“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

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“All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai (2016)

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“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

I like the themes of alternate histories. Everything that has happened, had it happened another way, would probably have set the world off along a path unlike the one we currently have. Some of those would turn out better for us, some not. Interestingly though, we focus a lot on the what ifs of the past, not really considering that every single thing we do in the present is changing the future. This is all the past to someone, after all. But before we get too bogged down in the philosophical aspects of this, on with the review!

Tom Barren lives in 2016, but not the one we are familiar with. In his timeline, on July 11th 1965, the physicist Lionel Goettreider unveiled a machine that produced unlimited energy. Over the next fifty years, humanity had developed the future that our ancestors dreamt off, complete with moon bases, flying cars, food pills, teleportation, eternal peace and universal comfort. Tom’s father, the remote and rude Victor Barren, is now proposing the first experiment with time travel, sending a team back to the very moment that the Goettreider Engine was turned on, the most important moment of human history. But when Tom sleeps with the lead chrononaut, Penelope Weschler, the night before the mission and she is discovered to be pregnant, the plans are ruined and Penelope kills herself. Faced with heartbreak and access to a time machine, Tom does what anyone would do – something very stupid.

However, upon arriving in 1965, his visit does not go unnoticed by the universe, and he boomerangs back to 2016 to find that everything is changed. His father is much friendlier, he has a sister he never knew, and he’s now apparently a notable architect instead of a walking disappointment. Gone are the technological advancements – he’s landed in the universe we would recognise as our very own. He seeks out Penelope and finds her, although it’s not the same her, and now he has to make a difficult choice. Should Tom stay in this imperfect world where he can experience love and be a success, or go back to the perfect utopia where the world was at peace, but he was miserable?

Uniquely among time travel fiction, to my knowledge at least, Elan Mastai deals with the real issue of the science. Travelling in time also requires travelling in space, as not only is the world rotating on an axis and orbiting the sun, it’s also tearing through the vast expanses of the universe so if you travel back to the same spot, the planet will be miles away. Hell, misjudging your landing by a few inches can render you embedded in a sofa or solid ground. Mastai could easily handwave this, but he has a solid bash at explaining the science on how to solve these issues. How accurate they are or how likely it is that they’d work, however, I don’t know for sure – I’m an arts student – but the science feels solid enough that I’m happy to accept it. The whole thing becomes a lot more believable, even more so because explanations are given in too much detail to make you lose interest. As Tom says, he doesn’t understand the mechanics behind the time machine or the Goettreider Engine anymore than most of us would be able to build a microwave or television from scratch.

Like pretty much all of my favourite writers, Mastai’s real skill lies in his ability to build a world. The alternate utopian 2016 is explored in vivid detail, with Tom explaining how he takes for granted that absolutely everything is recycled, there’s no need for war or even, really, to break any laws, and he’s never eaten an unripe avocado. When he arrives in our timeline, there are a few scenes of him struggling with the mundane, such as actually having to open doors with a handle, or having to remember how to write by hand. Mastai could easily have spent far too long exploring the specifics of our world and explaining why they’re shit, but we already know about our world, so he skips playfully over it and lets us imagine Tom’s views over the rest. Towards the end of the novel, we also see a third timeline and while it only appears for a brief chapter, it too is incredibly evocative.

While it’s fun to read about time travel and alternate dimensions, it is nice to come up against something that asks, “No, seriously, how would this work?” Despite being on the hard end of the science fiction scale, it still retains a sense of whimsy and it’s good for a chuckle, despite some of the events being really rather harrowing. It’s nice to have my faith in the genre bolstered every once in a while, and this has certainly done that.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman (2014)

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magic land“The letter had said to meet in a bookstore.”

Well, here we are. A year and a day after my review of The Magician King, I finally produce one for the final book in the trilogy, The Magician’s Land. The first one, The Magicians, was my first ever review, and this has a weird sense of a circle closing. Not that I’m packing in this blog, but nonetheless the completion of a series – particularly a very good one – is always a moment for reflection. So I’m going to crack on and, please be careful, there are spoilers ahead.

