Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians Cover Art

The Magicians Cover Art (and it looks like, the audiobook cover art)

The Magicians is a novel about what-ifs, about magic and its consequences when poorly wielded, and what I’d argue every single reader has ever wished at one point in his life to do: escape reality and go somewhere else. In this case, it’s a place somewhere in New York, called Brakebills, and it’s a school of magic. Fun. Yes, there will be spoilers.

Quick overview: Quentin Coldwater is an old-money rich kid with a supposedly brilliant mind and depression to match. He gets a chance to attend Brakebills in lieu of college (a la Harry Potter), and against most odds, didn’t fail out of the entrance exam. He pounds through school, strange things happen, falls in love with a girl WAY beyond his skill and ability, and hilarity ensues.

Not really. It’s pretty tense. I’ll start with the storytelling.

Broad strokes pretty much sums it up: The book, about a quarter of the third Lord of the Rings novel, covers more space and topic than the first two LOTR books combined. We go from a boy with a boy-like yearning to run away to his childhood dream, Fillory, to four years of magic school, to a year of drug binges and stupid mistakes, to actually getting to Fillory, then doing something huge at the end, and surviving (barely) as a hermit for a year, running around all of Fillory. He has a group of five or so “friends” that generally drink, have sex, and muddle through school. It’s actually pretty fun how it all melds and flows. Unfortunately it doesn’t last long. Nothing in this book lasts long. There is so little to savor.

This frustrates me. While the storytelling is imaginative and supportive, it’s short. It is stated he’s a genius at the beginning of the book, yet throughout he only barely grasps the complexities of what he does (until after the climax). Lots of “he crammed for days, weeks on end” sentences, but no actual representation. Only once, when in Antarctica, does he touch his potential. It shone. In fact, for Quentin, this is his climax of the novel. He survives, naked, in the cold arctic waste for four hundred miles.

And then? He’s depressive, drunk all the time, only barely survives anything. As do his friends/frat buddies. I wanted–nay, needed–fleshing out of the details of this thing. I needed shows of brilliance to back up his seeming brilliance. I needed details, details, details. The professional game they played on campus (so little time is spent on this I can’t actually remember the name. let me look it up. Nope. Ten minutes of searching later and I can’t find one mention of it on wikipedia or in the book. Done looking) could have been riotously cool. Nope. Details lost and I missed them dearly. I found myself saying, “What a cool idea!” so many times in this book, yet just as quickly, it was done and over, never to be mentioned again. I wanted something to sink my teeth into, but instead I read something with the consistency of cotton candy, or possibly ice cream.

I like my magic meaty, like steak, raw and bloodied.

Not to say this isn’t a very intelligent book. At the end of “Book 1” (this novel actually consists of four or five books. I stopped counting after three), I actually laughed out loud. I don’t usually do that. My jaw dropped at the intricacies of his Antarctic trip, one of the few times Grossman fleshed the magic out. And the first time the Beast showed up? I actually lost sleep over it. I don’t usually lose sleep over anything I read. Quantum mechanics in a fantasy world? Yes, please! There’s a hub between worlds called the Neitherlands, and the descriptions they used to explain it were fascinating and sombering. The mechanics of his world were really inspired. The execution lacked. (Maybe that was because he wanted a better pace and he had a lot to cover? I don’t know.)

I wanted so much more than what Grossman gave me (while at Brakebills). It was like he loved the idea of magic, loved the notion of it, but when it came to fleshing out details, he was lost for examples.

Fillory is another thing entirely. The details there were great–given none of the humans knew anything about their brands of magic. Everything was about magic, but nobody–not even Penny–was pragmatic enough to, in a paranoid (or even “be prepared”) state, begin any preparation when they entered. Even if offensive magic is illegal.

But what hit me in the gut–and I never really recovered from it–was after Brakebills and before Fillory, Quentin cheats on Alice, and Alice found out by sitting at the end of the bed as they did it. They. A bunch of people. This cinched it for me, much later in the book than I’d’ve liked that the main character was, indeed, a total and unredeemable moron. After that, nothing he could do in this novel could redeem himself to me. It might be personal preference, might be my emotional demeanor, but some rich kid who gets absolutely everything he wants blows it all on, well, booze and blow really doesn’t interest me. He was perpetually ill-prepared for everything and I’m somehow supposed to root for him? Nope. It almost strikes me as drumming up conflict for the sake of the story, because the love story was too complete way before it was important. I might be way off in my opinion, but it struck of Hollywood Romance movies: “I love you. I love you. I’m bored. But I love you!” *Cheats* “I still love you! No you don’t because you cheated on me!” I think Grossman took the easy way out with this one.

