Tuesday, April 5, 2011

REVIEW: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

 The Magicians
by Lev Grossman

Synopsis (from back of book):
Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a sweries of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams may have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined…

Character Likability:
Quentin Coldwater: When the story first begins, I really like Quentin. He’s a brilliant boy who is obsessed with the fictional books of a land called Fillory… and has a pension for slight of hand tricks. Then suddenly he’s whisked off to a place called Brakebills, which he discovers is a school for the magically gifted… but from here on out, my like for Quentin diminishes. He represents the hopeless pursuit of happiness… he is always looking for the greener grass. Nothing is ever good enough, and the last half of the book, before he discovers Fillory is real, degrades into a hedonistic sunnoffabiotch and generally becomes someone unworthy of the trip to Fillory, if (and it’s hard not to) we are considering Fillory to be a thinly veiled version of Narnia. He doesn’t really appreciate what he has until it’s gone, and frankly, he’s kind of a whiner. I think Alice sums it up best when she says something along the lines of “Do you want to be the kid who is remembered for coming to Fillory and moping about it?” She’s right. He’s a downer.
Alice: A talented, hard working, dedicated and devoted witch… she is one of my favorites. She’s shy, brilliant and at Brakebills by her own doing. She begins a relationship with Quentin, has aimless magical parents whom she resents, and has a personal history with the magical school, and her own reasons for being there.
A bit of an enigma… there are certain things introduced concerning this character that make him complex and confusing at the same time. He’s one of the first characters Quentin befriends at Brakebills, but also one of the most aloof. He spends most of his time drunk but functional… always keeping the group well stocked in spirits. Eliot has a bit of an about-face when they find Fillory, suddenly finding direction, motivation and sobriety. I think it might be possible that he is an example of what Quentin hoped to be. A miserable kid who was looking for his magical escape… but, unlike Quentin, when he found it, he also found his sense of purpose.
Josh: Comic relief, really. He’s a cute character, kind of roly poly, not really in control of his magic… it feels like he’s mostly there to round out the group, have someone actually likable. He also seems a bit more childish than the rest of them.
Janet: Bossy, whorish, meddling, troublesome… she’s a bit of a nemesis to Alice while putting on the mask of being a friend. She’d probably be an unlikable character if she didn’t motivate the group into action. I get the feeling that if she weren’t around, though, this book would have been truly dull, seeing as the rest of the characters might have done little more than drink themselves into stupors every day.
Penny: I really enjoyed this character. Another boy to test in the same year as Quentin, his motivations are mysterious, and I was sad to see him disappear until almost the end of the book. When he does come back though, he’s filled with a child-like enthusiasm and belief that I find absolutely refreshing after reading page after page about a bunch of bored kids who have had the world handed to them but are to self-involved to realize it. He’s the vehicle that takes them to Fillory, and a bit of a nemesis to Quentin, which makes me like him even more.
Dean Fogg: Kind of a vague Dumbledore-esque character, his motivations aren’t entirely clear, and I’m wondering if more will be revealed about him in the next book.
The Chatwins: A darker version of the Pevensies. Seriously. They’re kind of the “what would have happened to the kids in Narnia had they lived in the worst of the real world” scenario.
Julia: A friend of Quentin's before he learned that magic was real, and the girl he was obsessed with. She has the potential to be a really interesting character... and it looks like she'll show up a lot more in the second book.

The book was actually a really easy read from this standpoint. The text flowed smoothly, moving along a story that, often, wasn’t going anywhere at all.
One thing I absolutely did not like, however, was how many times Harry Potter was mentioned. Fillory is already a very thinly veiled copy of Narnia… so to mention real world fantasy novels just isn’t working for me… because that means Narnia still exists, and that means that Fillory is nothing more than a sad rip-off of the real thing. Would people have been pissed to see Narnia mucked around with this way? Yes… but for all intents and purposes, that’s what the author did anyhow… so why pussyfoot around it by sticking them in a world with Narnia. Why not just give them their own world? It’s not like the reference is going to be lost on the reader.

Truthfully, I was pretty pissed off to get to the end of this book and find it’s part of a series. Granted, based on the books it references, I should have seen it coming… but I really felt this was something that could have ended in one book… and had the characters not spent so much time drinking and pondering their own self worth, that might have been achievable.

Take a super smart kid prone to bouts of self pity, let him find out that not only is magic real, but so is the magical world of Fillory (aka, Narnia) that he has obsessed about his entire life, then let him go there… and be disappointed.

There was something that I find really interesting attempted in this book, and that is to write a fantasy novel where the main character has actually read fantasy novels and has expectations of how things should be.
Considering that fact, though, when it got to the end of the book and some of the kids started actually doing magic, I was pretty shocked, considering how much time we actually saw them learning magic (and not just drinking and laying around).
The novel also attempted to take the “big bad” (such as Voldemort or the White Witch) out of the book, the author stating that in real life things aren’t so black and white. Unfortunately, for me, the most interesting parts of the book were when its equivalent of “the big bad” showed up. Until then, it was really a bunch of kids mucking about aimlessly, for the most part. Sure, some of them were self motivated and there for interesting reasons (such as Alice)… but at best we get snippets of her story, and what she’s learned/discovered while there.

Believability of World:
This is supposedly set in our world, referencing things like Harry Potter and Narnia… which for me, only makes Fillory less believable. The world itself is fine, though, and Brakebills is nicely set up for believability thanks to the fantasy novel history it draws from in Harry Potter.

Overall Grade: C (Despite the fact that I have gripes about this book, there were many elements in it that were interesting and have potential to make an interesting story. I think my biggest disappointment was the book’s focus on Quentin and how dull he was. There were exciting elements, like the plot involving Alice’s brother and the cover up, that really stirred up some excitement and made me want to learn more… and I’m hoping it’s these kinds of things that are explored in the second book, and not more of Quentin and friends drinking and doing not much of anything.)