Dee's Reviews > The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
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bookshelves: a-kind-of-magic, loanage

This could get long, so to sum up: this is a highly competent, intelligent, enjoyable read. That really irritated me in a few ways. It was interesting, but for me, too facile and shallow in its exploration of the fantasy tropes it was engaging with.

For "Harry Potter for grown-ups" (which is really only the first half, the second half is Narnia for grown-ups) I find it perplexing that this really wallowed in one of my least favourite story forms for YA fiction: the one where you watch a character do silly things that lead along an inescapable descent because they are young and stupid. It's most commonly seen in stories about eating disorders or drugs, and it's basically why I stopped reading YA fiction, because if I know this is a stupid thing to do, I really don't need to read a story showing me how it's a stupid thing to do.

Quentin is young and stupid, and he does stupid things that lead him along an inescapable descent. While it is written with sparkling, well-crafted prose and lots of witticisms, it's just fundamentally not fun to read that, especially when he is utterly passive for the entire book. He doesn't even really answer the Call to Adventure; Adventure basically has to kick down his door, pick him up by the scruff of the neck, and drag him out kicking and screaming, despite the fact that he whines for most of the book about wanting Adventure. He does not go to Narnia, he is taken.

I am not sure I like the use of magic as an analogy for the malaise of modern youth. Yes, it works: you are given an education that endows you with as much knowledge as you can sensibly absorb but often does not, actually, get you to critically engage with the moral repercussions of that knowledge and certainly not build your own moral fortitude, and then you are launched into the world where you are told and in fact know that you could do anything, but it's too big, it's too much, there are too many options, what does it all mean? I get that. I've felt that. It does not seem a big enough thing, to me, to be the central, pivotal literary concept of a book this size.

And finally, because that does seem to be what the book is about, the plot left me somewhat bored. It was never really driven from within (possibly because Quentin couldn't drive himself to the corner store to get milk) so the deus ex machina was inevitable and there wasn't much to do until the next Plot Thing happened but sit around getting steadily more irritated at Quentin's fit of over-educated self-pity.

Now, let me have a rip-roaring crack at the world-building. Or rather, lack thereof. Because even Harry Potter delivered a more cogent and realistic magical society. My husband, as I was talking about the book in-progress, said, "But what are they being trained for?" and there is absolutely no answer to that. They're being trained because they're being trained. In HP, they're being trained because educating the young in your community so that they can become contributing members of that community is what you do. There is a visible government to ensure this, drawing upon (presumably) funds from a visible community. There is no such visible community or government in Magicians, nor any impetus to contribute to is, as evidenced by the fact that they are not only supported in fucking around for a year or more, but potentially forever. No checks, no balances, no downside, no realism.

Things I liked?
- The writing. It really was delightfully done, line by line, and left me giggling on the train often enough to bother my fellow passengers.
- The suggestion that the Dean knew about the Paramedic's role in the whole business. More or less completely unexplored, however.
- That Alice points out that Quentin is blind to a whole realm of personality/emotional/psychological circumstances (or, let's say, Circumstances) around him. But this never, ever, EVER plays a role, when it really should.
- The system of magic. The idea that, sure, there's a talent, but you need the world's biggest and most complicated toolkit to shape it, and that education is beyond a lot of people. It was really, really interesting. And I don't feel like any of the plot flowed out of or depended on the system of special physics, so I'm sort of wondering why it's there.

Basically, this does not feel like a book written by someone who really understands fantasy. And I think it could have been amazing if it just dug a little more deeply, got a little more traction, ran itself instead of being run by outside forces. It is good, and it is interesting, but I'm just left going, "...and?"
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Quotes Dee Liked

Lev Grossman
“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.”
Lev Grossman, The Magicians

Reading Progress

September 21, 2011 – Shelved
October 17, 2011 – Started Reading
October 17, 2011 –
page 55
13.22% "A great opening (including a magnificent first line) that bodes very well for my continued enjoyment. Finding the choice of slightly-fancy vocab occasionally predictable... or maybe "redolent" is just always predictable whenever it shows up."
October 18, 2011 –
page 119
October 19, 2011 –
page 200
48.08% "Still fun, though "Hipsters at Hogwarts" is occasionally brutally accurate."
October 20, 2011 –
page 298
71.63% "Well that was a really unpleasant descent into maudlin, irritating, futility-related self-pity. Since it seems unlikely I'll have an opportunity to bitchslap the characters, I hope things get better."
October 21, 2011 – Shelved as: a-kind-of-magic
October 21, 2011 – Shelved as: loanage
October 21, 2011 – Finished Reading

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