Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A short book about hobbits

I've been reading The Hobbit, which is probably the literary equivalent of a nice cup of tea. There's something comforting about it. It can't be nostalgia, because I don't really have any memory of reading it before, even though I found a scruffy old copy of it in my wardrobe. It reads like a gentle wander across Middle-earth, and that's a nice place to be if you're not actually there. Yes, there's violence and terror, but it's a cosy story. Unspeakable danger isn't so bad when it's narrated like a bedtime story. And there's not much to think about, because there are only hints of the deep mythology that Tolkein would create later, like it's just dipping your toe into a very deep pool. Apart from everything else, The Lord of the Rings and the other work that surround it are a masterpiece of world-building. There's more there than anyone could ever know. If you wanted to, you could learn about the history of every blade of grass. And I'm starting to think that's the best way to read it. I've read The Fellowship of the Ring before but then stopped, because, after all, it is very long and sometimes very boring. Maybe I wasn't reading it right. The problem is that I already know the story, so reading it passively isn't going to work. Instead, the fun is in the details. It's like a game to piece it all together, with the maps and the timelines and Appendix B with the things about the stuff. There's a whole world in there. Whether it's worth it or not, I'm not sure. The Hobbit is a children's book, and quite short, so I don't know if my interest will last much further. If I make it all the way through, I could read The Silmarillion, which is mostly in another language.

This is all a contradiction, because I've never had much patience with long books, and I expect I'll leave Frodo somewhere in a field again, halfway through his adventure. I do like the idea of it, though. This is why I don't mind The Hobbit films being too long. They're indulgent escapism. And I can just about see how they did it. The book does fall into three pieces, each with a neat climax, and it can be stretched out to three films if you really take your time and invent some other things. I'm glad they did it. It's fun to be in that world again. At the very least, I'm now the sort of person who browses the Lord of the Rings Wiki for fun. There's a lot on there. I could read that instead.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Bad people ruin good books

I read a book that I really wanted to like. It wouldn't let me, and I'm starting to think it didn't want me to. It's The Magicians by Lev Grossman. The problem is not the story or the ideas. These are good. A teenager is admitted to a school for magic and goes looking for the fantasy worlds he's read about in books, expecting them to be real. It's a story about the idea of escaping into a fantasy place, and what that does to people. This character thinks he'll find fulfilment on a magical quest, and even when he's found it he's always looking for another secret door to take him somewhere else. It's a clever and sometimes brilliant view of the fantasy genre, managing to build its world and still be a parody of itself. It's a fantasy book for people who have grown up reading fantasy books.

Or at least, it would be. The problem is that it's a good story ruined by the decision to make most of the characters awful gits. I didn't want to spend any time with them. They're not villainous, just the sort of people you could meet in real life and wouldn't be friends with. Selfish, privileged, and miserable in their best moments, and really, really horrible in their worst. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not. It's a brave decision to turn the reader against the characters, except I was worried that I was meant to be relating to them. They have recognisable problems. They act and speak like real people. Only, real people that I don't like. I don't remember another time that I've put off reading a book because I could only handle so much of a character in a week. I'm sure somebody, somewhere, must like them. Possibly the author, although it read like he wanted to see how far he could push them down before trying to redeem them. They are realistic, well-written portrayals of rubbish people.

Characters don't have to be likable, but they do have to be interesting. This lot were neither. It feels like a contradiction, because I admired almost everything else. There were elements of the plot that were genuinely surprising and unsettling, with a proper sense of otherwordly nightmare. I like that kind of thing. I wanted this to be one of my favourite books. Obviously, there's plenty of fiction with horrible protagonists. Murderous thugs and villains that you want to watch or read about.This isn't that. This is pretending the heroes are relatable when they're actually deeply irritating. The Magicians is the first part in a trilogy. I want to read more but I can't, because I'd have to deal with these mopes again. It's not worth it. Five hundred pages can seem like a very long time. I'll forgive a book for being a bit boring if I like being with the characters. I can't forgive one that invents a world and a story that's completely brilliant, then sabotages it with people you only want to slap.