fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCodex by Lev GrossmanCodex by Lev Grossman

There are disadvantages to finding a trilogy you really love, and they usually surface somewhere between the second and final book. I discovered this whilst waiting for The Magician’s Land to be released, after devouring the first two novels of Grossman’s Magicians series. It was at this point I turned my attention to the rest of Grossman’s literary corpus and discovered a stand-alone novel published five years previously to The Magicians: Codex.

Codex centres around the twenty-something, highly paid investment banker, Edward Wozny. Wozny is a disillusioned, slightly listless New Yorker (sound familiar?) who’s got two weeks off between his high-flying job in New York and his high-flying job in London. He’s spent his entire life working, and now that he actually has free time, he is not entirely sure what to do with it: “What did people do when they weren’t working? Play? What were the rules? What did you get if you won?”

Before he can really make a decision either way, he’s given a rather unusual assignment. The enigmatic Duchess of Bowmry, a client of Edward’s firm, has asked him to organise the private library that she and her husband have inherited. They are looking for something — a medieval manuscript: the codex, written by Gervase Langford, a contemporary of Chaucer. Enter Margaret, a bookish and slightly hostile academic who embarks to help Edward on his search for the codex.

Meanwhile, a gamer friend of Edward’s — the inexplicably named Zeph — gives him a disc with a game on it and this is where elements of the fantastical start to infiltrate the novel. Grossman deftly blurs the line between the world of the game and reality, a trope he’s evidently fond of as we see it developed in the Magicians trilogy with the land of Fillory. There’s also a group of gamers that all get together to do battle in the videogame, not unlike the gang of internet masterminds that Julia infiltrates in The Magician King.

Though classed as a thriller, in Codex, we can clearly see germs of ideas that Grossman will later develop in his fantasy trilogy: the blurry lines between fantasy and reality, the young and disillusioned New Yorker protagonist. In Margaret are glimmers of Julia: a skinny, ice-queen with way too much sass and way too little warmth. (I wonder if Grossman has some deep-seated aversion to this kind of female? It would be interesting to know if there was some kind of run-in with an early girlfriend that scarred him for life).

The book has received scathing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, but I’m an avid Grossman fan and Codex did little to dampen my enthusiasm for his work. It’s wonderfully written with all the wit and sharp dialogue of his later work. There is perhaps less of a distinct voice than in The Magicians, and less of that authorial self-assurance that made Grossman’s trilogy such a pleasurable read, but it’s still a compulsive yarn and well worth a dabble.

Publisher: About to depart on his first vacation in years, Edward Wozny, a hotshot young investment banker, is sent to help one of his firm’s most important and mysterious clients. His task is to search their library stacks for a precious medieval codex, a treasure kept sealed away for many years and for many reasons. Enlisting the help of passionate medievalist Margaret Napier, Edward is determined to solve the mystery of the codex-to understand its significance to his wealthy clients, and to decipher the seeming parallels between the legend of the codex and an obsessive role-playing computer game that has absorbed him in the dark hours of the night. The chilling resolution brings together the medieval and the modern aspects of the plot in a twist worthy of earning comparisons to novels by William Gibson and Dan Brown, not to mention those by A. S. Byatt and Umberto Eco. Lev Grossman’s Codex is a thriller of the highest order.


  • Ray McKenzie

    RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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