Novelties: “The Magician’s Land,” by Lev Grossman

Writing about youth and coming of age can be a tricky proposition. While some of today’s most visible young adult fiction seems to be dominated by certain cosmetic themes (vampires and werewolves come to mind), more deeply-running concepts are also present, such as the struggle to build an identity, cope with significant personal transformation, or resist an oppressive social order. When such themes are presented well, the resulting story can appeal to adults as well as young adults, though it’s important to remember that the two genres are separate for a reason. Evaluating one by the criteria of the other can lead to the undervaluing of a potentially important work.

This month’s Novelties looks at three titles described as “adult books for young adults,” which already puts us on shaky critical ground. Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, recently a New York Times Best Seller, is the final volume in the popular trilogy that began with The Magicians in 2009. Grossman’s books—unapologetically influenced by C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—have been notable in that they bring serious grit and young-adult angst to the table, painting what might be a fairly accurate picture of what typical adolescents would do with access to nearly limitless power. By the events of The Magician’s Land protagonist Quentin Coldwater has been through a lot, first discovering, fumbling with, and mastering his magical abilities, then traveling to, ruling, and being banished from a fantastical world whose destiny seems intimately tied to that of Earth. In this final act Quentin struggles to learn more about the nature of the two worlds and how he might use an obscure and powerful spell to usher in a new utopia, all while coping with painful elements of his past which have resurfaced and made matters far more complicated.
From here we move to C. Robert Cargill’s debut novel Dreams and Shadows, which follows its main characters Ewan Thatcher and Colby Stevens from their youth into their early adulthoods. Cargill creates a world split in two, with both Ewan and Colby spending time as children in the mystical Limestone Kingdom—Ewan because he was kidnapped and taken there as an infant and Colby due to a chance encounter with a djinn who granted his wish to see the supernatural. The Limestone Kingdom is home to fairies, changelings, and gods pulled from many different cultures and societies, and when the two boys ultimately leave it and return to comparatively mundane existences in Austin, Texas, we begin to see the ways in which the worlds interact with one another. Cargill shows great skill at world-building—even though some readers find his embrace of so many different mythical traditions to be overwhelming—and the relationship that he develops between Ewan and Colby is deep and powerful. While the book has its detractors, it was generally well-received—Cargill has even produced a sequel, Queen of the Dark Things, which was released in May of 2014.
We wrap up this month with another debut novel: The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue. Donohue writes about Henry Day, who is stolen from his family at age seven and replaced with a changeling. The narrative then alternates between the point of view of Henry—who is given the new name of Aniday—and that of the imposter child, both of whom must struggle to adapt to their new roles. Aniday learns to live among the ageless beings in the forest (themselves also stolen children) as the memories of his old life gradually fade, while the new Henry attempts to adjust to living among humans in a world that is just as alien to him as the forest is to Aniday. What results is a stirring exploration of memory, identity, and the loss of childhood which Donohue confronts with a reserved and melancholy tone. Fantastical elements are certainly present, but are portioned out with a restraint and subtlety that pushes the book more closely into the category of magical realism than pure fantasy. An emotionally moving work with a haunting atmospheric quality, many readers have reported not being able to put The Stolen Child down until the very end.

You can borrow The Magician’s Land, Dreams and Shadows, and The Stolen Child at E.P. Foster Library, and several other Ventura County Library branches have copies as well. If you’re looking for something from a different genre or want to find read-alikes for a specific title, you can visit NoveList Plus through our eLibrary’s Reading Suggestions section. Regardless of what you’re after, if the title you want isn’t on the shelf at your local branch you can request a copy in person, over the phone, or online through our catalog.

Evoked by Ronald Martin.