Magical Mystery Tour

The real world is boring! And when it's not being boring, it's being sad and depressing. It's no wonder readers and audiences are constantly looking to jump into fictional worlds of wonder, be they utopian, dystopian, or something in-between. Of course, authors are members of this unfortunate real world, so they have varying amounts of success in capturing the feel of the supernatural. On that note, I just finished two books that attempt this jump. One did a great job; one... One was not so great.

The first was Susanna Clarke's 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. An admission up front: I had read the synopsis of this book (Two sparring magicians become rivals in their shared goal of bringing magic back to the forefront of 19th-century English society) and thought it sounded like a quick, fun read. While it was plenty of fun, quick it was not. This sucker is 782 pages long.

That's not a knock against it. Reading this book made me feel like I was researching a historical document, which is exactly the feel it was going for. It's tough for a book to put you into the state of mind of another time period, the way TV does all the time, but this one almost makes the reader believe we took it off the shelf to peruse in the 1800s.

After it fades from the mainstream, both the stuffy Mr. Norrell and his apprentice, the younger, more adventurous Mr. Strange, want magic to be a big part of English society again. But while Mr. Norrell trades in theory and research, Mr. Strange wants to use magic more practically, applying it to the English war effort against the French. The relationship between them frays and snaps, and they both begin to meddle with power they cannot control. Other characters are soon drawn into their webs, and magic's reputation with the ruling class becomes the least important problem that the magicians must contend with.

Though it was a long haul, I enjoyed this book, and wonder if it would have made as much of an impression if it were shorter. I do think it's one of those books that has aspects that may be especially appealing to me, and that I shouldn't widely recommend. But if you like the idea of magic being an almost everyday subject, as dense and as full of historical research as astronomy, by all means, give it a go.

I rejoined the modern era with The Three, a 2014 novel by Sarah Lotz. It's arranged as snippets of interviews, basically copying the format of World War Z. The interviews tell the story of Black Thursday, on which four separate planes from four separate airlines on four separate points of the globe all crash. Terrorism is ruled out as the cause, but in an even stranger turn of events, on three of the flights, a lone child survives.

The world immediately begins to try and puzzle out the cause and the meaning of all this. The usual crazy theories about aliens and conspiracies swirl through the internet. The explanation that amasses the most support, though, is that the three children are harbingers of the upcoming apocalypse, and a tide of religious fervor sweeps in.

Pretty cool premise, right? As with a lot of disappointing books, though, a pretty cool premise doesn't mean much if you botch the execution. Most of the book is build-up. A lot of chapters end with statements like "I didn't know that it was the last time I'd ever talk to him," or "Of course, when they found out what happened later, everything changed." Build-up like that has to lead to something pretty explosive. And it doesn't; it ends with a shrug.

This could have been a good book if it had built to the revelation that there were completely rational explanations for the crashes, and all the hysteria was misguided. This could have been a good book if it had built to the revelation that the children who survived really were otherworldly visitors or the messengers of an angry God, and the characters had to deal with the fallout from that. Instead, after all this building and building, the book ends with a smarmy "Gotcha!" and walks away - the equivalent of a twenty-minute joke where the punchline is that there is no punchline.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: B
The Three: C-


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