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.

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