NOTE: Below there will be spoilers for those who haven’t yet read The Magicians or The Magician King. Read on at your own risk.

The book opens with Quentin Coldwater back in the real world, banished from the fantasy land of Fillory which, until recently, he was the High King of. Now forbidden to return by the ram god Ember, he is alone in the world and has no direction. He manages to find his way back to his old college, Brakebills, where he learnt so much of his magic. He’s not sure how pleased they’ll be to see him, but Dean Fogg allows him to join the teaching staff, where he proves to be a competent teacher.

However, he is also distracted by a page he stole from a book in the Neitherlands – the world that exists between the worlds – which seems to contain some kind of very heavy duty magic. Dedicating his non-teaching time to decoding the page, he develops further passion for magic and its wonder. And then something terrible happens and he has to leave, and so does one of his students, Plum, a highly talented witch who seems to have her own private link to Fillory.

Now unemployed and with even less direction than before, he finds that he has been summoned to a bookstore where several other magicians have gathered. They are given a task by a blackbird: track down two thieves known only as the Couple and steal an unstealable suitcase from them. The bird says that the contents are valuable but claims not to know what they are. Quentin and Plum join the team and soon find themselves up to their necks in some of the most powerful magic they’ve yet encountered.

Meanwhile, back in Fillory, Eliot and Janet, the High King and Queen, are coming to terms with the fact that the world appears to be ending. The clock trees are running out of sync, the daily eclipses have stopped, and even the animals have started going a bit funny. With time rapidly running out, they must try and find a way to save their kingdom before the apocalypse comes and wipes everything out.

And on top of all of this, the ghost of Quentin’s ex-girlfriend Alice has started appearing at mirrors throughout the multiverse, which is probably not a good thing.

Like the previous two installments, Grossman fills this one with a wonderful series of interlocking narratives, taking the reader on a journey backwards and forwards through time, teaching us things we haven’t yet learnt, and explaining things that have so far been unexplained. Everything ties together but you better have a good memory because there are things brought back to the forefront here that haven’t been relevant since the first book, and given it’s been two and a half years since I read that, my memory is a bit shaky. Nonetheless, it all felt right. There’s not too much exposition on what has come before, but we do get lots of long stories from the characters about things we didn’t see first time round.

Grossman is a very smart writer and his style is beautiful. Whatever causes him to produce his ideas must be pretty special indeed, and I want some of it. Without trying to give too much away, this book contains a flying billiards table, a moving chalk man, a room in a library that contains all the novels that were never written, time spent in the mind of a blue whale, a potential explanation for why ghosts are happy to stay ghosts, and the most powerful spell ever encountered.

Perhaps it ends too abruptly, but that might just be me always wanting to know what happens next, and there’s definitely a quite literal dues ex machina quite late in the story, but you can forgive it (just) because everything else has been so smart. There’s a lot of wisdom about books in here, especially the repeated wisdom that you can never unread a book, so be careful which ones you choose.

Frankly, as a series, it is a thing of beauty and I’ll probably end up returning to it again at some point and discover many, many things I missed or don’t remember from the first time round. If you’re going for this series, do start at the beginning, and I really think that if you have even the smallest interest in magic and how irresponsible people can be with it, then it’s worth checking in and spending some time in the company of some of the most intelligent magicians of all time.

“The Magician King” by Lev Grossman (2011)

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magician king“Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.”

The inescapable trouble with book series is that, if you leave too long between each one, details slip from your mind and the story unravels, so that by the time you get to the next one, you’re tromping a half-remembered country with a dodgy outdated map. Being someone who dislikes reading the same author twice in immediate succession, this presents a problem for me. I solved it with A Series of Unfortunate Events by reading one a month, and Patrick Ness solved it for me with Chaos Walking by making the books so damn good. However, it had been about sixteen months since I last visited Grossman’s series about magicians. In fact, the original novel forms the very first review I did on this site. Diving back in was never going to be easy.

