Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review - The Magician's Nephew

I finally decided it was high time I read the entire Narnia series. Up until now I'd only read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In my set of Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician's Nephew is labeled as the 6th book in the series. However, I recently noticed another set that labeled it as the first book. This made me curious about where the book "should" fit in the reading order. So even though I still hadn't read Horse and His Boy or Silver Chair, I jumped ahead to read The Magician's Nephew.

I can see why some people would push for this book to be the first in the reading order. Plot-wise, it takes place before the others. However, the way the narrator explains things makes it clear that it is anticipated that the reader already knows something of Narnia, Aslan and the others. Also, when thinking about the other Narnia books (particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), there is a lot of enjoyment to be gained through the mystery and surprise of the way the story is laid out. If you'd already read Magician's Nephew, I think you might lose some of the excitement in discovering Narnia and its magic. Still, if you want to be a chronological plot reader, there isn't anything that would preclude you from starting here. It is definitely a stand alone story and does a good job of keeping the reader informed of anything they might need to know.

As to the plot itself, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I think I was expecting Digory and Polly to hop into Narnia within a few chapters and have most of their adventures there. Instead there was a fair amount of build up around the characters and their lives in London followed by magical adventures not in Narnia but in other worlds.

I enjoy Lewis's narrative style in these books. I love the way the narrator speaks to the reader directly in a friendly and casual way. This conversational attitude makes the book seem more intimate and likely makes it more approachable to younger readers. I particularly enjoy the little asides where the narrator comments on the behavior of good little boys and girls or says things like "surely you wouldn't do this, but [this character] doesn't know any better." It's sort of an off-handed teaching tool to emphasize "correct" behavior.

The story in Magician's Nephew is really a lot of fun. Where Lion/Witch/Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and Dawn Treader all involve large scale adventures set in Narnia, this book is focused on the smaller scale adventures of Digory and Polly, the idea of magic and other worlds, and the nature of people.

There are a lot of very creative and intriguing ideas in this book. There are sets of magical rings to transport the wearer between worlds (although, as the narrator explains, the Magician doesn't truly understand how or why they really work like they do). There is a strange World Between Worlds where a person has access to any world throughout the wide universe. There are worlds dying and dead through curses and greed. There are new worlds being born from out of nothing.

As with his other books, I could definitely see the Christian themes running through this novel. As is true of the others, he doesn't come right out and preach to the reader, but if you are familiar with your Bible stories (particularly the creation story), you will find a lot of similarities. And yet, this book is much more than a simple retelling of a Bible story in a fantasy world. Lewis provides us with fantastic and fun adventures alongside simple moral lessons of pride, wisdom, honesty, mercy and others.

I especially loved the story thread running in the background about Digory's mother who is slowly dying. Without spoiling the plot points too much, I just want to say that I really loved the way Digory is faced with very difficult choices and has to make decisions based on the balance between his desires and his integrity. The internal turmoil he faces are really insightful.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. In many ways, it's my favorite in the Narnia series so far (just beating out my love of Dawn Treader). At the same time, it's different enough from the other Narnia books I've read that it's hard to make a direct comparison. I love the imagery, language and themes that run through this book. I love the fabulous conversational way the narrative is presented to facilitate both enjoyment and teaching. I love the fun and creative fantasy elements and how they are used to present a commentary on human nature and larger themes. It is definitely aimed at children from a structural and plot perspective but it has greater depth which should appeal to and entertain older readers as well.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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Brian Miller said... is a pretty cool story...i have an audio drama of all the books someone gave me years ago that is really good...i should break that out again and listen to it...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think it belongs in place as the sixth book. I have to confess though, I thought this one of the shortest and weakest of the books.

Okie said...

@ Brian - an audio drama would probably be pretty fun

@ Alex - I think part of the reason I liked it so much is that I've been feeling somewhat pensive lately and the themes really touched a chord. I suspect that reading it at a different time I may agree with you more...but for now, it's high up in my esteem. :)