Friday, October 2, 2009

The Magicians -- Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater isn't a very happy person. He's brilliant and well-off, his parents are nice enough, though vague and mostly absent. His two best friends, James and Julia, are happily dating, though Quentin wishes he was the one dating Julia.

The world is grey and cold and boring and predictable. Secretly, he dreams of magic. He daydreams about Fillory, wishes it was real.

Fillory is a Narnia-ish (very, very Narnia-ish) fantasy world described in a series of children's books originally published in the 1930s. Most people Quentin's age left them behind years and years ago, but he didn't. He still returns to them -- when he's bored (which is often), when he's upset (ditto), when he wants to escape (again, ditto).

Then, after a death at his Princeton interview leads to an encounter with a strange paramedic leads to an invitation to apply to Brakebills, a school in upstate New York that specializes in, you guessed, magic:

This was everything he'd always wanted, the break he'd given up on years ago. It was right in front of him. He was finally on the other side, down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass. He was going to sign the papers and he was going to be a motherfucking magician. Or what the hell else was he going to do with his life?

There was much chatter about The Magicians when it came out this summer. It was touted as "fantasy for grown-ups", Harry Potter in the real world, Harry Potter in college. It was described as original and epic and ground-breaking.

That's a whole lot of hype to live up to.

Is the hype accurate? Well, as always, it depends on who you talk to. The people doing the hyping, obviously, would say yes. The people giving it one-star reviews at Amazon, obviously, would say no.

My opinion lands somewhere in the middle. It was, for sure, a book that kept me reading -- I happily read all 400 pages in an afternoon. As in any other fantasy novel set in a secret corner of our world, I enjoyed discovering it with Quentin:

Quentin was pretty sure that if he stood very still for a few seconds everything would snap back to normal. He wondered if he was undergoing some dire neurological event.

I enjoyed most of the nods to previous works -- I didn't, as some readers have, see it as derivative -- because Quentin is such a fan, much of the book read like a tribute to fantasy-that-came-before. And I loved the fact that the students took ideas for their offensive spells from D&D.

My major personal difficulty with the book boiled down to this: Quentin Coldwater is not very likable. He's selfish and apathetic, never happy with what he has, even when what he has is exactly what he originally thought he wanted. He's the personification of the-grass-is-always-greener. I never doubted him as a character -- he seemed very real to me -- but I didn't like him. But I'm not sure if I was supposedto like him. If this was a book about Magic in the Real World, it stands to reason that the hero wouldn't just not be heroic -- he wouldn't be a hero. And, ultimately, I didn't see him as one. He was just a protagonist. Which, really, made sense.

Oddly, I seem to have talked myself into liking it more than I did originally. Actually, maybe appreciating it is a better description.

I think that many readers who pick this one up expecting a Grown-Up Version of Harry Potter will be disappointed. The similarities pretty much begin and end with: Unhappy kid gets accepted into School of Magic. The Magiciansisn't about the plotting (which, especially towards the end, was pretty weak) or about the world-building. It's a coming-of-age story (though I don't know if I really believe that Quentin has actually come of age by the end) about a self-absorbed, not-very-impressive, extremely angsty young man.

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Book source: An ARC given to me by a library patron.

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Cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom.


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