I liked the original very much, so I had high hopes for the sequel although, as I will explain below, much of it was swathed in mystery once more.

NOTE: Below there will be spoilers for those who haven’t yet read The Magicians. Read on at your own risk.

Quentin Coldwater used to be a normal teenager, unusual only for his intellect, but all of that now seems long ago. Instead of getting into one of the colleges he was expecting, he took the entrance test to a hidden college called Brakebills – a college where magic was real and very much on the curriculum. Through this twist of fate, he made new friends, lost old ones, and discovered that the land of Fillory, an up-until-then fictional world that featured heavily in his favourite childhood books was real and accessible.

This story picks up two years later, when Quentin is now the King of Fillory, along with two other Brakebills students, Eliot and Janet, and his friend Julia, who, while not attending magical college, somehow learnt magic anyway and is more than capable of holding her own with the others. Quentin has had enough of just sitting around and being kingly, feeling desperately the need to go on a quest. When it turns out that one of the islands on the very edge of Fillory’s borders haven’t been paying their taxes, Quentin volunteers to pay them a visit, along with fellow monarch Julia, a young mapmaker, the most talanted swordsman in the country, and a talking sloth.

The island turns out to be tropical, but otherwise fairly boring, although he learns about an island even further out, After Island, which is at the centre of a fairy tale involving golden keys and the very edge of the world. Setting out a course for this island, they eventually find it. Without quite knowing how, using the key in an invisibile door, Quentin and Julia suddenly find themselves back in the real world, on Earth, and they’re neither too happy about it. Desperate to find a way back, Julia uses her underground contacts to seek out a portal home. Instead, they find their old friend Josh and dragon expert Poppy, and after a lot of searching, both in the world and in themselves, they find a way back, only to find that this is anything but the end: their problems are only just beginning.

Interspersed with this narrative is the story of how Julia came to use magic, and the struggles she faced, filling in the gaps of what happened while Quentin was studying at Brakebills. As it turns out, what happened then and what’s happening now might be more closely related than any of them realise.

I’ll confess that it took me longer than it possibly should have to get into this one, but I put that mostly down to the fact I’d forgotten a lot about the original. Thankfully, the first few chapters are fairly heavy on recapping, filling in gaps about previous events and giving explanations as to why certain characters are supposed to be important. Although I’m not in any way a Narnia fan, it’s even clearer here than before that Fillory is just Grossman’s take on the subject, inventing as he does a world where magic is not only possible, but runs through the entire place. As one of the characters says, there is magic on Earth, but Fillory is magic.

It’s also full of references to pop culture, and in particular Harry Potter. Last time, Grossman mentioned Hermione and Quidditch, and this time Hagrid gets a mention. It’s logical – these characters probably did read Harry Potter, and as magical references go, most people are going to get these ones. This is sort of a Harry Potter for adults – one in which magic is real, but everyone is still very concerned with sex and alcohol.

The characters are fairly well constructed, although I think I’d find any of them a bit boring to go for dinner with. Julia is interesting, and her backstory is explored in wonderful, painful detail, making you feel sorry for all she has had to go through. There are heavy moments of exposition, but it never feels particularly laboured. Some scenes don’t get nearly enough time to play with. For example, minor antagonist of the first book, Penny, shows up in the Neitherlands (the space in between universes) to throw some backstory at Quentin and Poppy, but he’s gone again fairly quickly with little fanfare. Also, there is a wonderful scene with a dragon, but it could really have done with a little more time.

All told, it definitely reads like the middle novel in a trilogy, but not one that makes me feel like the third book will be a chore. It’s hilarious, and the magic works so seamlessly. People’s reaction to magic and Fillory is exactly what you’d expect from reality. Most people wouldn’t just accept it, there’s got to be a few double takes and moments of denial. It ends in a manner that is frustrating, but then again so perfect, and I for one am now going to be desperately looking forward to the series conclusion.