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I haven’t been blogging as frequently lately because I’ve been busy writing, so get off my back. Also, like the rest of you, I was sure that Amazon would have sent me a free Kindle by now, and I wear the burden of disappointment upon a troubled brow.

magiciansOn the plus side, however, I did read another good book. It’s not often I read two books I like so close together. Go figure. This time it’s The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I liked Grossman’s previous book, The Codex, which featured a medievalist I’m 40% sure is based on someone I know. Or maybe there are only so many varieties of medievalists. Actually, the more I think about it, the more likely that explanation seems.

The Magicians is one of those novels that tries to translate the Harry Potter experience to adult sensibilities, and it is largely successful in doing so. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, a depressive and over-achieving Brooklyn high school student, is waylaid from his efforts to get into Princeton by an offer to attend Brakebills Academy, the only American higher institution dedicated to the study of magic.

Like the Harry Potter novels, The Magicians posits a shadow world of magic that exists parallel to our mundane existence, all but invisible to ordinary people. Unlike J. K. Rowling, Grossman suggests that the ability to do magic isn’t some vague genetic predisposition, but the effect of real world abilities — intelligence, will and to a certain extent, dexterity.  Grossman also infuses his story with sex, swearing, heavy drinking, and most importantly, disillusionment. Quentin is perpetually haunted by the specter of the staggering disappointment of life.

Aleister Crowley is one of the many people with whom this book is uninerested.

Aleister Crowley is one of the many people with whom this book is uninerested.

Rather than recount the plot, which I never like to do, I’ll talk a little bit about what I liked and disliked about the book. On the negative side, this is one of those novels that takes place over a fairly significant number of years, and I tend not to like that. Personal preference here, but I think this style of story-telling tends to make the narrative more impersonal and distant, and that is often the case here. Quentin is a remote character to begin with, and the narrative strategy makes him even harder to warm to. Some of the secondary characters are wonderfully drawn, but others, despite their important presence throughout much of the book, remain vague and uninteresting. At its worst, this is a novel that keeps the reader at arm’s length.

At its best, however, the novel is remarkable. Grossman is a great writer, and his efforts to treat magic as though it were a real thing are successful and fascinating. Magic here appears to be a complex and rational system, even if the magicians themselves don’t understand it, and its effect on the human psyche is always up front and believable. Throughout much of the novel, Quentin’s experiences are haunted by his memory of reading a series of Narnia like novels set in the mythical world of “Fillory,” and those books comes back in the last section of The Magicians in a big and effective way. There were several times when I was reading this book that I found it frustratingly slow or too focused on trivial details, not enough on character. Yet, when it was over, it stuck with me far more than most things I read. There are tons of books I’ve loved reading that I can barely recall now, but I suspect I’ll still be thinking about The Magicians years from now, especially if Grossman does not write a sequel – which he ought not to do. Trust me, Lev.

2 Responses to “”

  1. Ilana D. says:

    Glad you posted on The Magicians! I just finished reading it the night before last and found it at first engrossing, then disappointing, and in the end provocative. In retrospect, I think it was more about literature and reading than about magic, about the power books like Narnia have and people yearning to live in a book.

    It also caused me to look at the Harry Potter books in a new light. Quentin’s time at Brakebills seemed so flat and emotionally empty (what you were talking about, I think, in saying he kept the reader at arm’s length). Lots of magic but no real emotional connections between people, no joy, no exuberance, no fun. Not even with Alice, really. So much the opposite of Hogwarts. So it made me start thinking of the “magic” that Harry found at Hogwarts not being simply the charms, potions, brooms and such but the richness of the connections between people there. I knew that already, sort of. But this really highlighted it for me.

  2. Narya says:

    Hmmm. I had put “Codex” on my list of books to read, and I finally found it at the library, and I ended up being disappointed by it, though now I don’t particularly remember why. Which makes me think this one could go on the list, but nearish to the bottom . . .

    I confess to not having read the Narnia books. My problem is that, after having been captured by Tolkien at an impressionable age, I find it hard to like similar quest-like stories. I can think of two that didn’t do much for me. I’ve come to believe that the main reason for it is that Tolkien had so much backstory going on that it ended up providing a depth to the narrative (even though there are limitations as well).

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