Tuesday, July 13, 2010

2010 Not-a-Hugo Nominee THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman

The Magicians is one of the most talked about fantasy novels of recent years - it's garnered a lot of mainstream attention, and it's generally considered a crossover into literary fiction. It's also divided sf fans (and readers in general). I expected it to make a few more nominee lists in the major awards, and the fact that such a successful and well-reviewed fantasy novel has not says a lot.

I should also note that we discussed this book last night at the excellent Books & Bars bookclub in Minneapolis - it combines two of my favorite things: books and alcohol. Lev Grossman did a skypechat with us, which added some nice perspective to the work.

The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater, a gifted high schooler who is recruited to the magical college of Brakebills. There he runs into a cast of nerdy girls, effete upperclassman, and overachieving rivals, while entering into house tournaments in magical games, learning spells and potions, and facing supernatural menaces. Okay, so it probably sounds a little familiar. The Magicians is often described as an "adult Harry Potter," and that's exactly what it is...when it's at its worst. And, don't read "adult" as mature; in the early sections there's generally less emotional maturity than Harry Potter but more sex and drug abuse. The novel can feel awfully derivative, and I thought it was interesting that Grossman went out of his way to point out during our Skypechat that he wrote the earliest portions of The Magicians before he'd even heard of J. K. Rowling. The emotional immaturity also means that the characters can get on your nerves. Quentin, especially, wallows in depression and drugs, and makes some extremely bad choices. Whether this is more reflective of the real college experience seems to be one of the issues that divides readers, but I do think it's the characters who are immature, not the novel itself.

Furthermore, there is more to this novel than a speedy, low-rent Harry Potter knockoff with self-involved characters. Into the second half, the The Magicians begins to take some interesting turns and ask some more challenging questions about its subject matter. I don't really want to spoil anything, but it does become clear that Hogwarts isn't the only fantasy fiction target in Grossman's sights. I think that Fillory, an analogue for C. S. Lewis's Narnia books that Quentin grow up loving, is Grossman's best creation here.

More importantly, the novel has a lot to say about fantasy readers and the role of escapist fiction. There's a very interesting tap dance going on here: it's an homage, even a love letter, to fantasy classics from Narnia to Earthsea to Harry Potter. At the same time, Grossman asks how fantasy readers (especially himself; Grossman proclaimed his devotion to the genre multiple times in our chat) can deal with the existential disappointment of the real world. And, of course, this existential disappointment has all sorts of analogues: the many talented college and graduate students who find no jobs waiting for them when they finish...or jobs that they detest, for instance. It's a novel about finding your place in the world. I can't say it has great answers, but it poses the questions in ways that I found very interesting.

Grade: B

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