Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Microreview [book]: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Let me start by telling you what The Magicians is not. It is not ‘Harry Potter meets Narnia’ despite what nearly every description of the book states. In fact, if you could image the exact polar opposite of this, it would be a good place to start. The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a privileged teenaged boy from Brooklyn who is incredibly smart (measured in mathematics) and who hates his life and everyone in it, except for Julia who he loves but hates because the love is unrequited. He loses himself in the seemingly childish fantasy series Fillory and Further where a family of British kids adventures in a magical land accessible from our world via ordinary furniture. Quentin’s plan to attend an Ivy League school is soon relinquished when he learns that yes, he’s a wizard Harry, and gains admittance Brakebills College for Medical Pedagogy in upstate New York. I hope he doesn’t wander into Camp Halfblood while he's there.

I’m sure you can see where the antonymous analogy originates. Quentin finds out he can do magic, goes to a school to learn magic, and is obsessed with pretty much Narnia (no denying that Fillory is a stand in for Narnia). But in reality, very little magical learning goes on at Brakebills - at least from the reader's perspective. All five (well, technically four) of Quentin’s years there are over by the midpoint of the book. We get to see a little bit of magical learning in the beginning, which consists mostly of finger contortions, but the majority of the time we readers spend at Brakebills involves Quentin’s relationships with others, namely Eliot, Janet, and Alice (and Josh and Penny too) and them all getting smashed and philosophizing in ways that only teenagers and twenty-somethings can.

And then there’s Fillory, which is real by the way. I think this statement is spoilery, but since it’s on the back of the book I’ll leave it here. And just like our time at Brakebills is pretty much the polar opposite of a reader’s time spent at Hogwarts (which was a detailed and lengthy magical education devoted to good hearted young souls overcoming adversity and evil), Fillory proper may be Narnia incarnate, but the story itself is the polar opposite of Narnia. Sure, the children get there via everyday objects, but they don’t just save the world and then reign happily every after. It's way more complicated than that.

First, lets get some technical things out of the way. I don't always comment on this type of stuff because I review a lot of advanced copies, but this book I purchased new and it was printed recently enough to have an awful SyFy pitch on the cover. I was surprised to find a fair amount of typographical errors (runonwordswithnospaces and capital letters Randomly in the middle of sentences) which were (was?) distracting. Also, the grammar is very awkward at times and I often found myself having to reread sentences. The problem is either inappropriately placed words with double meaning, or inappropriately placed comas, or both.

I think that the selective references to pop culture which include Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, and D&D are misplaced. And notice what is missing from the list? Narnia. You can’t create a metaphorical rebuttal of modern popular fantasy tropes and directly reference some but exclude others. Plus, this dates the work in a way that in twenty, thirty, or fifty years these references may no longer be meaningful and will distance the reader from the story.

Finally, the passage of time is rushed. Like I said earlier, the characters’ five-ish years of magical education zip by in the first half of the book. It doesn’t give them much chance to grow and I have a hard time imaging them as anything other than 17 year olds, when in reality they are in their early twenties by the end of the book.

Now, for the good stuff…It took me a while to commit to reading The Magicians because it has so many mixed reviews, as any foray through its Goodreads page will reveal. I'm glad I read it though, because personally, I loved this book. I was hooked within the first 20 pages when Quentin reveals his reason for loving Fillory. We know Fillory is not innovative or original, but that is its purpose here, to serve as a stand-in for the Narnias of our lives. Even as an (almost) adult, Q escapes to Fillory when he can’t deal with the real world, which is something I think we all can relate to. I don’t know about you, but I have spent many a day a Hogwarts for that very same reason.

Mostly, people don’t like The Magicians because the characters are miserable, ungrateful, unlikeable shitheads. This is true, but honestly, I find them to be some of the most relatable characters I’ve ever read about. I think some of those who have such an adverse reaction to Q and the other characters in this book may forget what its like to be a young adult (a real young adult, not a Katniss Everdeen young adult) or maybe had a positive teenage-hood (bah, as if). Really though, I think perhaps we all relate to these characters a little too well and some people don’t want to read about a character that represents the worst in them.

You see, Quentin really is a shit bag, and miserable and ungrateful and all that. But aren’t we all sometimes? It’s actually kind of scary how relatable I find him and I guess that means on some level I’m shit bag too. But, let they who have never questioned the futility of their efforts or existence and never engaged in unvirtuous behavior with complete disregard to the feelings of others cast the first stone. I think everyone has a little bit of hatred for Quentin because he represents that little piece of us we all wish didn’t exist. Yes, I know what it's like to be Quentin. But I also know what it's like to be Alice. And although we don’t necessarily gravitate toward SF/F for its realism, Quentin and his crew may be some of the most human characters I’ve read about in a long, long time.

Often we read SF/F and envy those with extraordinary powers and hero quests and we long for that sense of purpose within our selves, because in comparison our lives are piddly and meaningless. Some readers may not like that our heroes feel the same way. Its funny because I was recently chatting with The G about how The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz was the only book I ever read that altered my emotions for the duration of the time spent reading it, even when I wasn’t actively reading. I was depressed that whole week and angry and bitter and I didn’t realize why until after I finished the book. To me, that is a sign of a truly good book. One that can evoke emotion that stays with you long after reading it. This is what The Magicians did to me. Maybe I just relate to Quentin on a level some others don’t, or maybe it’s his relationship with Alice that really gets me, I’m not sure.

This book is definitely for the existential fantasy reader. If you are looking for a hero’s romp, don’t look here. But if you are looking for a book that does a little something more with the genre and lives outside of the comfort zone, give The Magicians a try. I think it's quite fantastic.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +2 for how uncomfortably relatable Quentin is, +1 for everything about Eliot

Penalties: -1 for dating itself with select cultural references

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 “well worth your time and attention”

POSTED BY: Tia  Nerds of a Feather Contributor since 2014

REFERENCE: Grossman, Lev. The Magicians [Viking Press, 2009]