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The Magicians: where’s the magic?

23 Jun

Book: “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

Origin: Impulse Purchase. Couldn’t resist strolling into Greenlight Books after a summer lunch with a friend. The cover caught my eye and I thought it might have some potential to be a decent dystopian fantasy/adventure novel.

Brilliant, geeky teenager gets to pursue dreams of becoming a real Magician, doing real Magic, exploring real Magical worlds; with an R-rated twist. Or so I thought.

Quentin Coldwater is your typical, brilliant, magic-loving, angst-ridden teen obsessed with a series of children’s novels. He’s totally dissatisfied with life and constantly searching for the next best thing. Grand opportunities fall in his lap offering brief diversions from total boredom, but of course his hopes for finding happiness in the external world are repeatedly squashed. Why? Probably because he’s looking in all the wrong places. This is classic coming-of-age stuff, with the added wonder of magic tricks and talking animals. Only at the end of it all, I was left feeling confused and dissatisfied.

Once he’s accepted into Brakebills, an exclusive secret college for talented magicians, Quentin finds his cliche circle of friends and waits for an adventure to unfold. While he waits, some briefly entertaining stuff happens at Brakebills and we’re introduced to some curious professors, but don’t assume this is an R-rated Hogwarts. Yes, there’s a lot of sex and drinking and magic-learning and questioning of the meaning of life (magical and otherwise) and lots of dinner parties, but if you’re looking for monsters and heroic adventures, you won’t find many at Brakebills. Not in the literal sense at least. You will come to understand, though, how useful (or useless) an advanced degree in magic really is.

Quentin’s obsession with “Fillory and Further”, a series of Narnia-esque novels from his childhood, leads him to believe that his happiness is stuck in Fillory just waiting for him to find it. Spoiler Alert – However, by the time Grossman finally brings the novel to Fillory, it’s so blatantly clear that Quentin’s thirst for happiness is never going to be quenched that the very existence of Fillory seems forced. It’s difficult for even the best writers to build a convincing world full of cute fluffy bunnies, ninja rodents, alcoholic bears, and talking trees; and Grossman’s attempt left me questioning his decision to go there.

So, the sticky parts that are supposed to hold a story together fall apart from time to time, and there are far too many trite sexual references, but that doesn’t mean their aren’t some wonderfully satisfying bits. Every so often, at unpredictable moments, Grossman paints a scene so vivid and curious, it’s impossible to set the book down.  Spoiler Alert – My absolute favorite part is when the kids turn into geese and fly to Antarctica to spend a semester training for a bare-ass naked run across the arctic tundra. The imagery was brilliant and beautiful. I even had a dream that I, myself, turned into a goose and flew to China on some secret mission. Maybe that’s my own private fantasy.

Ultimately, reading “The Magicians” was like reading several different stories squished together in a hastily made sandwich. Each with its own fantastic potential and juicy morsels, but together a muddled mess on the kitchen counter.

Looks like there’s going to be a sequel released next year, so it remains to be seen whether Quentin will ever be fully relieved of his boredom.

This Book’s Fate: Donate

Up Next: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan