Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is the story of Quentin Clearwater, a high school senior in Brooklyn who is bored and depressed with his life. He tries to make his dreary existence a little better by escaping into a series of books about the magical land of Fillory. He becomes so obsessed that he even learns how to do magic tricks. Then one day he gets a mysterious transcript of the unpublished fifth book in the Fillory series which leads him to the real life magical academy of Brakebills. Following a very long and difficult exam he gets accepted into the school and starts learning real magic. Imagine if a person obsessed with the Chronicles of Narnia was accepted to Hogwarts. It completely turns his life around. But Brakebills is not quite the magic he was hoping for. It is a world of arrogance, hedonism, and excess. The characters are constantly unhappy and turning to sex, drugs, and alcohol. And even becoming a real magician can’t make Quentin happy. And just when he thinks he hits rock bottom, that’s when Quentin and his friends find out that not only is Fillory real how to get there. When they arrive they go in search of an adventure that will make it all worthwhile and better, but not even that is what they hoped for.

I’m generally not a fan of books that take a long time to pick up in terms of the action. And while the first 250 pages are devoted to explaining Quentin’s rather mundane magical education, there is no lack of storytelling. There are brief periods of action, like when a terrifying creature from another dimension shows up in the middle of their class, the school wide welters tournament (which is a game sort of like a magical version of chess where they are the pieces), and when Quentin and the fourth years go for a “semester abroad” to Antarctica. And even without little action there was a lot of anticipation. I spent a long time waiting for everything, which I knew was going to go down, to actually happen. And just when I couldn’t take the build-up any longer the action came.

Generally, however, the story is less about the action and more about the characters. The characters are believable in their flawed humanity. Quentin’s main character trait is his perpetual unhappiness, even when he gets his heart’s desire it seems inadequate. Then there is shy and intelligent Alice who prefers to have her nose in a book at all times and excels at magic, the aloof and magically-gifted Eliot whose superiority complex Quentin finds endearing, overly competitive and loud Janet, and Josh the large and not as gifted member of their crew who always feels inadequate next to the rest. Each with their strengths and weaknesses make them fully-formed realistic people that remind me of people I know and traits in my personality that I may or may not like. I became very invested and attached to the characters and their exploits.

While The Magicians references many other well known fantasy series including Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz, it is not the fantasy novel of our childhoods. It is much more adult. It is a darker, rawer, and grittier view of magic. Often times turning the idea that magic can save and make everything better on its head. Learning real magic doesn’t make Quentin’s life better, in fact it may even make it worse. Like all other fantasy books little things mentioned off hand became big things affecting the final outcome. When everything was said and done I was just as depressed as Quentin. When it was over I found myself wanting more because not all the questions were answered and I’m secretly hoping when the next book comes out it will have a happy ending (though I doubt it). All things consider, I really enjoyed this book. I recommend it to anyone who is an avid fantasy fan.

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