Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review of The Magicians by Lev Grossman

 Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.
Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he thought it would.
Then after graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.
I want to start this review off with a blurb by George R.R. Martin:
“These days any novel about young sorcerers at wizard school inevitably invites comparison to Harry Potter. Lev Grossman meets the challenge head on… and very successfully. The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. Solidly rooted in the traditions of both fantasy and mainstream literary fiction, the novel tips its hat to Oz and Narnia as well to Harry, but don’t mistake this for a children’s book. Grossman’s sensibilities are thoroughly adult, his narrative dark and dangerous and full of twists. Hogwart’s was never like this.”
The above statement by a highly regarded author (in my humble opinion) in the fantasy genre is exactly what I was feeling when I was finished with this book. As the story progressed, I kept thinking about how I was going to review this novel without a nod and tip of the hat to Harry. I mean how is one fun loving book reviewer of the fantasy and speculative fiction world suppose to imagine a world without Harry Potter and his friends in it? It is not possible. Dan, a friend of mine on Goodreads pointed out in his review of the book that the similarities between them are purely superficial. Wizard... School... That is really where the similarities end. Mr. Martin has said it best, this is no Hogwarts.

Quentin Coldwater is a is a highly educated and fantastic character, but in a lot of ways he is severely flawed. Prior to his admittance into Brackebills, a highly secretive and exclusive school of magic and wizardry, his life is portrayed as semi-normal. He definitely isn't just your average teen graduating high school mind you because of his seemingly easy breeze through a public education then has him seeking out studies in an Ivy league school. This and a few other things give you the opinion that Quentin is grade A book smart and I found this aspect of him thoroughly interesting. The relationship with James and Julia at the beginning of the story adds another interesting element into the chemistry of Quentin's complex brain. These are Quentin's closest friends but there is a deep rooted underlying love that he feels for Julia that makes this friendship somewhat tedious and taxing on him. Growing up Quentin was hopelessly fond of the imaginary world of Fillory and Further, a series of novels reminiscent of The Chronicles of Narnia. And unlike a lot of other children who grew up reading such things, these novels stayed with Quentin and were still thought about through high school. So imagine his surprise while on his way from a particularly bizarre interview to Yale University he is sidetracked and mysteriously led through a passage to a school for magically gifted students. The whole interview process into Brakebills is probably what sucked me into the story so invigoratingly and then furthered through his matriculation there had me turning the pages with eagerness. Along with the totally inviting magic that is going on, Quentin is slowly growing an inevitable intimate relationship with his fellow classmate Alice. From the time we meet Alice, we can tell that there is something special about her. She is an astute student whose hard work does not go unnoticed. It is not long before her, Quentin and another fast learning student named Penny (a guy that I learned to hate throughout the entire novel) are asked to test out of the first year and jump right in with the second year students. It should not go unsaid that Quentin does develop other relationships while in his first few years at Brakebills but those were not as outstanding aspects of novel to me as others. For example, his friend Eliot plays a pretty substantial part in the story but he was not all that intriguing to me. I can even say that it is Eliot who walks Quentin down the fine line of life on the edge, so to speak. But it just wasn't the heart of the story to me. In his fifth year at the University, the novel again took off for me. The whole adventure Quentin and his classmates take to Antarctica to further their studies with the grandly interesting Professor Mayakovsky. I really wish there could be a whole novel based souly on his character. As things are, this is not the case and we only get a drivel into how he came to be professor at the totally secluded school in the antarctic. Where was I.... Oh yeah, this whole trek and stay at Brakebills Antarctica was just a great part of the story to me. From the way they arrived there, to the various look into the way they were taught and the rigorous amount of knowledge that was essentially force fed to them, and finally the final exam at the end had me breathless and wanting more.

It is not long after this we arrive at the second part of the story where Quentin and I both fell off the wagon, literally. Quentin's downward spiral into a bleak existence post Brakebills had me right there with him. This actually had me struggling to pick up the novel and read further because I knew that his path was not going to lead to total fantasy based happiness. As I suspected, it did not. Even though, I was preparing myself for the result of his behavior, I don't think it was enough for the scene with Quentin walking up the stairs of there newly acquired place in upstate New York. After all his shenanigans I should have seen it more clearly. It was really more than I could handle... I literally broke down right there with him. But I trudged on and the story does really pick up after that, although it left an ominous cloud over me that I don't really know that I fully got over until The Momentous Event near the end of the story and Alice's fate is ultimately decided. Now that it is assured there will be a part two to this great story, I am banking on this not being the last we see of the lovely Alice.

Quentin's try of a return to normalcy at the very end of the novel just rounds his character out full circle to me. It goes to show you that once you enter certain doors and they are closed behind you. There is no going back, only forward.

I am so excited for the next novel and Quentin's inevitable return to the world of Fillory. It will be a reunion that I will gladly have with all the wonderful characters and great facets of Lev Grossman's intelligent writing. Mr. Grossman, how I would love to sit and pick your brain about the upcoming story and what I have read so far. You've really got a hold of the making of a great story. Thank-you for a look into the imagination that you are so extravagantly unveiling to us.

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