Monday, March 15, 2010

Magyk

Magyk, Book One of the Septimus Heap Series by Angie Sage
My Grade: C-

The critic’s quote that you find most often associated with this book is: “Heads–up, Harry, there’s a new young wizard on his way up…”

Seriously? Are you kidding me? This book is light-years away from Harry Potter. Out of the 12 children’s fantasy books I’ve read so far for this blog, this one was by far the most painful to get through.

When I read this critic review I thought; awesome, a great children’s fantasy book I’ll really enjoy. Practically all the customer review on Amazon raved about the creativity of the fully realized fantasy world in which the book is set. They said the action held their interest and they couldn’t put the book down.

So I started to read with eager enthusiasm.  But this eagerness quickly fizzled away. The beginning is slow. There were quite a few awkwardly worded sentences and the writing style, in general, was mediocre. Some reviewers seemed to think the book’s merit lay in its convoluted premise, and, after explaining it, cheekily add on the end: “confused yet?” As in, “just wait, this book is going to take you for a ride.” Not. I kept waiting for the payoff, for the point where I was going to get sucked in and totally hooked the way every other reviewer of this book promises you will be. So, even though I wasn’t initially impressed, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and continued onward. Because besides, when I was a kid reading a fantasy book that my older sister or someone else had recommended to me, I didn’t always get into it right away. But I found if I persevered through the first few chapters I would find the place where I understood what my sister had been raving about, and I would end up loving it. Some of my favorite fantasy books start out really slowly. But by the end you appreciate the slow build-up because you get to know the characters better, and the story becomes more meaningful. So with Magyk, I thought maybe this is like that. And if it is, then it’s probably going to turn out to be really good. Imagine my disappointment. About half way through reading the book I started to search again for others who might have the same opinion as I did. I couldn’t find a one. Everyone gave this book stellar reviews! I didn’t get it! Was I missing something? Finally I found some people who agreed with me on some points, but there weren’t many.

Here’s why I didn’t like it:

I didn’t like any of the characters. Jenna was annoying. Nicko felt one-dimensional. Silas seemed like a fool. Marcia Overstrand, the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, just felt comical. The Hunter wasn’t scary, the Supreme Custodian wasn’t cunning. Even DomDaniel, the evil wizard, didn’t really have a personality. He gave no sense of foreboding like he was supposed to. Alther, the wizard ghost, didn’t contribute much to the tapestry of this fantasy world and was used mainly as a plot device. Aunt Zelda was ok, but I didn’t get the warm fuzzies around her like I think I was supposed to. The Heap’s dog Maxie was even more annoying than Jenna, and also didn’t contribute anything to the story. The one character I found slightly interesting was Stanley the Messenger Rat. Boy 412 was also a bit intriguing, but he would have been much more so if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious that he was Septimus. The big reveal at the end was extremely anticlimactic because of this.

The italicized and bolded words that are supposed to act as visual aids for when a wizard performs a spell are only distracting and obnoxious. Overall, the whole tone of the story is corny and cheesy. None of the characters are fully realized, and there are far too many than is needed. It was as if the author thought that stuffing her book full of quirky characters was a sign of a richly woven magical adventure. But it was quite plain that many characters had no purpose except to move the story along, and they just end up confusing the reader because we never get to know them enough to want to care about them.

This book just wasn’t clever enough for me. I knew the answers to the ‘mysteries’ before the book finished supplying me with the questions. The plot was predictable and, despite the mystery of the baby swaps in the beginning, lacked intricacy.

The map in the front of the book:


I really didn’t like the haphazard mingling of different cultural mythologies. Septimus is the seventh son of a seventh son, and therefore has great magical powers. The fantasy world is that of a feudal medieval town with a castle at its center and a wizard tower. Fine. These are Celtic and English devices that are commonly used in children’s fantasy. However, out of nowhere comes an ancient story of Hotep-Ra, hieroglyphs, and a Dragon Boat. Using Egyptian mythology as a backdrop to magic drawn from Celtic sources in a society that is clearly western European clashes unsettlingly and just looks messy. This element only supports the reader’s sense that this is an underdeveloped fantasy world, created by stitching a flimsy patchwork of bits and pieces and held together by a thin thread.

There are some strange incongruities in here, like how Sage describes how Jenna feels hugging Alther, who is a ghost, as “though a warm summer breeze had wafted through her.”
Really? Anyone who knows anything about ghosts knows that they feel cold. I don’t mean to sound like a know-it-all here, but inconsistencies like this only serve to disconnect the reader from the fantasy world. Fantasy only works so long as it is relatable to the reader. If it is so far removed from reality that it just feels stupid or bizarre, then it becomes impossible for the reader to suspend his disbelief in order to enjoy the story.

There is an interesting sub-plot squeezed into the corner of this book, and for me it was one of the most interesting parts of the story. I wish the author had spent more time on this plotline, which is the back-story of the evil wizard’s Apprentice and his unusual connection to Septimus Heap. The reader is supplied with critical information about this character only at the eleventh hour, and we end up feeling cheated out of a proper ending. The Apprentice’s story only acted as a deus ex machina to wrap everything up. I feel like there was a lot of potential here for his story to be more integrated into the main plot, or even mentioned in middle of the book instead of at the point where the story is practically over. If the Apprentice had been more involved, I believe it would have kept the reader guessing about the actually identity of Septimus until the very end. As it stands, it just doesn’t make sense to bring in a character that has such weight at such a late stage. For those of you unfamiliar with the deus ex machina plot device, it is generally considered to be a poor storytelling technique, for the simple reason that the reader feels cheated out of a proper ending.

Besides the six books in the Septimus Heap series, there is also a published Magykal Papers, which is sort of an appendices to the books, containing richly illustrated pages of maps, letters, documents, journal excepts, a restaurant guide, and other things associated with the characters and this fantasy world. I paged through it recently in the bookstore, and if I hadn’t read the first book already, this would have made the series appear more interesting than it actually is – which goes to show that clever marketing devices such as this work well.

Visit the author’s website: http://angiesage.com/

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