The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

I was recommended this book by BrittanyBrittanyBrittany, who described it – as many of the reviews have – as “Harry Potter for grownups”. In some ways, that’s true, but it manages to get past that and become absolutely its own book, where the only thing it has in common with Rowling’s world is the existence of a magical school, and a group of friends who have to save the world.

But the major difference between The Magicians and Harry Potter is that Brakebills is a college, with college-age students and all the accompanying “freedom from parents” activities that go along with going to university and becoming an adult, while Hogwarts is a prep school, where the students grow up but are still very structured and regulated. There’s a lot of sex and drinking in this book, both at Brakebills as people negotiate their place in whatever social group they end up in and afterwards as a way to stave off the boredom of real life and as an effort for Quentin, the main character, to establish some sort of sense and meaning.

For much of his time before and at Brakebills, Quentin reminded me of myself. Not with the sex and the drinking – okay, maybe a little with the drinking – but with his general outlook and understanding of his situation. Quentin, like me, didn’t dream of a future beyond university, didn’t have a life goal outside of education. He could do, potentially, everything, and therefore ended up doing essentially nothing.

(I didn’t do nothing, but I have spent most of the last ten years not knowing what I was going to be working towards next. Because I can do almost anything, because I have so many potential choices, I find it difficult to focus on any one thing, constantly terrified that I’ve picked the wrong thing to focus on and I would really be happier and more satisfied if I went in this direction, but now I’ve spent so much time on this that I haven’t been able to do that…. and that’s how I end up with teaching experience but no teaching qualifications, a couple of years in mind-numbing retail, and a hard drive filled with lists of ideas, half-begun stories, and manuscripts waiting for revision….)

The part that rang most true for me was the description of the last semester at Brakebills, where Quentin and Alice oscillate between a fierce desire to cling on to familiarity and eke every last experience and memory out of Luther   Brakebills, and a desperate chafing at the restrictions and requirements and an almost angry impatience to start their “real lives.” It’s the best, most accurate depiction of senioritis I’ve ever read.

But Brakebills is only the beginning, of course. There are other dimensions, other worlds, and eventually our group goes to visit one, a Narnia-type place without (as far as I know) the blatant Christian parallels. They fight, they die (or nearly die), and Quentin, at least, learns that you can either engage fully with the world or disengage fully from it – there are no half-measures if you want to survive.

There are only two loose ends for me in this book. The first one is not very significant, I think: what is Quentin’s Discipline? I don’t really think the answer to this is essential – it’s ultimately just another way to categorize and/or isolate people, after all. It strikes me as something only marginally more self-defining than your stated major in college. It may affect how you do things in the wider world, but it doesn’t necessarily affect what you do.

The second lose end is Julia, Quentin’s adolescent crush who failed the Brakebills entrance exam and the subsequent memory wipe. If she hadn’t reappeared, begging for help, I probably would have forgotten about her, as Quentin had nearly forgotten about her, as you tend to forget about high school friends whose life experiences end up so radically different from your own. But she did reappear, and her story wasn’t really resolved, so the niggling question of “what happened to Julia” persists. (I did look at a blurb about the sequel, The Magician King, and it seems she’ll reappear there.)

It’s a very, very good book. It is not Harry Potter (in fact, it takes a few pains to point out that fact) – it’s a book for adults and possibly young adults rather than children. I wouldn’t give it to a 13-year-old. I might to a 16-year-old, as long as I didn’t think it would horribly depress and discourage them. It was captivating, a tiny notch lower on my personal absorption scale than Ready Player One and The Name of the Wind – but only a tiny notch. I am already actively seeking a copy of The Magician King. (And Codex, by the same author but not in the same storyworld, looks very interesting as well….)

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One response to “The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

  1. Pingback: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman | Bibliophilia

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