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!