Grossman got it wrong, having Quentin be the main character. It should have been Alice. It should have been the person actually willing to be a human being instead of running, perpetually, away from everything. I wanted to read her story much, much more than his. He was a tragedy. She was brilliant, and beautifully executed. Alice redeemed this book for me. And the Beast.

This leads me to my second frustration. Grossman kinda wrote himself into a pathetic MC wall when the MC lays helpless as everyone else takes care of the problem. Quentin wakes up six months after the climax, recovering, his life in total tatters and shambles. So what does he do? Does all the “brilliant” things he was supposed to be doing the whole time. He fixed all the weaknesses in Penny’s fireball, upgraded the magic missile, cleaned up his trip to the moon and, oh yeah, managed to out-Alice Alice in her final project. Boom bam. Brilliant. (Also, was I the only one to see him turning into the Beast as he coldly, methodically removed his humanity from the equation? The hell? If he was going to be Batman, yeah. Maybe. Dark, brooding knight dedicated to justice. But he’s not that kind of guy. Then? Grossman sends him on a two page romp through Fillory to find an albino stag and get wishes from him. His wish? Go back to New York and stare at a computer for a year because, again, he’s running from magic. He’s an unfortunate, terrified, simpering fool.

Then his friends show up again, and he instantly changes his mind again. Just like last time. Only at the end of this novel does the character show any actual sign of being someone worth reading, and by then there’s literally two sentences left in the book.

Character development aside, this novel has a LOT to offer. The backstory to this whole thing is amazing: boy loves childhood escapism fantasy novels, still reads them as a guilty pleasure (taken most notably off the Chronicles of Narnia series), finds Brakebills and naively believes it is Fillory, then after graduating, finds Fillory (but not on purpose). Not in a crap-deus way but in a whole-book little hints way. People other than Quentin get screwed up, have screwed-up lives, exist OUTSIDE his narrow, whimpering worldview, and nothing gets put on hold for him while they move forward. He’s out for six months? Everyone leaves him for dead. I would. People grow in personality and relationships throughout. I would. People die at the school. It’s unfortunate, but it makes perfect sense.

Poor Julia, from his “muggle” life, fails the entrance exam and turns into a total mental case because of it. Love it. Then for Hollywood giggles, she shows up at the end with a frown and, apparently, all fixed.

In all honesty, if it wasn’t for Quentin’s attitude, mentality, life choices, and ultimate inability to do much, this book would have knocked it out of the park for me. There were two reasons for me to pick up the second book: 1) Alice. Scratch that one off the list. 2) His discipline. I spent the whole book waiting for him to find it in a blaze of realization. No dice. Of course it’ll pan out to be something blazingly amazing, wild, off-the-charts crazy cool bomb shit props dope, but unfortunately I’m not sure I’ll have the mental fortitude to slog through Quentin’s mire of selfish stupidity (good news? This novel elicited a WHOLE LOT of emotion from me, and that’s a good thing).

Really it was the cocaine-drunk orgy that killed it. Without that heavy dose of Stupid America, I’d’ve suckled at this Magicians teat for the first six books. Maybe even nine. I even talked to my girlfriend about it, I was so dumbfounded. The closest I got to this kind of instant cutoff was when I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and at around a fourth of the way into the book, the MC learns his girlfriend died in a car accident while performing services on another man. I straight-up threw the book across the room. And she died for it. No impact on the story besides mourning fodder for the MC. What Magicians did was much more irreversible. But, yeah. breaks up the flow for me on a fundamental level. It’s not the sex. It’s not the drugs. It’s the blatant stupidity.

Maybe that’s just me. I’m not like the status quo, and maybe I should look at it as if it’s written for said status quo.

Out of five, I rank this book a 3. I’d recommend it to others (because I know most people don’t have my mentality for stupid), I’m keeping it on my book wall, and I pulled no small amount of inspiration out of it, as a whole. In fact, this book might have sparked an upgrade in my writing.

Ultimately, though, I feel I could write better. (Why don’t you? You ask. I have. Just gotta get the time to finish the next draft.)

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

  1. What? How did I not see this until right now?

    Could not, could not, could not agree with you MORE about the ‘brilliance’ thing. This one irked me too. Grossman focuses more on the aftermath of brilliance–the laxity, mental stagnation and arrogance that accompany occasionally–far more than he does the good things, like bein’ real smart. In fact, one might say he looks at brilliance as 99% the former, 1% passing tests.

