From-the-hip overview: This novel is a like a combination of Lev Grossman’s Magicians series and Max Barry’s Lexicon. In particular, some similarities to The Magicians lie in the speculations about what magic might be like if young people in the real world had it. (Grossman and Hawkins have very different takes on this, though.) A major similarity to Lexicon is the bad-ass female character who does things that are mysterious at first, but are explained gradually, with a nonlinear narrative structure.
Story summary: Twelve children are orphaned when a catastrophe destroys the subdivision in which they live. They are adopted by a man called “Father,” who is an extremely powerful magician. In fact, he may or may not be God.
Father’s house is a vast library of magical knowledge, and he forces the children to become his apprentices. Each child specializes in a particular branch of knowledge. Some of these specialties, e.g. languages, seem prosaic, and others, like traveling in the land of the dead, not so prosaic. But even the prosaic-seeming specialties really aren’t; for example, the viewpoint character, Carolyn, is assigned the specialty of languages, and she has to learn literally every language ever spoken by humans or anything else. Father does things to her memory to make this possible, and does things to time, so she can learn them all before she’s 50 gazillion years old. She also knows the languages of animals, storm clouds, and volcanos. There is a specific reason that Father assigns Carolyn this specialty, which is revealed, very nonchalantly, toward the end of the novel.
Another specialty is war, and this is where the overt conflict in the novel comes from. The child David is assigned war, and Father gives him, as with all the other children, various abilities appropriate for his specialty. In particular, David can read people’s minds to an extent, especially in the heat of battle, which makes it very difficult to surprise him. Not surprisingly, since he’s essentially a god of war, he is horrifically cruel, not to mention murderous, and so he is novel’s main antagonist.
Or is he?
For a while we’re kept guessing about this, as Carolyn’s ruminations are largely withheld from us, the readers. This is particularly appropriate given an antagonist who can read minds, because there are certain things which she can hardly allow herself to think, so of course we can’t see her thinking them.
Due to the masking of Carolyn’s thoughts and the non-linear narrative, Carolyn’s motives and character are revealed gradually and sometimes jarringly. (When I say jarringly, I don’t mean that Hawkins handles characterization poorly; it’s plain that he does this intentionally.) We are constantly changing our mind about Carolyn. First she seems like a good guy, then a bad guy, then a good… until we finally understand what she was trying to accomplish and the constraints she was operating within.
Apparently some readers had trouble with the non-linear structure, but this reader had no difficulty. In fact, the non-linear structure is simply the use of flashbacks, helpfully identified with the chapter tag “Interlude.”
Speaking of structure, though, there was an aspect that was a little bit Say what?: When the main conflict is resolved there are still 95 pages left. There follows what struck me as an extended coda. There is a point to it, it turns out, which has to do with the internal conflict, as opposed to the external conflict. But the managing of this, structurally, could have been done in a better way.
The book also has a lot of horrific violence, to the point that some have labeled it Horror, as opposed to Fantasy. To quote Louis XIV in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, “Persons of a sensitive disposition will avert their eyes.” The horrible things people do to each other! That alone keeps it from being a five out of five, for me. It is simply too much. Don’t get me wrong; this is a good novel. But, for example, the tortures, er, punishments, that “Father” inflicts on his adopted children/students are almost unbearable to read.
Overall assessment: This is certainly above-average modern fantasy. But don’t read it if you can’t stomach extreme violence. The two specific examples mentioned below aren’t even a tenth of it.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. Read no further if you don’t want certain surprises given away:
● Another similarity to Grossman’s The Magicians: The same fight that happens over and over again, as the magician guiding everything seeks to engineer a timeline in which the outcome is satisfactory.
● Other similarities to Barry’s Lexicon: The main female protagonist is supported by a secondary male protagonist who doesn’t understand what’s going on, but whose involvement is crucial in the long run. In both novels the initial ignorance of the male protagonist makes him a bewildered secondary viewpoint character, and the non-linear narrative keeps us bewildered right along with him at first. In both works, the language skills of the female protagonist are crucial.
● What do I mean when I say that the violence is horrific? Well, for example, Father has a grill that is a bronze bull large enough to hold a large mass of meat for cooking. Guess what he does when one of his children is disobedient? Yes, he does. He actually puts David inside it, and cooks him until he’s dead. He can resurrect people from the dead, so this is not permanent, but that’s not the point. How could Hawkins bear to write such a scene?
And then there’s Margaret, whose specialty is traveling in the land of the dead. How does she become proficient at this? Father kills her and resurrects her, over and over again, for years. Each time he kills her it’s in a different way, so eventually Margaret has died in just about every way that it’s possible for a person to die. Not surprisingly, she quickly becomes insane.
● Is Father God? Ultimately this is left ambiguous, but… Near the end Father remarks that although he did not create the universe, he did add light to its physics. See Genesis 1:3.
● Why does Father assign Carolyn the language specialty? Because she is his designated successor, and the most powerful magic, the magic that lets one change the past, is written down in a book in which the words on the pages change languages every few seconds. Only a person who has mastered all languages could hope to make any sense of it.