Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: "The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

What fantasy fan hasn’t read their favorite book or series and wished they could use magic or visit the world where it takes place? That’s just what happens to the main character in Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” ($16, Plume).

Quentin Coldwater is a bored overachiever in school, obsessed by a series of books by Christopher Plover about the magical land of Fillory, which bears a striking resemblance to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Quentin is preparing to take an alumni interview for an Ivy League college, but when he arrives, he finds the man who was supposed to interview him has died. A paramedic on the scene gives him a strange envelope that she says she found in the deceased man’s possession. Inside is a notebook that claims to contain a new volume of the Fillory series and a note which flies away. As Quentin chases it through a city park, he ends up on the lawn of Brakebills, a college for magic.

Quentin, of course, passes the entrance exam and enters Brakebills, where even greater adventures await.

I’ve read mixed reviews on this book, and most of the negatives seem to come from people who were expecting another Harry Potter. In fact, I’ve seen the phrase “Harry Potter for adults” thrown around all over the place about this book, and that’s kind of misleading. Yes, Quentin is a fairly normal kid who discovers that he is a wizard, though that was a convention of the genre well before Potter. And, yes, there is a magical school. Brakebills, however, serves more as a way to bring the characters together and introduce them in “The Magicians” than a main focus as Hogwarts does in the Potter series. The full five years of schooling at Brakebills is covered here in about half the book. Grossman, to his credit, seems to have understood that the Potter comparisons were going to fly, and he plays with the idea, making it the basis of a couple of chuckles throughout the story.

The students in “The Magicians” are also not the heroic, altruistic youths of J.K. Rowling’s books. They’re teenagers, and they act like teenagers. They drink, they smoke, they swear, and occasionally, they have sex, though never graphically. They’re often self-centered and self-absorbed and unduly miserable when there are fantastic marvels surrounding them. Again, just like teenagers.

The study of magic at Brakebills also offers few of the wonders that Hogwarts does. It’s a complicated, tedious subject, much like I imagine the study of magic at an exclusive college would be if it were real.

So, if you’re looking for “Harry Potter for adults,” look elsewhere. It’s not here.

What drew me into the book was the fact that I remember being Quentin – the smart kid in school who was bored and unsatisfied. Unlike the character in the book, I was more of an underachiever, but I always dreamed of something more out there, of delving into these magical worlds that I read about. It’s one of the reasons I became a writer, because that’s the closest I’m likely to get to it. But I can always dream of that mysterious paramedic that hands me an envelope that takes me to another world.

Quentin himself is not always the most likeable sort – another criticism I’ve often heard about the book – but I don’t think he’s a bad guy, either. He’s kind of lost and doesn’t know what to do with his life, even when the path is put right in front of him. It’s a different approach than the usual fantasy where the kid who didn’t know he was a wizard grabs his life by the reins and does great things. It’s probably a more realistic take on what would happen in the real world of today.

Grossman borrows from many sources and sprinkles some references throughout the book. Readers will see shades of Lewis, Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin and, yes, Rowling, among others, in both his style and inside jokes in the books. In some ways, the story reads like an homage to fantasy.

“The Magicians” is not the happy, upbeat sort of fantasy where everything turns out OK in the end. It’s a bit more complicated, and a bit more real. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you get it, it’s a great read.

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