The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

6101718Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is part Harry Potter and part Chronicles of Narnia with a liberal dose of melancholy poured over the top. Rather than having a friendly giant deliver the news on his eleventh birthday, Quentin Coldwater gets the news from the Dean of a magic college after missing an interview to get into Princeton. Quentin is a honors student who, in his words, never got over a fantasy series he read as a kid.

Right away, Quentin has a pass an exam that he hasn’t studied for. Every student has had that dream, when you have to take a massive exam for a class you haven’t attended. I’ve asked around about this so I know it’s true. The funny thing is that everyone has a different exam. Most people dream about some heinous mathematics class. I always had to write a paper about post-Marxist Feminist Deconstructive interpretations of a text I’d never read. See? Nightmare! Anyway, Quentin somehow manages to pass and embarks on four and a half years of intense magical education. Harry Potter does get mentioned in this novel, but Grossman deliberate takes the fun out it. He takes out the humor, the wands, and the joy. It’s just a slog and only people with lots of intelligence and a certain detail-oriented personality can get through it.

For a while I was afraid that this book just going to be a catalog of a school experience. But once Quentin and his class graduates, the novel morphs into a dissolute modern piece. Quentin joins up with his friends who graduated the year before, squats in an apartment, and starts trying to drink himself to death. Since I’ve never been much into the spoiled depressed kids type of novel, I started to get really disappointed here.

Fortunately, that part doesn’t last long. Another classmate shows up and informs Quentin’s group that they could travel to another world. Specifically, they can travel to the world in Quentin’s favorite childhood books. I kind of had to roll my eyes at that part, because it was really clear what the origins of these settings and ideas and plots was. Harry Potter and Narnia. Oy. But by this time, I was already halfway through the book and figured I might as well finish it. Yesterday was a slow day and I didn’t have anything else to do. What the hell.

So, I read on. Quentin et al get to travel around in a Narnia-like world. They end up on a quest for four crowns, just like the Pevensie kids. Only one of them really takes it seriously, and Quentin is just along for the ride. On the plus side, the story does get more interesting because the characters are not children (in spite of some their behavior). By this point, it was also clear that I was not getting the story from the hero’s perspective. You could read him as sort of an analogue of Edmund Pevensie, who’s a bit of a brat until he sucks it up and grows up.

SPOILERS AHEAD

You’ve been warned.

After defeating the Big Bad, there’s a denouement where Quentin swears off magic. He takes a job at some sort of corporation where he doesn’t have to do anything except collecting pay checks. At the very end of the book, Quentin’s friends come to collect him and drag him back into the magical world.

See what I mean about melancholy? And Quentin being a tagalong?

END SPOILERS

I read on a book blog (Omnivoracious, I think) that Grossman is starting a sequel to this. So the question for me is, should I read the next book? Do I care enough about Quentin to keep reading? I think I might. It would be really easy to dismiss this novel as purely derivative. It’s not even ashamed of being derivative. Hermione Granger actually gets mentioned by name at one point. So, you have to chose not to read it as a purely original work. You have to have a working knowledge of the Harry Potter and Narnia series to understand it. The Magicians is a work of meta-fantasy, I think. I mentioned before that Grossman replaced the joy with melancholy. The thing about those source books is that they’re for kids and about kids. They have innocence. The Magicians is about what would happen if magic was taught to people in their twenties rather than kids. And Grossman is probably right about what would happen. Most of the students would fritter their gifts away. Some would be altruistic, but not enough of them. Fortunately, there aren’t that many of them and most of them aren’t aggressive. Otherwise, it would be an entirely different world.

Also, it’s hard to read a book about that tries to do all that plus be a coming of age novel. It’s also about Quentin learning to be a real grown up. He’s not a hero. He’s a nerd who can do magic and who is waiting for happiness to arrive. So that’s a bit irritating, but it’s also the source of all the literary melancholy that elevates this book from pure genre fiction.

This doesn’t really answer the question, though. Would I read the sequel? I might, but only out of curiosity, not because I especially care about the characters.

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