Friday, 16 January 2015

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is the sort of book that immediately makes me want to start writing about it in terms of other books. There are the obvious ones, the riffs on Harry Potter, and to an even greater extent, Narnia. But then there's all the bits about privileged kids who don't feel like the world is conforming to their expectations the way it should, and it reminds me of Catcher in the Rye, or The Secret History, although with even more self-awareness that just because they feel that way, it doesn't mean that that's reasonable.

What that does mean, though, that this is the sort of book that immediately sends my mind trailing off into other books. In this case, it's a very good thing. It makes me think, and compare it to other books on roughly similar topics, because this is not exactly untrodden territory. It has never been mapped, perhaps, quite like this.

This book was thrust onto my active reading list when my friend Melissa loaned it to me (perhaps the only guaranteed way to make that happen is to get me a physical copy). I was a little hesitant - I do read books friends recommend, but I'm always a little worried that I won't like something that someone holds very dear, and I knew she absolutely loved this one.

I needn't have worried. I was only a few pages in when I started to relax and realize I was reading something really excellent. The writing reassured me, and the story swept me along. So, let's take each of those, and things I've heard people say about this book, and why I think they're wrong.

The writing is really good, guys. Grossman has a knack for, not overly descriptive writing, but getting to the core of an idea in a few well-placed words. There is a trick of phrasing that makes the little beast in my head go "Yes. That's right. That's exactly it." He has it. I'm not sure it can be taught. When you find writers like that, you can relax and let go and just be swept along. I'm delighted to have found another one.

As for plot...well, it's about a young man named Quentin (17 when the book starts, I think) who is disappointed in the world, and looking forward to college, but feeling dissatisfied with that too. Until he gets admitted to a school for magic, which is why people make the Harry Potter reference. The school is nothing like Hogwarts though, and magic in Grossman's world is long, grinding, difficult, and only attracts the type of smart, obsessive, unhappy adolescent who can't understand why the world isn't the way they think it should be, and tries to bend reality to their will.

Except even with magic, it's not enough. There's nothing that would ever be enough, if it's a matter of wanting the world to reward you with happiness. Happiness doesn't work that way. It's too nebulous a term to satisfy. Quentin is the sort of person who, even when he gets what he wants, immediately starts looking for reasons why it's not what he was promised.

Quentin is obsessed with an obviously-Narnia based series of children's book about the land of Fillory, and near the end of the book, gets the opportunity to travel there, expecting that to solve all his problems. Guess what?

I'm not going to say anymore. The plot matches the writing, is all. It's all great.

So, let's get to what I've heard. The characters are unlikeable. Well, they're kind of prats - or, at least, Quentin is a prat, and so are some of the other characters from the school of magic. But it's not like you're supposed to think that they're right, or deep, or living life to the fullest. This book has a lot about the emptiness of not having a purpose, or consciously avoiding a purpose, because you want the perfect purpose to just appear, like a fairytale, complete with maidens and coronations. There are plenty of characters who are likeable. Alice, for instance.

Here's the point, though. I don't want to be like Quentin. I don't even like Quentin. But I recognize the distant strands of thought that sometimes drift through my head, wanting to be rewarded for being awesome, and for the world to recognize my amazingness and all that adolescent stuff that, thankfully, most of us grow out of. Quentin's around that age. He has all the power that magic can bring him. I'm going to be interested to see where he goes.

You're not supposed to want to be Quentin. But I would be very much surprised if you didn't recognize him. And through him, Grossman has some things to say about growing up and becoming an adult. I think that part of the story has just begun.

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