By all rights, The Magicians, by Lev Grossman should never have crossed my path as a reader. I didn’t know it existed. I didn’t want to know it existed. I was actually reading a transcript from a chat with Keith Law (though I can’t recall which one). Anyway, Keith Law describes it as “a parody of popular fantasy novels”. I’m not really sure what to do with that one, actually, because it certainly doesn’t do the book justice. Or follow the implication of using the word comedy. This book isn’t comedic. Is it a take on material we’ve all read before? (Don’t lie. Everyone’s read Harry Potter. Sales numbers prove it.)
I’m going to try and avoid spoilers in my review for once, because, well, that’s sort of going to ruin this book and, if anything, The Magicians plays on expectations of the genre. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, has exactly the problems one imagines of a teenager in modern United States of America culture. Namely, mood swings, constant imagining that life is horrible and that it’s bound to get better. So, when the opportunity to escape his failure of a life appears, obviously he takes it.
Except, that doesn’t solve his problem with life because he takes the exact same baggage with him to the magical academy of Brakesbills university. Yes, university. Quentin is almost assuredly a senior in high school, discussing visiting and applying for college with his friends.
By making Brakesbills college/university level, complete with a plethora of references to understanding magic relative to quantum physics and modern science, it sets a decidedly more mature tone for the book. If Harry Potter features an 11-year-old boy experiencing with fulfillment of the 8-year-old crowd, The Magicians is playing a 18-year-old boy to the crowd of moody teenage angst. That a hell of an expectations curve, based on all the normal teenage wizardry stuff.
In fact, Grossman is pretty terribly depressing. In an awesome kind of way. Despite playing to the stereotypes of the outcasts and perception that teenagers seem to have a self centered woe-is-me kind of attitude on life, even the really smart ones. This book doesn’t exist to give happy endings, in case any of you were wondering. But, that makes the story all the more riveting. One keeps expecting things to get better (because that’s what the genre of magical boys and girls teaches us) but it never does.
Every time I put the book down, I would do a quick double check, to make sure that my life wasn’t actually as bad as the book made relationships and people out to be. Fairly sure I win that comparison.
So… Certainly, The Magicians tells a compelling tale. It would have to, considering how many problems the actual writing has.
The problem with The Magicians isn’t that it’s not engaging. It is. From that standpoint, I couldn’t put the book down (I burned through the entire trilogy in 4 days, writing and progress on actual things like my manuscript be damned). Though, the second one works better, if only because the characters are established and it enjoys less frequent time jumps within its narrative structure. No, the problem with The Magicians is the way it’s constructed. The word choice and what we, as readers, are shown in those moments.
I may or may not have a controversial relationship with to be verbs. No, scratch that. I hate to be verbs. They represent, in my mind, lazy structure. They’re easy and… I’m not covering that again. The Magicians, has plenty of them. I couldn’t get over it. Here, Grossman has constructed a narration—compelling beyond any reason it’s got to be—and he ties it together with sentence-after-sentence of weak verbiage, holding his stories hand like kindergartners on a field trip. Banish them to the realm of speech, where they’re much harder to take out. Short version: The number of times on a page that the “to be” constructs appear gives me serious pause as to the validity of his agent and editor. I say this knowing what he does for a living and who he works for. If anything, that makes the choice to rely so heavily on “to be” verbs more appalling.
Now, on to a few other problems. Grossman’s choices of which story points to go into depth about often give the sense that they could be skipped for the larger story points. His narrative structure makes many events appear as afterthoughts, which they are certainly not. Everything always ties together, which means that Grossman continuously flirts with chances to lose his reader attention by holding a bright neon sign saying “I’m here! I’m Important!”. Do that too often and it’s like any hype—you run the serious risk of losing the attention of your reader. Except, he doesn’t do that. So, we gotta live with that one, because immensely engaging books about depressed, self-medicating protagonists don’t come up that often.
Ah, Yes. Speaking of these characters, they are certainly the driving force of this novel, not the other way around. I felt the Harry Potter books hid this aspect of it’s narration very well, but HP still had its plot lines leading characters and not the other way around. The Magicians puts Quentin and his friend in some conditions (well, yeah, otherwise there’s no story, right?) which causes all sort of problems. Still, the way they’re constructed in the narrative, you know a solution is coming but characters drive the plot. In other words, while curve balls are tossed at our protagonists, it’s never entirely unexpected and never entirely the point.
The worst offender here is that magical feels a bit arbirary. No real limits, no rules. I mean, sure, the dead can’t be brought back to life is one (except… animals are semi-routinely killed and resurrected at different points as lessons in abstract, abject power), but for a school claiming to teach upper level magic we don’t really have a set of guidelines. I’ll give you a great example in Harry Potter. She spent 6 books defining magic in that world. Suddenly Voldemort needs a flight. He can fly. And fast. Really?
Maybe I just missed the guidelines. That does happen. They play by rules I can’t see. Not the first time an author has done that. Won’t be the last. Just…. I get the feeling there are no real rules. Magic just does whatever you need it to.
So, that’s The Magicians by Lev Grosssmen.
Agree? Disagree? Think I missed the point entirely? I’m on LibraryThing, find me there.