet, but little things like this build the tension so brilliantly. Are you going to think about decapitation next time you open a thermos? I am.

I’ve come from “I don’t know how to write about this book” to exceeding my word count, as usual. I’ve compared it to The Night Circus and other books that are about places and people more than they are about plot, but really, I recommend this book to everyone. It’s that good.

I hope everyone’s having a magical Monday. See you soon!

And one more Little, Big cover for the road
And one more Little, Big cover for the road. Trout!

Middle Grade Books and the “Harry Potter Effect”

Earlier this week a lot of people were talking about this research regarding the average length of middle grade books. If you don’t feel like clicking on that link, or if you’re reading this in the future after it’s disappeared, allow me to summarize: middle grade books are aimed at kids between the ages of 8 and 12. In general, they’re getting longer. The average middle grade book in 1976 was 106.25 pages, and in 2016 it’s gone up to 290 pages.

A lot of people are calling this “the Harry Potter effect.” The theory is that publishers didn’t think long middle grade books would sell. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out in 2002, it’s 700-plus page bulk seemed pretty impressive. Goblet of Fire and the subsequent Potter books proved that longer books could be successful. The floodgates were open, and middle grade authors were able to writer longer stories.

It's a doorstopper but I will fight you if you tell me a single scene is unnecessary. Order of the Phoenix, not so much.
It’s a doorstopper but I will fight you if you tell me a single scene is unnecessary. Order of the Phoenix, not so much.

I don’t know if we’re right to place so much blame/credit on J.K. Rowling’s shoulders, though. For one thing, I don’t think the whole Harry Potter series should count as middle grade. If you’ve read the series, you know that the books grow more mature as the characters get older. Goblet of Fire is the midpoint of the series, when things start to get darker and more complicated. I don’t think Rowling wrote a long middle grade book. I think she shifted the series into young adult territory. Young adult books tend to be longer than middle grade ones, anyways.

There was a similar study that shows books for all ages have been getting longer over the last half-century, so maybe the rise in middle grade page counts is part of the larger trend.

Who cares, right? Speaking for myself, I don’t care how long the books I read are. I played around in my Goodreads stats for a while before I wrote this, and I was surprised by some of the results. There seem to be two parts to how I perceive the length of book—how much I enjoy it and how heavy it is. A boring book that I have to lug around in hardcover seems super long. A fast-paced one that I have on my e-reader seems short. Actual number of pages is irrelevant.

A longer middle grade book from recent years (that I found wildly entertaining)
The Lightning Thief, a longer middle grade book from recent years (that I found wildly entertaining)

But, BUT— I am an adult. I rarely encounter a book that I can’t finish. Don’t want to finish is another story, that happens on the reg. I have been reading books for a long time, and I know what I can handle.

Elementary and middle school students aren’t always so confident. There will be some who jump from their first chapter books right into YA or even adult literature and never look back. Still, a lot of them need that intermediary step of middle grade. And a lot of the ones that need that step will be intimidated by a 300-plus page book.

My brother liked the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series when he was middle-grade-aged. When I asked him why, he said that part of the appeal was how short they were. He would finish them in a couple of days and feel “like a badass.”

Take note: finishing books makes you a badass.

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Short, illustration-heavy chapter books like Wimpy Kid are always a hit in elementary schools. See also: Captain Underpantshailed as a horseman of the coming intellectual apocalypse in 1997, as though kids haven’t always loved stories about other kids misbehaving.

Kids love finishing books. It makes them feel good. When I work in schools my students tell me about the books they finish all the time. Usually I’m the music teacher, so I have no control over their reading grade or whatever. They just get excited about it and want to share.

There are lots of middle grade books out there that aren’t dauntingly long. Roald Dahl and Madeleine L’Engle were my bread and butter during those years. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler taught me how to pack a suitcase and Julie of the Wolves taught me how to join a pack of wolves (still a little upset about my lack of wolf friends IRL, honestly).

Every generation needs its own books, too. So if you feel like you have a middle grade book in your brain somewhere, write it! If the page count comes in lower than a Harry Potter, don’t worry. You could be helping kids of the future feel like badasses.

