Friday, March 16, 2012

The Magicians, a Review

Can you like a book but hate the protagonist?

Quentin Coldwater is an angry, frustrated teenager getting ready to graduate from high school and head off to the best college he can find. From a wealthy but apathetic household in Brooklyn, Quentin's outlook on life is highly cynical and downright depressing. The only thing he's ever found joy in is from a popular quintet of novels called Fillory and Further, written by Christopher Plover. Very similar to Narnia, these were Quentin's refuge whenever life's circumstances grew difficult, even through high school. Because of his love of magical fantasy, he learned how to perform card and coin tricks with some skill.

One afternoon Quentin is walking home and suddenly finds himself heading down a different path. The cool Brooklyn weather is gone and he's standing in an unfamiliar place. Soon he is talking with Dean Fogg, who informs Quentin that he is able to take an entrance exam to a very exclusive college, the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Fogg reveals that the magic that Quentin has longed for is in fact real, and that if he passes his test then he will be invited as a student to the school.

Beyond belief, Quentin takes the test, and from there his world forever changes.

Lev Grossman's The Magicians came out in August 2009. I wasn't particularly interested in reading the book, but I wasn't disinterested, either. I didn't really have an opinion about the book, not until I read a couple of different reviews, some praising the book, some criticizing it heavily. This polarizing type of thing attracts me, so I added it to my TBR way back when. This book came up when looking over my 2012 Manifesto and trying to find an audio book to listen to while driving to St. Louis for a concert. It was long enough to last me the entire trip and still have a little left. I checked out the audio and popped it in the cd player once I hit the road.

First off, I have never read a book with a more despised protagonist, and that's saying something. I don't know how many times I complained about Quentin's attitude or stupid choices to Keisha in the reading of this thing. Granted he is in his college years through much of this book, and as a typical college age kid he's going to make some dumb choices. However, by and large, and especially considering his high intelligence, it was frustrating that Quentin consistently made poor decisions, even when he didn't want to. He would feel one way and think of how he would say something, but then he'd go off and say/do something completely different than what he was thinking. Then, afterwards, he'd mourn over his dumb choice. Not only does Quentin make dumb mistakes, but he also acts like a spoiled, pretentious little jerk, one that I wanted so badly to like.
"That's what makes you different from the rest of us, Quentin. You actually still believe in magic. You do realize right, that nobody else does? I mean, we all know that magic is real, but you really believe in it, don't you?"
See, this was the problem. The story and the plot and (most of) the side characters, they were compelling. I wanted to know how magic worked and the whys and wherefores of the side characters. The magic was vague and impressive and interesting. So was Fillory and its mysterious author. And what was Penny's backstory? What are niffins, exactly? Can I really trust this person? And The Beast... wow. There were so many good elements for an entertaining story, but Quentin wasn't one of them. I felt very little sympathy for him, even when he was deserving of sympathy. His anger and personal void was a tainting POV to use for this colorful world Grossman created.

In fact, coming through Quentin's POV I remarked to Keisha that I wondered if Grossman was pushing some sort of nihilistic message. Everything was bad. Everything was worse. Every cloud was lined in jet black and there was no grass on either side of the fence. These poor people had magic, something undeniably wonderful, and still happiness eluded the world and everyone in it.

Being that Grossman is a senior writer and book critic for TIME magazine, he is down with pop culture. In reading the book I was reminded of Narnia, though Lewis' world was never explicitly mentioned. Grossman mentions Tolkien and things from Harry Potter and Dungeons & Dragons and many other things any geek worth his salt would know about. The Magicians is an amalgam of all of these things and more, but it's sprinkled heavily with originality. This, Grossman's creativity, is what kept me going through the book.

