Samantha’s #CBR4 review #9: Codex, by Lev Grossman
These days Lev Grossman is known for his novel, The Magicians, and its follow-up, The Magician King, which are apparently a more real-worldish Harry Potter kind of thing. Prior to those books, Grossman wrote Codex, which is your standard “ordinary person becomes involved in extraordinary dealings” sort of story. I think that plot is some kind of fantasy writers’ rite of passage; everyone’s got one. The key to succeeding with it is to make the extraordinary world interesting and/or recognizable to your readership. Grossman does fine with that side of things, but there are other issues at play in Codex that may just not sit well with me personally. I’ll explain.
Edward Wozny is a young, up-and-coming banker. When we meet him, he is at the start of a two-week vacation, an interim period between the job in New York that he just left, and the fancy new job awaiting him in London. During this “vacation,” he has been assigned to catalogue a valuable library for some particularly wealthy clients, the Duke and Duchess of Bowmry. Naturally, this is an odd request, given that he is a banker, and of course, there is more to the story. Edward soon goes down a rabbit hole involving a search for a 14th century manuscript (the titular Codex) that may or may not exist, a power struggle between the Duke and Duchess, and a strange, alternate-reality computer game called MOMUS. Along the way, he enlists the help of Margaret Napier, a medievalist, whose interest in the Codex may actually be greater than his own.
Everyone loves adventure stories about old books, manuscripts, or other mysterious artifacts, right? Probably everyone except the people who actually work with such items for a living. I happen to be such a one; specifically, I’m even a rare book cataloguer. Now, I’m not going to pick the novel apart from a librarian’s standpoint; for the most part, Grossman does pretty well with that side of things. He does manage to make research somewhat exciting, but he neither glamorizes nor over-stereotypes librarians or archives, so for that I give him credit. There are a few issues (mainly, the fact that someone working on a PhD in medieval literature would also be highly skilled in training-intensive fields like cataloging and book conservation), but overall, Codex is more The Name of the Rose than The Da Vinci Code in terms of staying realistic.
The inclusion of the computer game was probably partly an attempt at current cultural relevance, and is slightly out-of-place, particularly when the plot contrives to connect MOMUS to Edward’s quest for the book. I think it’s also an attempt to provide Edward with some character development in that he was once a student of literature himself (and would therefore have been interested in adventure games and medieval codexes) before he decided to sell his soul and become a banker. Although Grossman reminds us frequently that this is the case, he would have been better served to make it clear via the character himself, and less a part of the narration. As it is, the game is pretty much just a glorified plot point on which Grossman spends way too much time and effort. It’s still kind of interesting and fun to read, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not it should have gone into a different book.
The biggest issue of the novel, for me, is in the flow of events. I think I was halfway through the book and still wondering when pieces of the puzzle were going to start coming together, and when they finally did, it was totally abrupt. I’m usually pretty good at connecting the dots, but I think that’s often because writers are good at pointing their reader toward connections. In this case, Grossman just sort of plopped down a few facts and figures, and then unceremoniously said “Oh, by the way, here’s how those add up.” After that, things become rushed and unclear, to the point that I had to go back and read what was essentially the climax of the story multiple times because I thought I had missed something. Essentially, the entire novel is a build-up, which would be fine if the payoff were a little bit more exciting. I think Mr. Grossman became too involved with the fine details of his story to the detriment of the overall arc. That fact doesn’t make Codex unreadable, it just makes it really disappointing. Whether or not you happen to be a rare book librarian.