Saturday, July 14, 2012

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
The Magicians by Lev Grossman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While I can understand what literary fiction enthusiasts might like about this book, to me, this book took the worst of both literary fiction and fantasy and wrapped it up in comparisons that made it sound far more appealing than it was.

I liked the concept. You have the Narnia-esque fantasy world of Fillory our hero, Quentin, is obsessed with. (And I do love the name Quentin.) You have the school of magic the average person is perfectly unaware of. I liked the elements, going in, but the follow-through was awful.

If you pull out all the sections where people mope, feel sorry for themselves, or undergo self-destructive activities, this book would be maybe a few dozen pages long. I know a lot of people love watching people go through existential crises, but that's what keeps me away from most literary fiction. I don't sympathize with people who create their own problems. I have a hard time rooting for people who have so much going for them, then throw it away on self-destructive, selfish impulses.

Quentin only grows more and more unlikable as the story goes on. It makes me wish I'd taken my reluctance to pick this up after a couple of nights of reading as a sign, and stopped reading. I guess my thinking was that I wanted to see what the plot was, first.

The plot doesn't show up until over halfway through, and it involves a device to go to the fictional land of Fillory, which actually exists. It's only after the story's climax that we learn what Quentin's four years at Brakebills, the school of magic, had to do with the plot. Call me a literary philistine, but I'm unforgiving of books that make me wade through over 200 pages before introducing the main conflict.

Even after the conflict is introduced, there are far more pages spent on second-guessing and preparation than on doing anything with their newfound access. When the characters start talking about how useless they are, and whining about how long it was taking for anything to happen, maybe I was supposed to chuckle appreciatively, but all I wanted to do was throw the book across the room.

I might have been more forgiving if I'd ever felt like Quentin took responsibility for the terrible choices he makes, but instead he keeps forging on, finding new and more self-destructive ways to forget that there are consequences. I lost all sympathy for him when he cheats on his long-term girlfriend, who he looks down on for not being a drunken party fiend like him. I got actively angry with him when he acted like she was still his girlfriend after that. He blames the girl he slept with, he blames the wine he drank too much of, and he blames the guy she sleeps with afterwards. He never thinks that maybe he needs to reexamine his approach to the relationship and quit taking her for granted or looking down his nose at her for having some personal integrity.

It doesn't help the book one bit when the characters are described as heading to upstate NY, near the Adirondacks. They're correctly described as heading to Albany in one chapter, but then the next chapter has them going to Buffalo, and this is repeated several more times. Buffalo is a five-hour drive from Albany, and a quick glance at a map would've told Grossman or an editor what a glaring error this is. It was distracting, and it told of sloppy writing elsewhere, as well.

Instead of finding this book a delightful fantasy romp, a Harry Potter for grownups, I found that all it did was drag down both literary and fiction genres. If this is how literary fiction snobs see fantasy, no wonder they never pick up any genre works. I wouldn't, either, with this to warn me away.

If you are an exclusively literary fiction reader, don't let this book dissuade you. Fantasy is so much better than this.

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  1. You and I had very similar reactions to this. I didn't quite get the fuss and wound up relatively unimpressed, it's a shame because it had potential, but didn't really make the most of it.

    1. I've come to the conclusion that I just don't like the kind of books the majority of readers do. I'm getting better at spotting keywords of things to avoid, though.