Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book Review: The Magicians

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.

To be fair, my younger brother warned me. He said something like, "You are welcome to take this book. I started it, but couldn't finish it. It wasn't very good."

However, my younger brother is the kind of guy that reads books on smart-people's books lists. I like 'em light-and-fluffy! Plus, I love fnastasy books, and almost always finish a book just to see what happens. So, even though he did not care for it, I thought I would probably find it tolerable.


Lev Grossman admittedly tips his hat to "CS Lewis, JK Rowling, and TH White", but it often feels more like a sneer in their direction than any kind of homage.

The main character in the book is Quentin, a young man who finds he can do magic and gets into an exclusive school of magic (sound familiar?). But where the Hogwarts of Rowling is a well-realized place, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy seems to have little purpose in the book, except as a place for a bunch of unappealing magical young adults to hang out. Although this is supposedly a college, the characters in this school act like 13-year-olds, think like 13-year-olds, and explore their morality like 13-year-olds with too much freedom. Their sum total of college is to drink and hook up. Magic seems to be something they neither value or appreciate.
 Quentin thinks that this discovery of his magical abilities will bring happiness to his life, in spite of never having been a happy person. It does not. Grossman had an interesting idea here, to explore the idea that happiness or contentment comes from within, not from outside things, even from the dicovery of a special ability. But it just doesn't work in the end. Quentin is neither transformed by his experiences nor challenged to grow.

Underlying the whole story is the world of Fillory, an imaginary world from Quentin's favorite childhood books. Quentin wishes it were real, but when he finds out the truth of Fillory as an adult, it is not the idyllic fantasy from childhood. There is a battle with "evil", but one cannot say it is a battle of "good" vs evil. More like evil vs. drunken rich-kids.

There seems to be no subsance to this story, as there were in CS Lewis's works or even Rowling's. In the latter, the underlying themes ranged from loyalty to courage to faith. Grossman loses his way. A good story needs a good framework. The underlying themes of The Magicians seem to be wasting your life away and the dissollusion of childhood dreams. Nothing redeeming here.

There is a good amount of gratuitous sex and language. Neither does much for the story, besides leave the reader with a deeper feeling of ick. Added to that is the horrible relationship Quentin has with his parents. Grossman never explains this in a satisfying way. Quentin appears to hate his parents because they love each other too much, and they are never that interested in him. However, this relationship seems more like a convenient way for the author to dismiss having to deal with the parents than a real, interesting part of the main character or the book.

In the end, Grossman, who has an impressive resume, leaves us with a book with no purpose. There is no moral, no good tale, no desire to go on, and what it more, this reader was not even entertained.



Girl Detective said...

I recently finished this book, and liked it, though I can see why it's had such a divisive response. The author is trying for the "ick" factor you mention. He's not reveling in it, he's just wondering what if magic were real and instead of Christianity (as in Lewis) or love (as in Potter), there was nothing at the center? Then you'd get horrid characters acting badly, which is what happens. I enjoyed being provoked into wondering about the romantic fantasies I've had wondering if magic were real. I don't think it's a book to enjoy so much as it is one that made me think.

texasmom said...

Hmmmm - good point, Girl Detective! It did make me think!
I still think a lot of characters and places for not well-actualized. Even if there is ick, I want to feel connected to the story somehow. This left me feeling like I was always on the outside looking in, but not in an inviting way.
I might have to re-read part of it, looking at it as you have said!