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780 of 902 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wondrous -- but you still want to smack that idjit., July 1, 2009
This review is from: The Magicians: A Novel (Magicians Trilogy) (Hardcover)
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Stop thinking this is a fantasy book. I know, I know, it's called "The Magicians," the plot synopsis references all three of the most famous fantasy series and describes a handful of familiar fantasy tropes, including the school of magic and the fairy tale land come to actual life. But forget all of that. I have read more fantasy books than I can remember -- I'm named for a character in perhaps the most famous fantasy series of all time -- and I'm telling you: "The Magicians" is not a fantasy.

It has fantastic elements, yes. There is magic; there is a school for magic, where the characters learn to cast spells, using hand gestures and arcane language and strange mystical components -- Ziploc bag full of mutton fat, anyone? -- and there is a voyage from this world to another, a land of naiads and fauns and magical speaking animals, gods and demons, kings and queens, quests and wishes. But this book is something very different from the usual fantasy novel. In "The Magicians," Lev Grossman has done something unusual, and remarkable, perhaps even unique: this is a grown-up fantasy. This book is to fantasy what "The Grapes of Wrath" is to travel books, what "The Metamorphosis" is to self-help: so much more depressing and visceral and funny and horrifying, and genuine, and fascinating, and hard to read and therefore valuable, that it doesn't belong in the same category despite sharing some central traits. The setting is imagined, and there are supernatural things that happen, but make no mistake: this is a serious novel.

Where the characters in most fantasy books are heroic, larger than life, the sort of people we wish we could be, these magicians are not: the characters are too close to plain old humanity, flawed, contradictory, foolish and foolhardy, to stand in as idealized versions of ourselves. Where most fantasy books provide an escape from our reality, this book does not. In point of fact, the moral of this book is that escape is not only impossible, but dangerous and harmful to attempt. The hero, Quentin Coldwater, attempts to escape every serious situation he faces, and every time, he ends up worse off than he would have been if he had just been able to deal with it, honestly and sincerely. But his response to his worsened circumstances is to try to escape again -- with predictable results. Every step Quentin takes is the wrong one, and every step sinks him deeper and deeper into a quagmire. The book gets hard to read: not because the writing is anything less than excellent, as it is top notch from first page to last, but because the urge to reach into the page and slap, shake, and eventually throttle the main character becomes overwhelming. But that desire, that feeling, should be familiar to every adult who has thought back on his or her life, and shook his or her head, thinking, "Why did I do that? How could I be that stupid?" That desire to smack Quentin is no different from the desire to smack our younger selves, and sometimes, that's a terribly annoying feeling to have, which makes this a somewhat annoying book to read.

The real triumph of this book, however, is that it is not only a serious novel, despite what I have been saying. Grossman is able to describe a world of wonder and imagination, and populate it with characters who are utterly unworthy of the magic all around them, who appreciate nothing, who completely flub their great chance -- just like I would have done if I lived through this experience, just as most of us do with our great chances in our real, mundane, unfantastic lives, which are also as full of wonder as any dreamed by a teller of tales. And because the characters are so real, so easy to relate to, it makes the fantasy seem just as real (which, of course, makes the real world just as fantastic). Brakebills reminded me of my own college experience, and yet it is a magical place. Fillory is indeed a fairy tale land come to life in this book, and I found myself wishing that I could believe I would have handled Fillory better than Quentin does -- but knowing that I would have done almost precisely the same things, made the same choices and the same mistakes. And the ending is glorious: the climactic action scene is thrilling and impossible to put down; the revealed secrets are both surprising and satisfying; the final resolution is, if not completely happy, at least hopeful.

I won't say that this is a great book, on par with "Of Mice and Men" and "Catcher in the Rye" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," but I will say that it is closer to those than it is to "The Hobbit" or the Xanth books. If you are a fan of literature, of thinking about your reading, then you must get this book, especially if you enjoy fantasy. If you are just looking for an escape, look elsewhere -- because this is not a fantasy. Or at least, it isn't only a fantasy. It's a wonder.
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Comments

Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 35 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 7, 2009 5:45:37 PM PDT
gaimangirl says:
Great review-very insightful.

