Review: The Magicians, Lev Grossman

Whoa, how did I not review this yet?  I thought I had – but apparently I only thought about it, A LOT, and then forgot to do it because I was reading through the Amelia Peabody books.  (Still fun!)

The Magicians is about a boy called Quentin Coldwater who is obsessed with a series of books about a fictional land, Fillory.  One day, he interviews for and gets into a school of magic, Brakebills, and he spends the next lots of years learning magic, and practicing magic, and eventually (is this spoilers?  I feel like no, because you see it coming from the beginning) it turns out that Fillory was real all along, and he and his friends go to Fillory.

I loved the Fillory thing.  Narnia obviously informed the idea of the Fillory books – the child protagonists, the magic alternate world, the talking animals, etc. – but very rarely did it feel like Grossman was borrowing too much from C.S. Lewis.  (The exception is that he swiped the entire idea of the Wood Between the Worlds with hardly any changes, which kind of bugged me.)  Mainly, though, this device works very well.  The idea of the book is sort of a growing-up of children’s fantasy.  Quentin’s obsession with Fillory makes him expect one thing out of magic, and he finds it works quite differently.  He grows into adulthood and cannot quite work out what to do with his life, and finally he gets to Fillory and finds it absolutely not what he was imagining.  It’s all pretty dark and difficult and messy, like adulthood is – the expectations kids have, and the difficult, compromise-y reality.

(Spoilers here.)  What worked particularly nicely for me, in suggesting the transition from childhood magic to the world of adulthood, is the episode where Quentin decides to play a tiny prank on one of his teachers.  The minor distraction he creates summons a Beast from another world, and a student who tries to save the situation gets killed.  BAM.  It was effective.

On the down side, I did find the book unbearably self-conscious at times, especially on the one or two occasions that the students of Brakebills made reference to Hogwarts and Middle Earth.  It was jarring.  Fillory was fictional Narnia, so the world of the book was obviously not our world; to make reference to a real-world book took me right out of the moment.  If there is Fillory instead of Narnia, Tolkien and Harry Potter can’t exist.  Does that make sense?

Another problem I had was that, although the book was a good exploration of the adulthood thing I mentioned before, it wasn’t tightly plotted.  Extraneous events and stories were easily distinguishable from plot point events and stories because Grossman was telegraphing his punches like mad.  Plus, the trip to Fillory didn’t happen until ages into the book, and it was so brief there wasn’t enough time to build up the necessary suspense.  (Though I did like the final revelation about Martin.)

I spoke a while ago about Neil Gaiman’s story “The Problem of Susan” and the problems I had with it.  Grossman’s story is as creepily effective as Gaiman’s at growing up the Narnia books, without being as disrespectful to Lewis’s writing.  On the other hand, given that it was novel-length rather than just a short story, The Magicians could have benefited by having a good editor.  It was uneven altogether – it dragged in bits, and raced in bits, and while some things worked spectacularly, others spectacularly did not (the niffin thing?  not so much).

I like for my life to be simple, and I have fretted about how many stars to give this book for a while now.  I decided on three as an average, though as I say, in parts it was a five and in parts a one or two.  What would you prefer – an all-bad book you can write off forever, or a book like this that’s inconsistent?

Other reviews: A Novel Menagerie, She Is Too Fond of Books, bookshelves of doom, OF Blog of the Fallen, Reading the Leaves, Books and Movies, Beyond Books, The Wertzone, The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf and Book Review, Darque Reviews, Wordsmithonia, Strategist’s Personal Library, Stephanie’s Written Word, and tell me if I missed yours!