I absolutely loved the stuff Quentin was learning at Brakebills. There was the mystery of the Fourth Year students and why no one wanted to talk about it. The professors were unique. The examinations and tests were brilliant. The disciplines were cool, how students had an affinity for certain magics and that was there major course of studies. This was by far my favorite part of the book. A jarring shift happened a little over halfway, one I was completely unexpecting. Quentin graduates from Brakebills and the Reader finds the Q. & the gang now as fully graduated Magicians. I had no idea what was coming, and what did happen I in no way was prepared for. I didn't enjoy it as much as the college years, but there was action and mystery.

If this review paints a mixed picture of Grossman's book, then I'm doing my job. Part of me enjoyed the book a lot, and part of me didn't want to finish. I feel that Grossman made some odd choices with the characters, but he made plenty of right ones, too. Most of the plot was wrapped up satisfactorily, but there were a few small things left unresolved. Unsurprisingly, a sequel, The Magician King, came out in August of 2011. I'm interested enough to find out more about this strange but familiar world of Quentin Coldwater, if only to see if the guy is ever going to change.

The Magicians is a book that any reader of speculative fiction should be able to read and enjoy if one is okay with a relatively stagnant and/or frustrating main character. It's subversive of normal tropes, and at the same time it fully embraces them.  It's definitely an adult novel, as there's plenty of boozing around, lots of drunken times, occasional drug use, and a few Rated R sexy times. As many are wont to say, it's a grown-up Harry Potter novel, but I'd be more inclined to say it's Harry Potter minus the wholesomeness and thrown into a typical college stereotype. I really did like the book, I can't stress that enough, but I really did not like Quentin.


leslie said...

I think Sean asked me that same first question. Part of his difficulty, too, was there was no change in the character--no progression or life lesson or even worsening for that matter.It was the side characters that kept him going.

am going to make sure he reads your review, I'm sure he'll have more to say. His cliff-notes were enough for me; frankly it sounded kind of boring. I do not mind hating a protagonist, but I do not like the idea of a static plot that could have been dealt with in far fewer pages. I was horrified to hear it was a book 1.

like this review, btw. nice exploration of your initial question.

~L (omphaloskepsis)

David Wagner said...

Interesting... I've seen the book around, but was never quite intrigued enough to grab a free sample chapter and check it out. I really appreciate your well-crafted review. Now I know clearly what to expect.

Funny that you compared it with Harry Potter but not with Rothfuss' college settings... how would you compare the elements of each, I wonder? (The staff, the disciplines, the tests, etc)

logankstewart said...

@L: Ha. Glad I'm not the only one who thinks this way. I'm not sure if Grossman initially planned on a sequel or if the story got away from him.

@Dave: Oddly enough, the Rothfussian College System never even popped in my mind. The University is so unique that it really doesn't even compare to Hogwarts and Harry's education. We do see a touch of college antics in Kvothe's world, but nowhere near the extent of Quentin's. I suppose the disciplines are somewhat comparable, in that there are focus areas, but the rest isn't that similar at all.

Alex Hagerman said...

May have to check this out, I haven't found much "magic" I've really been drawn into since The Dresden Files, but may check the audio book out.

Carl V. said...

I've read many books that I've loved with less than thrilling protagonists. The Stars My Destination, The Demolished Man, and Hunter's Run come to mine. Deplorable (on some level) characters who I enjoyed spending time with because the books were so good.

I liked the first part of this book well enough, but as it reached into the second part I started disliking all the characters and the story direction equally and I felt it all spiraled downwards with each and every page. By the end I decided there wasn't any need to continue on with the series. I also felt strongly that despite Grossman's skill in the first half of the book he lost something in the later half. I don't consider him a great writer. Good, possibly, but not worthy, at least with this offering, of all the praise.

Again, just my opinion.

logankstewart said...

@Alex: I've still only read the first two Dresden books. One of these days I'll get to them. Not sure if you'd particularly like Grossman's story. It's... different.

@Carl: I'm honestly not sure why this book received all the praise it did. Maybe Grossman had some connections in the critic's circles? Like you, I didn't think his writing was necessarily great. There were some great sentences, but this was infrequent. I think I may pick up the sequel eventually, but I won't be upset if I don't, either.