Posted on Sep 24, 2009 3:56:35 PM PDT
R. Hetrick says:
Not sure I would have used the word "serious" but I thought your review was excellent, I am a 57 yr. old woman who has read considerable fantasy and like The Golden Compass this is a book that requires more than a desire to simply "escape" into alternate reality and is definately more appealing to those of us past the age of 15.

Posted on Oct 15, 2009 12:49:38 PM PDT
Tracy Rowan says:
I wish my review had been as good.

Posted on Oct 21, 2009 9:49:17 PM PDT
Jens Alfke says:
Well-written review, but it falls into the same trap of mainstream critics who refuse to categorize books by authors like Margaret Atwater or Jonathan Lethem as science fiction, even though they obviously _are_ SF, because they're "serious" and "not about ray-guns". In the case of this review, who said that fantasy can't be grown-up, or feature realistic, flawed characters? (What are Jack Vance or China Mieville or Neil Gaiman writing, then?) True, a book like this isn't a "usual fantasy novel", but then again, _any_ really good novel isn't a usual instance of its genre.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 23, 2009 5:31:56 PM PDT
Thank you for the compliment, but I don't agree that I fell into a trap. In writing this review, I hoped to help other people to recognize the value of this book, but I also wanted to help those who wouldn't like it; it seemed to me the trap here is in the expectation that some people might have, after seeing the cover, reading the synopsis, and so on -- the expectation that this book might be like most other fantasy novels. I wanted to point out, strongly, that this one does break the stereotypical mold of the genre, which it does particularly well, in my opinion (I would say far better than Mieville, for my own self, but that's only me). I did go back at the end of the review and say it is still a fantasy novel, because of course you are right: fantasy novels do not have to be only about dragons and magical rings, and the heroes don't have to be perfect, by any means.

I also don't agree that ANY really good novel isn't a fine example of a genre standard; I think Tolkien's work, for one obvious case, helped to define the fantasy genre, and is also masterful in its craftsmanship.

Thank you for the thought-provoking comment.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 29, 2009 11:51:56 AM PDT
Great review.

My sole quibble is the use of the word "serious" to describe The Magicians. Too often critics compartmentalize genre fiction as separate from serious/literary fiction. To my mind there should be no discernible difference. Genre should be treated as a tool a writer uses in telling a story. It shouldn't be used as the basis to exclude a work from serious literary criticism.

Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood, two writers who use the tools of science fiction/fantasy to tell a tale, claim they are not science fiction writers. Vonnegut believed he was writing literature and did not want to be classed with authors who produced both science fiction and substandard fiction ("...if you write stories that are weak on dialogue and motivation and characterization and common sense, you could do worse than throw in a little chemistry or physics, or, even witchcraft, and mail them off to the science-fiction magazines." [Kurt Vonnegut, "On Science Fiction" in NY Times 9/5/1965) Atwood seems to misunderstand what science fiction is. ("Science fiction has monsters and spaceships..." [Atwood in The Guardian]. I don't think the work of either of these authors would be classified as not "serious."

Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is classified as a western, yet it is every bit as "serious" as The Grapes of Wrath. And both books were Pulitzer Prize winners.

You wanted to warn away readers who expect fantasy to behave a certain way but I say, let them discover that genre doesn't equate with bad writing and give them the chance to really explore new worlds.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 1, 2009 7:02:22 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Nov 1, 2009 7:02:56 PM PST]

Posted on Nov 7, 2009 9:51:23 AM PST
Joan says:
Great review. I found this book much more about the mundane human condition, sometimes profoundly so, than any of the Narnia-Potter-Tolkien books it appears to draw from. To me it was about the tragedy of believing that happiness will be attained only after the next "win," after the next escape to new circumstances. I've enjoyed many fantasy novels, and the context of magic is what drew me to this book. But while the magical world described here is original and feels real, this novel is the opposite of escapist fiction.

Posted on Dec 28, 2009 7:38:37 AM PST
klees says:
Very nice. Although I have only read 70 pages of this book after starting to read it at Borders, it is evident that it is exceptional. Ferociously intelligent and well written. I can't wait to read the rest. Little did I know I from the simple title and subdued cover what a gem this is. Lack of a 5 star rating says a lot more about our educational system than this book.

Posted on Apr 8, 2010 9:11:44 AM PDT
Bailey says:
Thank you for writing this excellent review. It is among the best I have read on this site, both in content and in the quality of writing.
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