Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Weekly Book Review: The Magicians

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The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Genre: Fantasy / Fiction
Released: 2009


"Quentin Coldwater is a high school senior, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read when he was little, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, everything in his real life just seems gray and colorless. That changes when Quentin finds himself admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery.

But magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure and meaning he thought it would—until he and his friends make a stunning [discovery]: Fillory is real. The Magicians is a grand, glittering fantasy that reinterprets the grand tradition of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling in a brilliant novel for adults."

[from Lev Grossman's official website.]


The Magicians is a bit of a complicated book for me in that I enjoyed reading it despite a growing list of misgivings. Grossman is a skilled prose stylist, and The Magicians is peppered with beautiful moments. It has its flaws, some glaring, some small matters of personal taste, but it's a worthy read.

The first half of The Magicians may as well be titled Harry Potter and the Undergraduate Education. After a mysterious entrance exam, our protagonist (I won't say hero, because Quentin doesn't live up to the title) is accepted into Brakebills, a university for the magically inclined. Brakebills' curriculum is far more complicated than Hogwarts', as the magic of Quentin's world is a thing of complex theory, mathematics, and arthritis-inducing hand movements. Light on heroic qualities as Quentin may be, none can call him a slouch. Brakebills only accepts the best and the brightest, and for good reason.

The chapters at Brakebills are by far my favorite parts of the book. The magic system is interesting and well-imagined, and the students that populate Brakebills' hallowed halls are complex, fully realized, and very, very broken. Quentin is the worst of them, a vain, spoiled, greedy brat whose malaise and general negativity often intrude on otherwise good scenes. Quentin's awful personality is likely intentional, but The Magicians doesn't always avoid the pitfalls inherent in an unlikeable leading character.

The second half of the book, covering Quentin's graduation from Brakebills and adventures in the Narnian land of Fillory, feels a bit disconnected from the first. It's almost as though The Magicians was two novels slapped together, both with clearly different themes and focal points. That isn't to say the Fillory half is worse than the first, and I'm sure many readers will like it better than Quentin's comparatively aimless journey through the magical education system, but the transition between the two stories is rocky. Still, Fillory is an interesting place, and it wears its darkness a little better than Brakebills does. Had Quentin's Fillory adventures been allowed the breathing room of their very own novel, they may have been more successful overall.

What brings this book down, in my opinion, is its own cynicism. The Magicians clearly scoffs at the rampant idealism of certain entries in the fantasy genre, and it relishes unleashing the potential darkness in lighter stories like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. In doing so, though, it loses much of what makes those stories so valuable to their readers without offering up anything of its own. It's sterile and clinical, the hospital hallway to Harry Potter's grand, shifting castle. Even Quentin and friends' delve into Fillory is strangely devoid of magic. The Magicians is a more realistic take on the idea of a magical school and of what would likely happen if a group of irresponsible twenty-something was given access to a magical other realm, but realism is hardly the chief concern of fantasies like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, nor should it be. The strength of the genre, at least in my opinion, is its ability to single out and champion universal themes by removing or altering reality's natural roadblocks. The Magicians points to these roadblocks and declares, "Here they are!" as if many fantasy authors, rather than making the conscious choice to scoot around or dismantle them, simply hadn't noticed their existence.

I think The Magicians will be more successful to readers who prefer literary rather than genre fiction, but it is a competent work of fantasy on its own. It may be a dirty, down-to-earth sort of fantasy, but plenty of the genre's fans hunger for such works. Its chief failing is that it leans on other books a little too much when a little more devotion to its own ideas and conceits could have resulted in something even better than it already is.

This review may seem a little negative, so let me restate my opening paragraph: this is an enjoyable book that well deserves your time. It's complicated and a little messy, but that just makes it more interesting to think about after you've turned the last page.

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