Tuesday, December 15, 2009

QNY Review - Lev Grossman - The Magicians

Posted by riot.

Of my hobbies, I invest the most time and the least research in reading science fiction and fantasy books.  I love sci-fi/fantasy, and I've probably devoted a significant percentage of my life to reading the genre, but my method of finding new works is haphazard and often entirely random.  Usually, I go to the book store and buy based entirely on the cover art or the blurb on the back.  I read one book by an author and, unless the first was Category 5 Horrible, I then compulsively devour everything else in her oeuvre.

I end up knowing everything about a few tried and true authors, but having no idea what's new, cutting-edge, happening in the industry, or going on with those authors.  This can have bad repercussions.  One time, to my very great shame, I inadvertently gave a ton of my dollars to the homophobe writer Orson Scott Card, by buying more than a dozen of his books without realizing that he's a conservative Republican, Mormon homophobe, and a member of the board of NOM.

So lately I've been trying a different tack.  I've been reading reviews and asking friends for recommendations.  The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, came via the latter route, and thanks very much to Kyle for the suggestion.

After finishing the book, I surfed the net for other reviews, as a little research before I stuck my foot in my mouth on this blog.  I didn't want my first review to recommend a homophobe!  Fortunately, Lev Grossman seems to be a decent guy.  He's a senior writer and book critic at Time, and he has written for a long list of publications that starts with The New York Times.

I also learned that other reviewers have been as unable as I to come up with a better description for The Magicians than "Harry Potter for adults."   Though I have not read the Potter books, I have seen the movies, and invoking that story as the main comparative work feels like a grave injustice to Grossman.  The Magicians references a long list of other fantasy works, and in the end it is far more than the sum of those parts.  I highly recommend it.

Most obviously, C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia is a huge influence.  Quentin is our protagonist here, and he grew up reading and obsessing over Fillory and Further, the Narnia equivalent in this story.  Quentin is an exceptionally gifted student who is also the unhappy outsider, a sidekick to a more dynamic personality.  Despite his intelligence, he has never fit in and never felt happy.  Soon enough, of course, he is swept away to an English-style school for young magicians, conveniently located in Upstate New York, where he learns to navigate adolescence and perform magic, is guided into wisdom by an eccentric group of professors, and meets the big evil guy. Ultimately Quentin discovers that the magical land of Fillory, his escape from the brutalities of being an outsider child, is very real and waiting to be explored.  Off he goes, with his clique of school friends, to meet his fate.

Does this sound all too familiar?  It is.  Grossman has drawn from many of the major sci-fi/fantasy archetypes, plus material from half of the fantasy novels I've read.  But here, the story is self-aware, and the tropes are woven in a satisfyingly realistic, gritty way.  Quentin and his friends have seen the Harry Potter films, but they were not impressed, and probably sent text messages to each other during most of the movie.

It's a device I've seen used more and more lately.  I call it the New Meta.  Authors know that it's all been done, and they wink at you while they do it all over again, subtly referencing pop culture, with a new flavor and a new twist.  For the most part, I find this enjoyable, and The Magicians is no exception.

The key difference is that Grossman disdains the starry-eyed, innocent treatment of these topics.  The teenagers at his school drink, take drugs, have sex, and (gasp!) smoke cigarettes.  They stab each other in the back and throw sucker punches.  Their relationships are just as awkward and angry as those of real teens.  The magical sport they are forced to play is not a soaring triumph of excitement; it's a dreary, humiliating exercise that the students mostly resent.  This is Harry Potter with the "Disney" scrubbed right off of him.  In fact, the bigger boys jumped Potter after class and stole his lunch money, and there was no one around to notice or care, let alone help. 

I rate The Magicians a solid 8/10.

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