Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Magicians

When The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, first came out in 2009, the New York Times review said it was "Harry Potter for adults," and Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness calls it "hedonistic Harry Potter,"** so when I saw it on the audiobook shelf at the library, I checked it out for my commute and had an unusual--almost unprecedented reaction--I wanted to spend more time in the car. When the paperback came out last Tuesday, I went to the bookstore on my way home from work and bought two copies--one for me and one to give away to a friend. And then, although I wanted to finish listening to Mark Bramhall reading it out loud, I couldn't resist reading the ending. Finally I checked out the audiobook again so my family could listen to it this summer.

I loved this book starting with the description of the main character, Quentin, on the second page: "Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first."

On the fourth page is the first description of the Fillory books by Christopher Plover (although Plover has a website, he's Grossman's creation). Bearing a self-conscious resemblance to C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, the five Fillory books "describe the adventures of the five Chatwin children in a magical land." Quentin read them in grade school and "he never got over them." When he is selected to attend Brakebills* college of magic--not without explicit reference to Harry Potter--he finds that he's far from the only one there who still loves the stories about Fillory.

Quentin's magical education is the subject of Book One. He goes through five years of school without ever finding out what his "discipline," or magical specialty is. I hoped that he would discover it in Book Two, when he and his friends graduate and move to Manhattan, or in Book Three, where they travel to a magical place. Book Four, however, opens with Quentin musing about the curtains at the window of his sick-room:
"They were coarse-woven, but it wasn't the familiar, depressing fake-authentic coarseness of high-end Earth housewares, which merely imitated the real coarseness of fabrics that were woven by hand out of genuine necessity. As he lay there Quentin's uppermost thought was that these were authentically coarse-woven curtains, woven by people who didn't even know that their way was special, and whose way was therefore not discounted and emptied of meaning in advance."
Quentin never does find his discipline. He does find the answers to some of his earliest questions, though, and at the end he flies out a window in search of more adventures.

The story is full of tantalizing glimpses of what Quentin could be and what he could do:
"For the true magician there is no very clear line between what lies inside the mind and what lies outside it. If you desire something, it will become substance. If you despise it, you will see it destroyed. A master magician is not much different from a child or a madman in that respect."
But he's always becoming, never mastering his art, never achieving a goal except to see a bigger one looming just over the horizon. Quentin literally learns to fly to the moon, but it's not enough. This is a book about living your life as if it can eventually become part of the stories you love, and a little bit about how to start making up your own stories and fitting them into the vast fictional universe. Like Sam Gamgee approaching Mount Doom, Quentin and his friends are continually trying to figure out who will tell their story, and what part each of them will play.

Like all really great stories, it makes you want to put yourself in the place of the characters and share their experiences. There are the kind of animal episodes that even Disney couldn't resist using from The Once and Future King. There are a couple of students who don't get invited to the magical school but are determined to get there anyway--as if any of us could actually have a chance.

Who wouldn't want to go to Hogwarts, Narnia, Camelot, or Oz--even if the work you are assigned is difficult, and your heart's desire isn't what you thought it would be when you get there?

*if you look at the Brakebills website, you'll see that "Tuareg necromancy" is offered.

**Update: Grossman is still waiting for someone to call the book "Dirty Harry." Can't believe I missed that one.


Jenny said...

Hedonistic Harry Potter is exactly right, I loved that description when Kim reviewed it! I know there's been talk of a sequel, and I'd really like to see Grossman letting Quentin develop into a proper person. Not necessarily counting on it though.

Harriet said...

This sounds like great fun. I'll have to add this to my summer reading list.

Betty (Beth) said...

I loved this book when I read it a few months ago. You picked out the best lines to describe the overall feeling of the book too. Now I think I'm going to have to check out the audio soon. :-)

Amanda said...

I tried to read this one but just couldn't do it. Couldn't make it past page 5. For some reason the writing just didn't work for me.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I'm glad you liked this one -- I've gotten mixed responses to the book and now I'm always a little skeptical when suggesting it to people :)

Jenners said...

I've read many many negative reviews of this book ... yours is one of the few that praised it. Based on what you shared, I think now I should make my own mind up!

Jeanne said...

Jenny, yes Quentin could use some more character development.

Harriet, I think it is fun--enough that some people get disappointed that it isn't perfect...

Betty, the overall feeling is very hard to convey, especially because the tone changes between the four "books" (although the first one, the Brakebills section, is by far the longest).

Amanda, Maybe you should try the audiobook!

Kim, as I said, I think some of the negative reactions might be disappointment in the unrealized (as yet) potential of the idea. It really is a great idea!

Jenners, as so often in fantasy you get out of it what you bring to it.

Trapunto said...

Thanks for this review. Based on some of the others I thought--disappointed because the concept sounded good--I'd better leave this alone; but it sounds like the problem might be approaching it with expectations of a fantasy novel? I can live with a book ABOUT people and life and fantasy tropes, that isn't trying to BE a fantasy trope. Always happy to hear about good audios, too--though I don't expect I'll have the patience to wait for my library to obtain this one!

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, I can't guarantee you'll like it, but I'll be interested to see what you bring to it!

Dreamybee said...

This caught my eye at the bookstore a few months back. I'm glad to hear you liked it so much. I can see why the description of Quentin got you hooked!

Jeanne said...

Dreamybee, yeah, it's easy to hook me with something about the travails of being tall!