Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet


I discovered my ability to get on to NoveList through my local library, and have been having a lot of fun exploring it. So, I thought I'd add that as a way that I picked books - to be precise, I took one of my favourite books from last year, looked it up, and took out the first book on the "ReadAlike" list that popped up on the side.

So, can you guess which book The Murdstone Trilogy was a read-along for? It's about an author of young adult books about tortured young men, whose oeuvre has gone out of oeuv. His agent convinces him that what needs to be written is a work of High Phantasy, a quest tale for the ages, or at least for the next few months. Murdstone hates the idea with a fiery passion, but has no money or other marketable skills, so what's an author to do?

Well, apparently an author is to get very drunk and pass out in a circle of standing stones, where he is put into connection with another realm, and into contact with a Greme (I thought of this as a dwarf, but I might have missed a description) who writes a novel for him, propelling Murdstone into fame, fortune and a million-dollar advance for what it supposed to be the second book in a trilogy.

Murdstone gets crazier, weird things happen when he writes, and his audience doesn't care if he's flirting with the powers of darkness as long as they get invited on the date. 

So, what book did this get connected with? It makes a certain amount of sense that it was the first book mentioned when I was on the page for Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which was my second favourite book of last year. Do I agree with the comparison? Yes and no.

Yes, they both deal with the bleedover of magic into the seemingly real, the connection of rich preexisting fictional worlds with ones closer to our own. Grossman is hearkening back to Harry Potter and Narnia, while Peet is much more looking at the Tolkien/Robert Jordan type of fantasy. From a subject matter angle, sure, this recommendation makes sense.

But yet, they both approach their subject matter in such different ways. The Magicians has such obvious love for Narnia and Harry Potter, and the ideas Grossman's riffing on from those books have such deep affection and connection underlying them. Mal Peet's book, though, is fairly contemptuous of modern fantasy, lumping it all together under the (admittedly overdone) quest/magic kingdom trope, more or less calling it artistically bankrupt.

And sure, I am tired of those quest stories too. I am tired of the young man who is more than he seems setting off on a quest and finding beautiful women along the way and falling into darkness and yadda yadda yadda. Much of it does seem of a muchness. But there's also some truly astoundingly good fantasy being written by people who are pushing the boundaries of the stories that have been told into startling new places.

You know what it is, though? I guess I feel justified in criticizing what I see as trends in fantasy (and science fiction) because I consider myself part of the family. These are my genres, just like they are the genres of many other people, and we should be engaging with them critically and openly and arguing and discussing and disagreeing. But this feels like someone outside the family, someone who doesn't even know my family that well, has run into the most annoying cousin casually and thinks that describes the whole family.

That may not be fair. I haven't read Mal Peet's before. But his take on fantasy as it stands in the world struck me very much as the view of someone who has not delved deeply into it. My hackles are slightly raised.

But for all that contempt for the genre, The Murdstone Trilogy is entertaining. It's not as deep and complex as The Magicians. It's far more of a romp through the evils of the publishing industry being infiltrated by an evil necromancer from beyond. I didn't mind reading it, but it had none of the deep connection to its sources that I was hoping for.

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