Monday, June 13, 2011

The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, 2009.

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago & I still am not sure how I felt about it. But "I'm not sure" doesn't make for a very good book review, does it? Though honestly, it's not even easy to give a concise plot summary. Quentin Coldwater is a jaded teen suffering from unrequited love & best-friend envy. He's grown up immersed in the Narnia-like fictional world of Fillory, written about by Christopher Plover in the "Fillory & Further" book series. As a boy on the cusp of adulthood, Quentin still escapes into his imaginary Fillory whenever he can. He stumbles through an overgrown garden into the schoolyard of a magical college a la Hogwarts, & the story really begins. He spends four years there, becomes a magician, languishes as an aimless, drunken post-grad in New York, & that's all before he discovers that Fillory is a real place. Looking back, I am amazed how much story Grossman crammed into those pages.

Reading the book conjures thoughts of Harry Potter (the characters reference quidditch & Hogwarts), Narnia, dark fairy tales from the 1600s, Tolkien, & much more. Publishers Weekly referred to it as "derivative." It is, to be sure; The Magicians' existance relies on every piece of fantasy that came before it. About halfway through reading it, I remember thinking, "It's like if you took Harry Potter & added sex, alcohol, & a dose of realism." But still, it feels so original, more original than the recent traditional fantasies I've read. Somehow it feels like Grossman did something new in subverting the genre the way that he has. He has twisted the fantastic conventions & turned them into something bleak, sometimes funny, sometimes raunchy, almost always sad, & strangely realistic.

So, the good things: The writing, storytelling, world-building, characterization - all stellar. Some scenes will stick with me for a very long time, from a simple description of Quentin & his friends lying - drunk, careless, & happy - on the welters field at the close of a summer day, to the deftly described Beast's terrifying entrance into the Brakebills classroom. Also, it was believable. I thought so many times "This is exactly how a real person would react to discovering magic was real!" I became so engrossed in the story at times that I forgot everything going on around me. I could read the book again right now.

So why didn't I love it wholly? For one, the main characters in the book, Quentin's little posse, are a group of despicable, spoiled, self-absorbed, vindictive jerks. I could go on; I straight-up hated some of them, including Quentin some of the time. They're almost entirely unlikeable, & it's hard to root for a character when you don't like him, & when all the characters have pitted themselves against each other because they're all unhappy. Further, the book is nauseatingly pretentious. Most of the references & the way the characters act ooze wealth & condescension, & it got old, fast. The divisions of the book were bothersome as well. The book was divided into four sections, the first of which seemed far more weighted than the rest & one of which didn't warrant its own section at all. This could've been an editorial decision rather than Grossman's, but I thought it was pretty poorly done.

I can forgive the annoyances, though, because of the book's accomplishments. Grossman proved what fantasy novels rarely (never?) do, which is to show that if you're miserable, if you hurt the people you love, if you are a spoiled brat, if you can't find meaning in the world - you will not find happiness by stepping through a wardrobe, or grasping a magic button, or walking through an enchanted garden into another world. Quentin spent his childhood dreaming of Fillory, but when he got there, he was as listless as he was at home, and continued to search for contentment. He never found it.

Maybe he will in The Magician King, coming in fall '11 (& sitting at home on my shelf right now!)?

I look forward to finding out.

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