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The Magicians (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) Library Binding – May 25, 2010
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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.
The characters in the story are fairly fleshed out, in that you have a good sense of what drives them, what makes them tick, you can see the dynamics between them. The description of the magic school Brakebills is very well done, filled with things that people don't understand about and that has a life of its own. And while at the very end there's something that can lead to a sequel, there's definitely an ending to this book, no gimmick cliffhanger that requires you to wait for the next book.
Definitely, the book had the makings of a great story. Yet, I was left numb at the end, not happy, not sad, not scared. And that, really, is why I left this review with 3 stars. I read fiction to be entertained. This entertainment can be in the form of humor, feeling good, scared, excited, titillated, insightful, or some combination thereof. Instead, when I read this book, I saw through the eyes of a fairly apathetic protagonist, who messes things up and blames everyone else, who had chances to become a hero and fails each time. I read about a person who wanted something, got it, didn't like it, and became apathetic. I read about the antagonist being defeated, the protagonist winning in the end, and no one feeling ... well, happy for having accomplished anything. Perhaps this is what real life can be. But come on, that's not entertainment. And that's what's sad about this, that this book had the potential to be a GREAT story, but misses the mark significantly.
Would I recommend this book to someone else? Honestly, I'm not sure, and that's why I must conclude with 3 stars.
I'm interested in discussing this story with anyone else who is willing to, without putting any spoilers into play, so I'll do that via comments to my own review. Feel free to join in.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
No character development, terrible pacing, ineloquent writing style, unimaginative plot.Read more