Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: "The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

I read this book for two reasons. First, Lev Grossman won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at this year's WorldCon. Second, the premise is fantastic: What would happen if you discovered that the fantasy world you loved as a kid was real and you could go there? I daydreamed as a kid about going to Narnia and Prydain, and later on Gwynedd and Pern. "The Magicians" seemed right up my alley, and it is ... with one glaring exception.

This has been called in some reviews the adult version of Harry Potter, with a big dose of the Chronicles of Narnia thrown in. That's an apt description. The first half of the book is spent at a magic college in upstate New York called Brakebills, which even has a chess-type game that is their equivalent of quidditch. But unlike at Hogwarts, the students here drink, have sex and are quite foul-mouthed. After graduation, they add drugs to their vices.

And herein lies my one problem with the book. I like sympathetic protagonists. Quentin Coldwater and his friends are some of the most miserable, self-destructive characters I've ever come across. Quentin discovers magic is real and that he is a magician. He discovers the world of Fillory is real. He goes to Fillory on an adventure right out of the books he loved as a kid. And he is still miserable, right up to the last page.

That's too bad because I love everything else about this book. Grossman has an engaging style. I found myself stopping to reread passages because I was so impressed with the writing and imagery. This one on the first page is among my favorites (maybe because I'm tall for a girl):

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.

I enjoyed this book enough that I will read its sequel, "The Magician King," but not enough that I'm rushing to the library to pick up the sequel right now. I hope in the second book, Quentin will finally shake off his perpetual state of melancholy and find some happiness. Because what's the point of being in the fantasy world you obsessed over all your life if you can't have some fun while you're there?

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