REVIEW: The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

I’m back from the land beyond internet, and shamefully, I have only completed one book in the last five weeks. I can blame this on a variety of dramas, and a new job, and a new city, but it’s partly an excuse.
However, the book I did finish I loved.

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Firstly though: a note on the cover art. Truly is a remarkable feat of marketing isn’t it? I read it in the blue Dan Brown-alike, and it completely mis-sells the book as a Templar-secrets-airport-novel deal, when in fact it is absolutely nothing of the sort. Cynical marketing to the point of beggaring belief.

But what is The Magicians? It is, put very simply, Harry Potter for grown-ups. And that isn’t being reductive: the comparisons are worn clearly on the sleeve of the writer. Quentin is a dissatisfied, morose but intellectually gifted teenager who suddenly finds himself invited to Brakebills Academy, a faux-English boarding school in a magic-shrouded area of New York. Within the course of the novel, he graduates, and he and his friends go off on a magical quest to the land of Fillory to overthrow the forces of evil.

So far, so seventies paperback. But what set Magician apart for me, and made it so compulsively readable, was how the world became real. Not real in a JK Rowling way, who populates her world with all sorts of inventive details–real in a down to earth, believable way. Magic is not exciting–it is repetitive, difficult and frequently boring. HIs friends are not a pleasant bunch of misfits; they are mostly borderline sociopaths with alcohol problems. And most importantly, magic does not make them or him happy. Instead it just feeds the festering dissatisfaction that lurks under the narrative, as if Douglas Coupland had written Lord of the Rings.

Which brings us to their magical quest, to the land of Fillory. Fillory is a fictional set of novels within the novel itself, that Quentin has obsessed over since his childhood. The novels are his safe place, the untouchable black and white fairytale world of heroism and pageantry the retreat he uses to comfort himself–until they turn out to be real over the course of the story, and they travel there themselves. Fillory is one of the crowning glories of the books. They are a pitch-perfect version of Narnia without veering into either parody or pastiche; they are a clearly recognisable parallel, but more importantly, my god would I like the series to exist. There are knowing nods all the way through the book to the Narnia — the fourth book that no-one bothers reading, for example, or references to the supposed history of the Barries.

I also found myself veering into reviewer-purgatory–it’s been so long since between completing the novel that I have read other reviews before writing my own. Most are favourable, but there’s a distinct block of reviewers who slate the novel for it’s depressing, moony attitude and unlikeable characters, principally Quentin. And it’s made me start to look back and consider his character. Actually, yes, he is mostly an ungrateful, amoral, grumpy arsehole. But as a reader I am pathologically always on the side of the protagonist, and none of these things never occurred to me when I was reading it. His troubles, his disillusionment, they all rang true. Maybe it’s a generation thing. I’m twenty-something, and half my life revolves around the same predicament that the Magicians spins on: why isn’t life as magical as literature?

Now don’t get me wrong: this is not a literary musing with no plot. There is plenty of plot, and it moves forward fast. Even the final showdown satisfied me, and there are few novels I’ve ever felt properly achieve that. And to top it all, I have just discovered that there is a newly released sequel, the first purchase i have made for my new Kindle!

Now that I have the internet back in my life I shall be returning to my regular posting, keeping the fingers nimble. I’m midway through Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s new novel The Long Earth, so my thought on that will be coming shortly.

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