Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book Review: The Magicians [2009]

How could I not pick up a book that George R. R. Martin blurbed with "The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea."? Although at its heart the book is an homage to Narnia, and it does contain some Potter-ish elements (notably a school of magic and division between magicians and the "real" world), it has a profoundly adult and dark sensibility that is rooted more in twentysomething angst than a child's magical adventures. Lev Grossman's protagonist Quentin Coldwater--I hesitate to call him "hero"--feels out of place and listless in Brooklyn until he receives the opportunity to study at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Despite his growing affinity for magic and a close-knit group of friends, Quentin feels a rising sense of panic as graduation approaches:
Any one of a thousand options promised--basically guaranteed--a rich, fulfilling, challenging future for him. So why did Quentin feel like he was looking around frantically for another way out? Why was he still waiting for some grand adventure to come find him?
Becoming a magician is not the cure-all he always felt it would be when he read children's books about the enchanted land of Fillory. When the opportunity to pursue his childish dream finally arrives, the outcome turns out to be more brutal and harrowing than he could ever have imagined. I found the book's premise intriguing, but stalled several times while I was reading it, probably because it was so darn depressing and filled with relatively unsympathetic characters. Still, Grossman does an admirable job of capturing Quentin's ongoing existential crisis.

Grade: B

[Edited to Add: So, I am still thinking about this book the next day, which is, I guess, a good thing. But what I am thinking is more along the lines of: Maybe the book would have been stronger if Quentin had never actually had a big magical challenge. I thought its strength was in the heaviness, the overpoweringly terrible ennui of the magical life, which allows the group to pretty much do whatever they want with no consequences. They have no purpose and no direction. One of the reviews of the book suggested that, unlike Harry Potter, The Magicians doesn't have a Big Bad on which all attention is focused. Except . . . it kind of does. I half expected it to end--as it was in 3rd person--with Quentin's miserable death after his listless, unfulfilled life. Perhaps by alcohol or stupidity. I think I might even be disappointed that Grossman went for the big battle instead.]

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