Saturday, December 5, 2015

Magicians Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Lev Grossman
Publisher: Viking
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Magicians Book One
Pages: 402

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I decided to pick up the Magicians after reading Lev Grossman’s short story “The Girl in the Mirror,” which can be found in the Martin/Dezois Dangerous Women anthology. I had heard about the Magicians, and read a lot of complaints about how it was derivative of Harry Potter, so my expectations were low, but this short story was one of the standouts of the anthology so I decided to give it a try.

The Magicians may have a magic school like Harry Potter, it may have a magical world that people can step into like Narnia, but this is a novel for adults.  The juxtaposition of an adult story, that mixes with traditional settings for a children’s story makes for an oftentimes humorous clash of ideas and literary styles. Along with the stylistic clashes comes great character development, and a less than predictable plot. I don’t get the complaints against the Magicians, this is a brilliantly clever story.

Quentin Coldwater is a math genius searching for his place in the world. He’s also a closet fan of the children fantasy books about a world called Fillory. A bizarre sequence of events sends Quentin to Brakebills, a highly exclusive college of magic, where he learns that magic is indeed real.  However, learning magic doesn’t solve all of Quentin’s problems, but maybe finding a way to Fillory will?

It’s a mistake to think of the Magicians as a copy cat of Harry Potter or Narnia.  True it derives a lot of it’s material from these books, but it only does so to deconstruct the classic fantasy story.  Just because there is a magic school does not make this book a Harry Potter ripoff.  Stylistically, the Magicians reminds me of the movies made by Quentin Tarantino.  Tarantino takes a bunch of different ideas from different genres of movies, and combines them in ways people haven’t really seen before.  Grossman essentially does the same thing, the only difference is Quentin Tarantino chooses to derive material from genres of films that the general movie going public aren’t familiar with, where as Grossman chose to derive his material from two of the most popular book series’ ever written. I honestly wondered if Grossman named his main character after the director?

As a reader don’t expect a traditional fantasy novel.  I would personally say this is a literary book first. Not only does Grossman have a strong sense of literary prose, but he has a sense of realism and thematic constructs that are emphasized over the more fantastical elements. Quentin’s coming of age is a told with an accurate realism, that most fantasy authors and literary authors could only dream of replicating. As a college student, and later a graduate, his ideas are so in align with what that experience is like, I find myself relating to a lot of his dilemmas.  That doesn’t mean I agreed with his decisions, as Quentin is prone to doing some dickish things.  If there is one book that the Magicians reminded me of, it was Perks of Being a Wallflower, but unlike that novel it’s focused on the college and early adulthood years as opposed to high school.

The character development is brilliant.  Not only is Quentin well developed but the supporting cast avoids being the cheap cutouts that so often plague most fantasy novels. Penny is a rebellious punk but he’s hardly liked by anyone. Alice is quiet, nerdy, determined, and brave, but unlike Hermione she doesn’t have the answers to all the questions. Josh is friendly and can do powerful magic but he struggles with doing magic on command, getting laid, and dealing with addiction. The point being as the characters get fleshed out they feel incredibly human, more so than what I’ve run into in your typical fantasy novel.

The author asks a lot of questions throughout the novel about what is happiness and how does one responsibly handle power.  The over-arcing question though is – even with powerful magical abilities and no moral guiding force or a bad guy threatening to destroy the world – what should you do with your life? It’s this combination of realism and fantasy that leads the Magicians into territory that has never really been explored by singular fantasy or literary novels.

If you’re looking for escapist fantasy, look elsewhere.  The Magicians will not conform to that genre’s all to familiar traditional tropes.  There are very few intelligent negative criticisms of the Magicians, and for good reason, there is only a handful of nitpicky bad things that can be said about the book.

The main character isn’t morally sound?

The plot isn’t optimistic?

All the major characters are very intelligent and disillusioned about the world and their talents?


Why does this make the book bad?

A book doesn’t have to be optimistic, it’s main character doesn’t have to be a picture perfect hero, or even a hero for that matter. Quite frankly reading a story that goes against traditional norms in literature, and actually looks deeply into some negative thought constructs make for a much more interesting and relevant story. The world we live has negative emotions too, so why shouldn’t there be art that reflects those realities?

Score: 9.6

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