Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review - The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I picked this one up on a very enthusiastic recommendation from a friend. We all have books we like, books we love, and book about whic we become downright evangelical. For him, this bordered on the latter. I'm not evangelical about it by any stretch, and am not even quite sure that I love it, but did like it very much and am glad to have given Grossman a measure of my time.

The Magicians follows three well-worn fantasy tropes: the wizard school, the fantasy novel that ends up being real, and the secret history. The latter element is given disappointingly short shrift.  We're given hints that wizards among us quietly spread their influence, but all we see any of them doing outside the magic school is either recruiting new prospective wizards or idling their time away at a sinecure arranged by seemingly limitless magical influence and wealth. The description of the latter, somewhat late in the novel, felt as if it were written by someone ignorant of anything about the corporate world aside from surface appearances and, at first, felt like a very weak part of the novel. Looking more closely, it fits into one of Grossman's main themes: a deconstruction of the nerd author-insertion wish-fulfillment novel.

At first, the book appeared that it was going to be pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. We're introduced to Quentin, the oh so very smart seventeen year old with an Ivy-league future ahead of him, a headful of fantasy novels, but no real sense of belonging with his peers or any real plans or ambitions. So of course he'll end up at a wizarding school, of course they'll find something special about him there, and of course he'll end up a part of some epic quest the likes of which even the magical world has never seen. He'll eventually find expertise as a wizard, learn the truth about the much-beloved children's fantasy world of Fillory, and go on to have great adventures.  It's obvious and predictable, which is why I was pleased and impressed that it didn't follow formula.

Instead, we find Quentin where many top of their class wunderkinds find themselves. He's suddenly transported from a place where he was special to the place where all the special kids go, where to be a genius by any other measure is to be squarely average. Along the way we find a magic school which, while not as fantasical as Roke Island in Ursula Leguin's _A Wizard of Earthsea_ (for my money the best description of an education in magical arts I've ever read. If you've not read Leguin's Earthsea books, put this review down right now and go get them. If you haven't read them but watched the miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel, you might need to lobotomize yourself first), but it did a nice job injecting genuine wonder into something which should be wondrous; the sequence involving the students' taking part in the mysterious fourth year "disappearance" was both lyrical and fascinating.

What I found a touch disappointing and what grounded the book a bit too much for my taste is that Grossman's storytelling was strictly linear. Towards the end we get some marvelous set-pieces with magical battles that could have been beautifully fimled as a Peter Jackson epic followed by a culmination of several story threads, yet the nature of the book lead us to not really feel that these were threads we'd been following all along. For all of its import, we'd seen very little of the magical world of Fillory until we're ready to go there. There are hints, but never quite enough. Later still, when we learn secrets about time-travel, they do little to disorient the reader the way great time-travel or multiple-worlds novels can. Here I'm thinking of things like Hal Duncan's Vellum or even Neal Stephenson's Anathem. Still, not being a modernist experimental writer needn't be a strike against. It just felt to me like a missed opportunity.

Finally, I'll not spoil the ending here but offer an observation: the scene and language used made it appear to be a note of hope, yet I found it vaguely depressing. It appeared to me that Quentin hadn't really had a character arc, but ended in much the same place as he began; as a follower with no dreams or plans of his own, going along to the next thing because it seemed to inevitably come next. Your mileage, of course, may vary and I'd be quite interested in hearing from people who read this differently than I did.

Three stars.

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