    Quentin is easy to hate. It’s, in a strange way, what I liked about this book. Because there’s a little bit of Quentin (and Stupid America) in me, whether I want there to be or not (and that’s definitely a not). I’ve had my terrified, simpering fool moments. I’ve stood stupidly on the fence during a climactic moment, gotten drunk at precisely the wrong time, thought about friends and social life when I should’ve been thinking about school. I think a lot of people have. Grossman takes it to extremes, but I do find this a very compelling ‘what if’ story about the spoiled and self-indulgent nature of the majority of Young America (that was very wordy, and I feel old now) when mixed with the prototypical ‘magic world’. Basically, ‘what if’ Harry Potter had been an academically successful middle class Brooklyn teen? There’s a reason kids in those books are usually moral as whole milk, and are also usually orphans or temporarily orphaned. When they aren’t–when they are, in some way, still tied to the real world–it becomes more of an idea novel and less of a worldbuilding novel.

    I liked this book for a lot of reasons, but the fleshed-out world was definitely not one of them. Again, though, I don’t think this was unintentional. I’m still not sure if I feel fantasy is the place for a novel of ideas, but I think the time had come, and I think that’s what this is. It has all the earmarks–common tropes turned sideways, difficult to like main character, tragicomic ending. And people TALK about it. Hoo boy, they talk. I don’t think there’s one person out there who read it who didn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other.

    I feel like danger is part of what Quentin wants from this magical world. Not REAL danger, of course–he has absolutely no idea what that is. (Hence, like you mention, their lack of preparedness upon entering Fillory, summoning up the Beast, etc). He wants adventure-danger, safe story danger. He wants the thrill you get when you face the final boss in a video game. What he gets is something much wilder, something much more real. And it about kills him.

    I don’t think you’re supposed to root for Quentin, not exactly. I think you’re supposed to root for Quentin to learn something, become a better human being. Which he does, eventually, do–it takes a few books, but he does.

    Sorry if this comment is out of order, my WordPress app is doing things that can best be described as ‘no bueno’. I didn’t know it was POSSIBLE for an app to reorder paragraphs in your comment. But I tried, at least. Sigh!

    At any rate, thanks for getting through it and posting, good to get your opinion! I wish I could have a damn book club event based on this book. I think the discussion would be beyond fun.

    • It’s gravy! I tested the “publish at a later date” thing with this post, and it came up yesterday. Much to my daunting chagrin (I have no idea what I’m saying. Too much poop coffee). You didn’t overlook anything.

      I wouldn’t say simply “got through it.” I’ve been thinking about this damn book for days now. I talked to my GF about it. I talked to my brothers about it. I blogged about it (beyond the review). It struck a cord in me and that accomplishes more than most fantasy. (I sob! It struck a heartstring!) I want more fantasy like this. Desperately. Visceral. Flawed. Damaged. Painful. Yes. Real. Even if it isn’t “My” kind of real.

      I don’t think many people can do “brilliant” characters. I feel you have to be a genius to write a genius with gusto (mucho gusto!)

      I wasn’t a Stupid American whilst growing up (I just wrote whilst. I feel British). I never had late-night alcohol binges, never cheated, never experimented, never broke things. So reading a book where people do that is funky-fresh for me.

      Also I KNEW Alice was going to die. The moment they had that talk in her parents’ house about not living aimlessly. And that girl. Dude. Seriously. When he was all “Stop being such a mouse,” I put my hand over my mouth and said, “Awww shit! You just signed her execution!” And hoped Grossman actually let her die.

      And he did. And that felt so very therapeutic. Anyway. I’m done talking about it.

      Let’s make a book club. I liked your take on Rothfuss and you can be certain there’s about twelve other books I’d like your opinion on.

  2. I read the whole book, but it lacked the detail I needed to keep me truly interested. It was too fast-paced and I never really felt for the protagonist because he seemed distant. The novel had potential, but, in my humble opinion, it failed miserably in achieving what I had expected.

    • Yes. I felt so desperate to get grist, yet so much of it was here-and-gone before I could even taste it. I feel, on some level, the author bit off more than he could chew. Or the alternative, he didn’t bite off enough: he didn’t know how to flesh it out, so he just skipped details.

      The positive of this book was the amount of great ideas it had, and the emotional response it elicited from me. Few books do. I applaud Mr. Grossman on that. Unfortunately, I don’t believe I’ll read the second in the series.

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