The Magicians 1.8, “The Strangled Heart”

This was one of the better-paced episodes of the season so far. I credit that a little bit to the writers’ increased willingness to ignore some characters for a while. Margo’s still in Ibiza and Kady’s on the run, and I’m 100% fine with not checking in on them this time. Also, Quentin and Penny can now be in the same room without punching each other, so they can have longer scenes together, instead of dividing the action at Brakebills between them.

MagiciansTVseriesLogo

Quentin and Penny take a level in friendship this week. Penny jumps in front of a cursed knife meant for Quentin, and Quentin has to use his Fillory knowledge to save Penny from the curse. Of course, it really comes down to how well Q knows Penny. The chocolate bar wrapper as Penny’s most prized possession seemed like a bit of a stretch, but I guess love makes us do weird stuff and all.

There was some really good dramatic tension surrounding Mike. We know he’s up to no good once he starts scooping out the insides of a rabbit, and it’s confirmed when he slashes Penny with the same knife. What we don’t know is what’s motivating him. The moths and the glowing eyes suggest he’s mind-controlled by the beast. But is he being controlled all the time, or just when he’s glowy and murdery? Is he an innocent victim, or is this a Quirrell-Voldemort situation?

It turns out the Beast possessed Mike back before his first appearance at the library. That’s pretty terrible for Eliot, who finds out the person he’d started to care for and open up to didn’t really exist. It gets worse when the Beast/Mike escapes, and Eliot has to kill him to keep him from killing Fogg (and probably Quentin, honestly). Hale Appleman’s face in both those scenes? Ugh no I wasn’t using my heart for anything else today, thanks.

The big reveal this week was that Eliza is really Jane Chatwin, one of the siblings from the original Fillory series. We have about two seconds to dwell on this before the Beast/Mike crushes her to death. Before she died, she gave Quentin some advice: the Beast wants to control all the doors between Earth and Fillory, and in order to defeat it Quentin needs the lost manuscript for the sixth book.

Not to sound too bloodthirsty, but I’m pleased with this development. Eliza/Jane lived in Fillory, and was a potential source of so much information for Quentin. Now he’s going to have to figure it out on his own. I also like that when Quentin goes to the dean for help, Fogg admits there’s nothing he can do. Fogg isn’t Dumbledore. Quentin needs to do this by himself.

Then there’s my beloved daughter Julia (back off I’m adopting her). She’s checked in to a rehab facility so she can quit magic. That’s where meets Richard, a pastor/counselor who is also a magician. He gives her a spell that is actually a prayer, and she levitates.

In the books, Richard is a Brakebills grad who befriends Janet (book!Margo) and Eliot. He’s both Christian and a little bit of a know-it-all, which brings out Quentin’s annoying atheist side. It’s during one of their debates about the existence of God/gods that he says the line about magic being tools leftover from creation.

Richard and Julia never meet in the books, but I like the decision to have them interact on the show. Both characters have a spiritual approach to magic, even though book!Richard’s is Christian and book!Julia leans more pagan. I like the idea that there’s more than one way to do magic—Brakebills is academic, the safe houses are fast and dangerous, and now this third option.

Some less-organized thoughts:

-Hey it’s Gretchen! Neat little character Easter egg for book fans. Gretchen shows up early in the first novel to teach Quentin to play Welters.

-We got more Eliot backstory, which was good, even if it was only to set up my heart breaking later.

-I’m glad Alice and Quentin had a little hiccup in their relationship post-Brakebills South. It makes sense for them to take a step back and try to decide how they’re really feeling.

-Penny flirting with Prof. Sunderland was gross. I like him, but he’s really pushy in some of his interactions with women. Kady was into it, but if Sunderland sleeps with him she could lose her job. One of two things would make me happy here: (1) Penny respects Sunderland’s “no” and leaves her alone, or (2) he is called out in-show for being a creep.

That’s all I have for now. Next week’s episode looks like 45 minutes of ruining Quentin’s childhood plus commercials. See you soon!