Sixteen-year-old Glenn Morgan has lived next to the Rift her entire life and has no idea of what might be on the other side of it. Glenn’s only friend, Kevin, insists the fence holds back a world of monsters and witchcraft, but magic isn’t for Glenn. She has enough problems with reality: Glenn’s mother disappeared when she was six, and soon after, she lost her scientist father to his all-consuming work on the mysterious Project. Glenn buries herself in her studies and dreams about the day she can escape. But when her father’s work leads to his arrest, he gives Glenn a simple metal bracelet that will send Glenn and Kevin on the run—with only one place to go.
-cover and synopsis courtesy of goodreads.com
Atmospheric Analysis: This gorgeous cover hits the sweet spot between a conceptual, literary design and a more traditional illustrated fantasy cover. And it’s shiny. Very cool.
Planetary Class: Half of Magisterium takes place in a technological dystopian society; the other half in a high fantasy world. Let’s split the difference and call it science fantasy.
Viability Rating: It feels silly to talk about viability when so much of the novel takes place in a fantasy world of ghosts and magic, but what we see of the technological society of the Collegium is very, very nicely done. We even get an accurate description of time dilation within the first few pages!
Mohs Scale: See above for why rating Magisterium is a tricky matter. The scientific world might rate so high as a five on the Mohs scale. The science discussed is either already existent (tablet computing) or plausibly explained as an extrapolation of existing science. The fantasy stuff is closer to a two, a world of magical phlebotinum.
Xenolinguisical Assessment: I’m normally not a fan of third-person POV in YA novels. So many authors who choose to go this route create stories which lack immediacy, rendering the characters cold and distant creatures. That isn’t the case here. Hirsch’s third person narration stays very close to Glenn, our protagonist, and is empathetically and confidently rendered. Hirsch’s sentences are often a touch on the long side, but his prose is poetic, grammatically correct, and well-controlled. He tends to end them just when he needs to for maximum emotional impact, like here:
That bright little grin that he usually had would be gone, and he would be looking at her the same way he did when they sat on that train platform and on the banks of that shining lake, steady and serious, as if he was seeing deeper into her, as if everything had changed and there was no going back. (p. 131, ARC edition)
Expanded Report: Just last year, both Sean and I might have been heard to muse that the magic of Japanese YA–particularly anime and manga series–was conspicuously absent from the American young adult literary environment. After reading Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes, which was very close in spirit to several space-bound shojo series, I began to suspect we were wrong on that count. Jeff Hirsch’s Magisterium, out in October, proves me wrong again.
What we have here isn’t quite like the girly anime evoked by Nix, nor like anything else I’ve seen in modern YA. Instead, the closest analog would have to be the work of Hayao Miyazaki. I was particularly reminded of Spirited Away. In both works, we have strong female protagonists who lose their parents and enter magical worlds–worlds where nature obeys new laws, worlds inhabited by terrifying manipulators (or consumers) of matter, worlds haunted by ghosts, worlds where people are transformed into animals and then back again. These universes are dreamlike and vaguely disturbing, but nevertheless compelling. I suspect I’ll carry the world of Magisterium with me for a long, long while.
The plot scaffolding is one you may have seen before. There are lost princesses and magical artifacts. A girl loses her parents and must cross the border into another universe to save them. But the details of the world make this still a very rich experience. Sixteen-year-old Glenn Morgan’s father is obsessed with building technological wonders in his workshop. He hopes to save Glenn’s mother, who disappeared beyond the Rift, an invisible border created by the fallout of a long-past war, ten years before our story begins. Meanwhile, Glenn dreams of outer space. She wants to join a spacefleet and take off for an interstellar colony. Despite the techy details, Glenn’s home world feels very well-grounded. The people in it are recognizable, real, and well-rendered.
And none are so well-rendered as Glenn herself, or her love interest, childhood friend Kevin Kapoor. Glenn has been shaped by the loss of her mother. She’s angry, loyal, and determined to a fault. Her growing affection for Kevin, who wears a green mohawk and comes up with bad band names for fun, unsettles her slightly. What does it mean to begin to fall for someone you’ve known your whole life, and what are you risking by following your heart? In a genre full of instalove and unrealistically adult teenage boys, Kevin–and his complex relationship with Glenn–are certainly refreshing. They get on each other’s nerves and have trouble communicating, but their relationship is so heartfelt that the ultimate resolution feels wonderfully earned. Both make grand gestures; in one of the novel’s most touching moments, Glenn plunges into a river to swim after a brainwashed Kevin. But these actions never feel obligatory or contrived. I believed them whole-heartedly.
Hirsch uses the chemistry and tension between these characters to effectively and seamlessly teach us about the world at the novel’s beginning (having two characters fight about the universe’s nature is so much more effective than a stock infodump). Later, they accompany one another through the Rift and into the magical world of the Magisterium. Here, physics work differently than on Glenn’s Earth. Magic is real. Her cat is (awesomely) transformed into a walking, talking guardian and mentor. They become enmeshed in the politics of the world past the Rift, and it’s here that the story lightly stumbled for me. The characters drift from character encounter to character encounter much like avatars in top-down JRPGs. Each encounter is scary and fascinating–one with a cabin-dwelling woman named Opal Whitley (named, perhaps, for Opal Whiteley?) stands out as particularly strange–but I lost sense of the driving plot.
But all recovers by the novel’s end, as secret identities and powers are revealed and wild magic does its work. Glenn and Kevin tumble away from one another, and then together again, and I eventually realized that it’s their romance that really drives the plot here and not the magical bracelet or Glenn’s parentage. But when a romance is written so competantly and well–when the characters involved are both strong, vivid, real, and when they inhabit a world so starkly fascinating–then I’m far from one to complain. Magisterium may not be a perfect work, but, like the work of Miyazaki, it’s the kind that you just can’t help but crow about.