We Can Never Go Home
I picked up this book because I was drawn to the strange, spare covers. One in particular shows a shopping cart full of improvised weapons, and it hints at a book that balances the silly invincible feeling of being a teenager with a grim real world. We Can Never Go Home tell a story of super powers, high school in the 80s, and robbing drug dealers. It combines genres and styles. The wild story is grounded in reality by the art. Wal-marts and cheap motels look real, even when they share pages with bullets bouncing off our heroes.
We Can Never Go Home is a teen romance, adventure, superhero story by Mathew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon and Josh Hood. The characters are distinct, feel real, and demand your sympathy. The story elements are familiar at times, but the mix is what makes the book feel original. If you’ve ever felt like an underdog or made a mix tape, you’ll probably like this book.
American Gods is as good a book as you can hope to read. It tells a massive story with the scope and gravitas to encompass gods and nations, but it remains so specific that you feel as if your friends are living it. The locations are real. Gaiman lovingly describes the Great Lakes states. Peru, Illinois and The House on the Rock are note-for-note perfect. He may be just as good on Reykjavik but, as a Midwestern boy, I can speak with more authority on his observations of Wisconsin.
The cast of American Gods mostly contains mythic figures on the brink of a huge conflict, but a few humans find their way into the story through an accident of history. In a way, it is easier to write a fictionalized version of character who exists already. They carry a certain cachet and the reader can picture who they are. But the difficulty in working with characters who exist in the collective conscious is that if the author hits a wrong note it jars the reader. So when Gaiman introduces Loki, he needs to be the close enough to the Loki of our imagination that we recognize him, but the story needs to be engaging enough that the character doesn’t get lost in its own shadow. Gaiman does this beautifully.
The novel is an epic. It builds up a number of stories, starts a number of conflicts and then pays them off beautifully. The Dude would call this book “a fucking Swiss watch.”
A Note on the Medium
I originally borrowed this book from the library in CD format. But it was too exciting for me to wait for someone to read it to me. I wanted to eat through it in big bites.
I had originally said that I would review Machine Man this week and I still plan to do it but I would like to post that review as a companion piece to the interview that I did with the book’s author, Max Barry and I am waiting for the Max Berry article to be published before I write that review. If you’re waiting on that review then bless you. You’re an angel. If you aren’t… Well, I am going to write it anyway
Week 5 – Dune Messiah
Week 6 – Machine Man
Sequels and fantasy go together like hot dogs and grilled onions. The fantasy genre, which requires world-building and myths, has room for huge word counts and long volumes.
Still, I carry a small suspicion of sequels in any genre, they make too much sense from a marketing perspective to be motivated primarily from a creative perspective. I know the world of Middle Earth had more to explore than the world of the Transformers in their recent movie incarnations, but it’s easy to see why editors and movie studios would be hungry to make sequels of both properties. A successful story has a market built in.
I am happy to admit that I am part of that built-in market for The Magician King. The Magicians, which precedes this book, is as good as anything I have read in the last year.
Judged on its own merits, The Magician King is an exciting, emotionally affecting story that I zoomed through. The characters felt real and were given interesting things to do. I cared about everything they did.
Even with those merits, this is an excellent book that falls short of its predecessor. The Magician King is about finding the proper path, so it feels unfair to criticize it for wandering around in the doldrums, or suffering through uncertainty before powering toward a climax. There is gold in the early adventures, the introduction of a swordsman protector (Biddle) for the hero (Quentin) is particularly engaging but, as the story moved along, I found myself wanting to jump forward into the meat of the adventure.
Another nitpick I have is that Grossman employs an A plot B plot technique — switching perspectives as the story unfolds — and what happened for me (as happens with almost all books using this device) is I found myself more interested in one plot than the other. I was pushing through the part about the magician’s underground to get back to the present and the adventure happening in the current time-line. In the end, both stories paid off and tied up beautifully and I probably wouldn’t be complaining about either story if I hadn’t had have to jump between the two.
So give it a B+/A-, 4 ½ out of five stars, or the silver medal. I loved this book, maybe it is so up my alley that I graded it on a curve but, for me, it was just short of great. Perhaps the most ringing endorsement I can offer is that If Grossman writes ten more of these books, I would happily read them all.
Week 4 – Machine Man
Week 5 – American Gods
Week 6 – Dune Messiah
The fantasy genre has a small but committed group of superfans. There are shelves and shelves of stories about magic and elves that no one but the deeply committed fan has ever heard of. But, the canon has its crossover hits. The Magicians takes many of those beloved works (particularly Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia) and builds his book on their sacred ground. But it’s no rehash.
The idea of magic is inherently tied to power. The idea of young people gifted with the ability to do more than mortal men is a fantasy in its purest sense. Power is what makes magic so tempting as an idea in fiction. Doing impossible feats by conjuring unknowable powers is a sexy possibility. But what happens when there is no menace to turn those powers against? With no Sauron, what would Gandalf do all day?
The idea of a group of listless recent college students and graduates with superpowers is a scary one. The book has its share of adventure and derring do. But it’s the frank way that the book looks at sex and death that raises the stakes. One scene where a female wizard slits the throat of an anthropomorphic ferret stands out as more honest than genre generally allows. The consequences in this world are real and that makes the wonderland all the more wonderful.
Week 2 – The Mission Song By John LeCarré
Week 3 – Machine Man By Max Barry