Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Magicians

The Magicians is the 3rd book by TIME magazine journalist and literary critic Lev Grossman. This caused a bit of a stir when it came out in 2009 and won the John W. Campbell award for it's author at the 2011 Worldcon.

I'd been meaning to get to it for a while. The premise interested me; a gifted young man gets the chance to attend a magical university and discover an entirely new world where the magic is out in the open. It was often described as an adult Harry Potter.

The story is fairly simple. Quentin Coldwater is a talented, if somewhat unlikeable young man who is invited to test for Brakebills; a magical university. He passes the test and finds himself at the college. Brakebills is rather like where I could see the kids from Hogwarts going after they'd graduated from the English school.

Quentin meets and makes friends with other students, he learns magic, even falls in love. At the end of five years he graduates and finds that while a graduate of Brakebills never wants for anything (they look after their own), it's a rather pointless, and in fact joyless existence. In fact one of Quentin's friends, another former student; the unflappable Eliot, actually confesses to Quentin that if life had continued the way it was going, he would have drunk himself to death out of sheer boredom.

Another graduate, the punk loner; Penny, reappears and announces that he's found the way to another world. The world of Fillory. Fillory is the world in a series of children's books. All the Brakebills kids, and at times it seems like everybody who can read, have read the books. Quentin is mildly obsessed with them. They follow Penny to Fillory and found out that yes it is real and maybe it was best left undiscovered.

The Magicians is quite readable, but it has flaws. One of them is Quentin. He's both unlikeable and unremarkable. This makes it hard for readers to connect to him and believe him as the hero. It's pretty obvious that Grossman's influences were Harry Potter and Narnia. The book is often rather derivative of both these sources. Brakebills is like an Ivy League version of Hogwarts. Quentin's love interest; Alice, is so close to Hermione Granger that I'm surprised Rowlings hasn't sued. Regarding Fillory and Narnia, Grossman should have just dropped the pretence and called Fillory Narnia, and changed the surname of the kids in the Fillory books from Chatwin to Pevensie.

The book is rather oddly paced. Often it reads like a series of loosely linked vignettes. There's also a couple of story threads that go nowhere and are just left flapping in the wind by the end of the story. A sequel (The Magician King) has just been released, so it may tie those up, although I got the distinct impression that The Magicians was definitely a standalone book. There will be large sections where the book just meanders along and then all of sudden there's a big action sequence, where the participants miraculously discover some hitherto unknown power. It felt it also went a chapter or two longer than it really needed to be.

At times it's rather like the author had an idea he just had to get down, but didn't really have a complete story around it, or a way to satisfactorily resolve it, but it just had to go in there, because it was too good to not write down.

Having said all that, it's not a totally unenjoyable reading experience. The concept is good. Most, but not all the characters, are fun to read. My two personal favourites were Alice and Eliot, although I also developed a soft spot for the party girl Janet.

Lev Grossman has some great ideas in this. The pixie teacher at Brakebills was one, although this too was one of the things I thought could have been explored in greater depth and was never really resolved. The mystery of what happens to the Fourth Year students for a semester was really good. The story of Emily Greenstreet was also very well done, although it seemed kind of out of place and was one of those loose threads. I really liked the idea of the caco demon, that was handled very well.

I did like the sprinkling of pop culture references throughout the narrative, which gave it a sense of time. Somehow even the legendary line from Scarface got an airing. Cheekily the most oft referred to idea was Harry Potter.

The Magicians is a good idea, but unfortunately a handful of ideas held together by a whiny protagonist doesn't really make for a totally enjoyable reading experience or establish the work as a classic. It was an easy enough read, but it doesn't inspire me to want to read the sequel. I think everything that could possibly be wrung out of the concept is in this volume.

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