Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lev Grossman/THE MAGICIANS


[Cheryl already reviewed The Magicians here, and did an extraordinarily incisive and succinct job of it. I think my take-home was a little different, though, so I'm popping up another review.]

Quentin Coldwater is a generally unhappy too-smart- for-his- own-good high school senior who hopes to go to Princeton, sort of. His one life happiness is rereading the Fillory books, a children's fantasy series about a family of brothers and sisters who go to the magical land of Fillory and have happy adventures. So when Quentin receives an alternative offer--an invitation to Brakesbill College of magic, he thinks he's escaped his life of human unhappiness. Little does he know that even magic can't protect us from certain elements of growing up.

The tagline I'd heard for this book was "Harry Potter for grown-ups," and it's not far off. The story is much darker but still palatable to those craving a little everyday magic. But if I have a couple more words to describe it, I would say it is an homage to our nearly-universal craving for escapist magic, and a comment on the naivete of wishing for magical easy-out clauses. The magicians in The Magicians are, if anything, even less happy and/or satisfied than regular humans, who can at least spend their energy working to survive and feed themselves. The magicians, who have no need to do so, have to figure out other reasons to live.

The book itself not pretending to be new or creative--Grossman isn't breaking ground, here; he's re-examining broken ground for what countless genre authors have not tried to see in the past--and as such the narrative is self-reflective. For quick example, the characters may be obsessed with Plover's fictional Fillory series, but they're obviously all familiar with Harry Potter, which they reference in a blase fashion, and know elements of their life correspond to Hogwarts. The allusions throughout are fun and varied, from the disaffected, malaise-y Quentin Coldwater who spirals into depression at college (anyone else thought of Faulkner's Quentin Compson?) to Fillory's hills of the Chankly Bore (Edward Lear), and other bigger and smaller things throughout.

I agree with Cheryl that the plot, which covers rather a lot of ground for its brief number of pages, is episodic and as such a little thin in character development and engagement. I also was a little disappointed at the plot turn that begins in Book III, simply because I was hoping the book would be more narrative and less allegory. However, in the end I came around to Grossman's composition and his aim.

In essense, this isn't a book about magic. It's a book about why we want to believe in magic, and what the real meaning of life is. It sounds grandiose to put it in writing like that, but Grossman is honest and straightforward about that preoccupation of his, and in the end I think what is initially dissatisfying about the plot--for me, a dissatisfaction that dissipated as I thought about it--is our wish for happy, or at least conclusive, endings, something Grossman is trying to show us is purely fantastic.

Overall, I enjoyed and am glad I've read. Tried to keep the review spoiler-free, but I'd love to talk spoilers in the comments!

11 comments:

Diane said...

I liked this book a lot even though it was not a genre I typically read. Loved your review!

Cheryl said...

What I love about this blog is seeing different people's takes on the same book. I see we came to some of the same conclusions, although you certainly found some things that I missed.

I'm wondering what you thought of the end of the novel? It seemed to negate what the rest of story was saying--that there is no magical happy ending. What do you think?

moonrat said...

Cheryl--interesting! I thought the ending was deeply unhappy. He's going to go to, essentially, a fake place where his girlfriend was killed and live the rest of his life there? He's going to have for companions a woman who didn't want him, a woman who worked to destroy his relationship, and a man who is unpredictable and self-absorbed? (Well, Eliot had really grown on me by the end, but neither Julia nor Janet were really redeemed for me.)

I chatted about this with the girl who lent me her copy--she saw a happy ending, too. I wondered if it wasn't nearly a sequel set-up: imagine what the next stage of unhappiness might be! etc. But she felt the way you did.

Jenny said...

Did it bother you that Julia suddenly came back and could do magic? I thought it was a bit too sudden for her to suddenly be there. Not to say that I'm not curious about what will happen in the sequel, but I just wasn't in love with that aspect of it.

moonrat said...

Jenny--I didn't like Julia as a character. She just reminded me of so many girls I knew and didn't like in high school. Ha! How unfair. I also got upset by this implication that she might be replacing Alice. Alice was so worthy; it's not fair for her to be replaced.

griffin said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this because I've just finished reading and came to the same conclusions you did. My apprehension that the ending would be unsatisfying began some place in the middle.

I wasn't sure if Grossman wanted to create a message like 'there are no happy endings--life is what happens based upon the decisions you make' or if he was setting up a sequel. In considering the parallels to HP, the ending missed the mark in comparison perhaps because it's meant to be an adult viewpoint. If you've read the Farseer Trilogy, I thought about how the ending to Robin Hobb's ASSASIN's APPRENTICE where Fitz undergoes similar misery lines up more with this book rather than Harry Potter does. Maybe he does have another book in this story lined up.

I did like Grossman's characterizations because they were so true and well thought out.

moonrat said...

Griffin--would you recommend ASSASIN'S APPRENTICE? I feel like I started it when I was very young--like 11--but don't remember it clearly.

Pamala Knight said...

Okay, first, let me apologize for somehow masquerading as my youngest son via his gmail account. I TOTALLY didn't notice that he was still signed into my Mac (he and one his classmates have a pie/Neil Gaiman obsession and I let him indulge on my laptop when the older son is being a pill about the iMac) and sincerely hope that I didn't send any emails this morning that might be confusing, to say the least.

Okay now that I've outed myself as Pamala, I'll answer that I highly recommend the Farseer trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy as well. Fitzchivalry goes through a monumental amount of hardship beginning with being born the bastard son of the king in waiting and then by his very existence, toppling said father, from his place in the line of succession. It's a fabulous saga though and I think you should read it too.

And GOD, you're a baby if you started reading it when you were 11. I have socks older than you. Not to worry, the eldest son who's close to that age has read the trilogies and loves them too.

moonrat said...

Pamala--don't worry, I age more quickly every year. I'll catch up shortly :)

Breanna said...

Nice review, Moonrat. I could not get into this book, I think for some of the reasons you mentioned (esp. lack of character development). I just didn't care about any of the characters, and I slogged through over half of it before I stopped reading (which I hate doing). I appreciate the themes that Grossman is exploring, but this one just wasn't for me.

Christine said...

I really wanted to like this book, but the telling rather than showing drove me up a wall. There were some brilliant bits, some funny bits, and some awesome magic, but Quentin just wasn't likeable enough for me to want to keep following him through years summed up by a few pages and then hundreds of pages of him hating life.