Monday, July 2, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is not Harry Potter for adults. This is for adults, however.  Unfortunately, I am not one of the adults it is for.

The magician is Quentin Coldwater (something he tends to throw on every happy experience). He is finishing high school as the book opens but rather than go to Princeton, he is admitted to a school for magicians where he learns real magic—sort of an American Hogwarts on the Hudson. Quentin has always been fascinated by a series of children's books in which four English siblings go to a magical land which is not called Narnia, in the last quarter of The Magicians Quentin and five friends find their way to it where, among others, they meet a talking bear and a talking tree.

A quick look at the Amazon reviews (176 five-star / 98 one-star) suggests that many of the people  who rated it highly liked for the very reasons the people who rated it one-star hated it. For example: "... Quentin is full of his own shortcomings and dichotomies. He's a brilliant, troubled man, searching as much for himself as anything else, and makes some bad decisions throughout the course of the novel. Midway through the novel, Quentin is let loose into the world with little direction, near limitless access to money and drugs, and all his relationships falling to pieces around him. This period of the novel was difficult to read, as Quentin becomes unlikable and brash and confused, deserving little sympathy from the reader [who] often wonders why they should even bother reading on, if there are any redeeming qualities left in Quentin...Grossman is very deliberate in this emotional breakdown of his protagonist, and it plays an important role in Quentin finding the motivation he needs to remove himself from the downward spiral."

To me, Grossman is writing against every fantasy novel, from Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, The Lord of the Rings, and beyond. He's out to claim that while magic is real—it is possible to be turned into a goose, to create a protective spell and go to the moon, to manipulate this physical world, and to travel to an alternate reality—it's not very rewarding or satisfying. It's a lot of hard, nasty work and it's not much when you've done it. Even after you've trained to use all these powers, the best you can do with your life—given that you have unlimited money and freedom—is party, get drunk, do drugs, and recover enough for the next party. So you think you can escape your dull, boring life? Forget it.

I read the book to the end, which turned out to be a mistake because Grossman ends with a cliffhanger to promote the next book in the series. I'm afraid I come down on the side of those readers who found Quentin unlikable, brash, confused, and deserving little sympathy—and certainly not worth reading another word about.

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