Friday, February 15, 2013

Book review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Goodreads summary: “Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.
Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.

Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.”

I’m honestly pretty conflicted about this book, and conflicted about my reasons for being conflicted. (Does “conflicted” look like it’s not a real word yet?)

Let’s start with the good: world-building. Plot. Clever and sincere homage to its forebearers (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia.) Interesting and important female characters (about whom Grossman achieves a successful distinction of how he feels versus how Quentin feels.) There’s a good mix of drama and light-heartedness, and enough intrigue to keep me moving through the story pretty quickly.

Now, onto my issues. First and foremost, I’ll start with the minor quibble that the pacing was sometimes weird. My understanding is that this series is meant to be a trilogy, and Grossman clearly has a lot of story he wants to pack in here, but the progression of time while Quentin was at Brakebills was sometimes disjointed and confusing. I can see that Grossman didn’t really intend for this to be a story about Quentin’s time in magic school, and that he wanted to focus more on what came after, but what we got were oddly focused chapters on minor events, such as a game of Brakebills’ version of Quidditch that none of the characters were even that interested in, and then two sentences to indicate that an entire semester had passed by.

Moving right along to my major issue: Quentin is probably the least likeable protagonist I’ve read in some time. And see, I’m not usually the kind of person that needs “likeable” characters in order to enjoy a story. In fact, I often come out in defense of unlikeable characters; I don’t need to love everyone, and oftentimes, the unlikeable people are pretty complex and interesting. But it was damn near impossible to empathize with Quentin, or even to really understand what his importance was. One of my main pet peeves in fiction is when there is a lot of exposition or dialogue between other characters that tells me what a character’s significant traits are rather than demonstrating that the character is those things through their words and actions. This pet peeve was provoked in a major way with Quentin. It’s beaten into our heads how brilliant he is, but all throughout the book he seems to achieve things mainly through luck or by being surrounded by a lot of other really brilliant people who seem to know much better than him what they’re doing. This would be one thing if Quentin were an unreliable narrator, calling himself brilliant, but when the omniscient narrator and all of Quentin’s extremely talented friends are saying so, it comes across as grating and discordant with what I’m actually reading. Don’t get me wrong; the kid certainly has “above average” intelligence, but there is a disconnect between the superlatives used to describe him and his actual presentation.

All of that alone I could accept, except that he’s also sullen, entitled, and even cruel at times. And although he seems to acknowledge his shortcomings, and the other characters sometimes call him out on his crap, it’s not enough to wink at the reader and say, “See? I know this kid is a little shit sometimes,” if he doesn’t ever seem to learn from his mistakes. I know people aren’t perfect, and that many of us like to make the same mistakes over and over again too, but I guess I like seeing a little growth in my fictional characters. It stops being compelling, after awhile, to read about someone who has experienced so many incredible things, with such highs and lows, but doesn’t really change because of them.

When all was said and done, this book was still an enjoyable entry in the urban/modern fantasy genre, and I quickly picked up the sequel as well (review on that forthcoming.) I’d recommend reading this, but with the caveat that you just might hate the protagonist.

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