Be Careful What You Wish For

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Reading Challenge: A book and its prequel (part one)

Does anyone else remember when the Artemis Fowl books came out and were being touted as kind of a dark Harry Potter? I do. I read the first one, was less than impressed (sorry) and left it there. But I wasn’t really looking for a dark version of anything. As I’ve mentioned previously, I tend not to be into the dark and depressing versions of stories. If I were looking to slap an “evil universe Harry Potter” label on a book, though, I would be putting it on this one.

This is a dark children’s book, although I wonder if some of it’s only obvious when you read it as an adult. The Amulet of Samarkand takes place in a world where magicians are an upper caste in society (non-magicians are a distinct underclass, and forget being called “muggles,” these guys are referred to as “commoners”) and get all their power by enslaving otherworldly spirits. The magicians are generally kind of awful people, everyone grasping and jostling for power and prestige. The ostensible hero of the story, Nathaniel, is distinctly lacking in hero qualities: he’s sulky, proud, ambitious, makes mistakes, and is almost always motivated by revenge. The adults around him are mostly worse: even Mrs. Underwood, who shows him some basic kindness and of whom Nathaniel is actually fairly fond, seems to be sort of a dull lady who’s willing to patch up the kid from her husband’s abuses but doesn’t do anything to stop them or acknowledge that they’re wrong. There’s just an epic lack of sympathetic characters. I mean, we’re talking Henry James scale here.

Why read this book, then, if these magicians are so awful and the world is so grim? The answer, naturally, is in the title of the series. It’s not called the Nathaniel trilogy, people. Bartimaeus is the djinni summoned by Nathaniel to help with his ill-considered plans and the narrator of roughly half the book. He’s cynical, sarcastic, full of himself, and hilarious. His chapters feature the best footnotes I’ve ever seen outside of Pratchett. His narrative is slightly unreliable but always entertaining, he himself has a lot of charm, and after spending enough time with this world you really won’t blame him for being so cynical. He’s extremely good company. The biggest weakness of the book, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s not all narrated by him, although I understand the necessity of including Nathaniel’s (third-person) point of view. If you read this book, read it for Bartimaeus, and he’s worth reading it for.

The main reason I read it, of course, was because it has a prequel, and I wasn’t sure how to get that item on the reading list otherwise. Bartimaeus would understand my motivation.

Suggested pairing: How about a nice shandy? That hint of lemonade for the hint of children’s book about this, with appropriate levels of bitter for the darkness of the world. This time of year I’m all about the Harpoon Big Squeeze grapefruit shandy, but Curious Traveler is good, too.



Just so uncomfortable

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Reading Challenge: A YA Bestseller

Although I selected this for my “YA Bestseller” read, I could also have reasonably chosen it for my “recommended by a family member” book. My older sister read it first, and told me it made her think of me. I was not sure how to feel about that, especially when I got around to starting the book. You see, “Fangirl” is about a college freshman with fairly severe social anxiety, separating from her twin and her father for the first time, who spends as much time as possible shut away fully absorbed in writing fanfiction for a thinly-veiled “Harry Potter” series. Is that how my sister pictured me in college? Yes, I was a socially anxious, awkward, nerdy teenager, but two things: 1, I was actually very outgoing in college, and 2, I never wrote fanfiction, thankyouverymuch. Okay, there was maybe that one Star Trek story when I was 15, but I invented my whole own ship and crew rather than using any of the existing characters. That has to count for something!

Sigh. This book got me worked up, which was to its credit. Cath – look, that name. First of all, every other heroine in existence has a Catherine-based name. Second, I sort of get “Cather” as a name, I get the explanation in the book, but I have spent too much time working in hospitals. You know what a cath is in a hospital? Yeah, you do. It’s not obscure. Okay, back on track. Cath was a frustrating, complicated heroine and I appreciated how much the author resisted ever simplifying her. I wanted to smack her several times, related to her on a number of levels, and felt for her at other times. I thought the father was well-done (and that although I could comfortably have diagnosed most of these characters without getting any pushback from an insurance company, none of them were ever just what the DSM would have to say). I loved Reagan. I thought she was a fully-believable fairy godmother for our shy heroine, also complicated, also with her own shit going on, and just so hilarious. Characters who exist only to inexplicably like Our Heroine, who has been thoroughly unpleasant to them, are my pet peeve, and Reagan could easily have stepped over that line. She didn’t. I would be friends with Reagan. I thought Wren was about 3/4s of a good character, but had a sense that there was a middle step we missed in her development. We never really cracked the box open on Wren, and I was sorry about that, because she’s important. Cath, her father, and Reagan especially made me appreciate the psychological consistency the author was capable of. I could not, however, warm up to Levi. That he went all “wives, mothers, daughters” on the creep in the bar was enough to completely lose me (or, you know, you shouldn’t be a creep because these girls are people who don’t want to be creeped on, not because they have a father who wouldn’t like to hear it! This thought was apparently too complex for Our Love Interest, and no one ever suggested it to him, even when Cath was fighting him on other Items of Chivalry). But even before then I thought he was smug. And he remained smug, even when he was apologizing or messing up or confessing vulnerability. Smug.

This book was uncomfortable reading, too, both for the unflinchingly uncomfortable moments and the memories it brought back of my own college years (yesterday marked 9 years since graduation, if that gives you any hint how far back I had to reach for freshman year memories). And that was in its favor! The realness of it all!

This book also made me think about what incredibly mixed feelings I have about fanfiction. I’m reasonably conversant in the terms, having read a tumblr or two: I know what a “ship” is in fandom, I know what OTP and AU stand for, and I have created a headcanon or two. Like Cath, I was a writing major in college and had professors in fiction writing who banned us from turning in genre pieces, for bullshit reasons of snobbery in academia (I don’t know what they would have done with fanfiction – killed it with fire, probably). I think people should be able to write whatever they want and get feedback on it. I don’t think it’s fair to look down on fanfiction on the internet when Jane Austen fanfictions get published every year essentially because people can’t get enough of fantasizing about Mr. Darcy, and that’s somehow more okay than Draco/Harry slashfic. On the other hand, fanfiction gave us the crime against humanity that is Fifty Shades of Grey, and it…well, much of it makes me uncomfortable. But people have been lovingly crafting their sexual fantasies into works for art since forever, and “because I wouldn’t want to do it and it makes me uncomfortable” is the baseline reasoning for a lot of current legislation that I’m very much opposed to. So carry on, fanfiction (see what I did there? If you read the book, you did).

Bottom line, I guess, is that this is a very frustrating, uncomfortable, but honestly good book.

Suggested pairing: I feel like I shouldn’t recommend any alcoholic beverage since Cath doesn’t drink, but Long Trail just came out with this super, super tasty IPA called Green Blaze? It’s so good. And it’s fairly complex and flavorful, so it would match well with this book.