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The Magicians

January 8, 2012

This past year a good friend who knows I love fantasy recommended this recent and popular book, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and its sequel to me. So I was looking forward to reading it on vacation in the Caribbean. Maybe it The Magicianswas my mood, but my strongest impression after reading it was this: The book is too hip and clever for its own good.

The hipness started more promising, though. Grossman’s hero, Quentin Coldwater, is a high school student in one of those schools for the gifted-plus, and he’s a geek to beat all geeks. He knows his Tolkien, Star Trek, Star Wars, video games, and Harry Potter—and his Homer, Tennyson, Cervantes, Grimm Brothers, and probably Joseph Campbell as well. Grossman introduces an important plot element, a series of fantasy books about the land of Fillory, early in the novel, and it’s obviously based on C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. The in-jokes were fun at first, a nice way to tell us about Quentin and his friends. But  I got tired of the unending coolness and hipness and look-how-geeky-we-are-ness of it all. The fantasy in-jokes started to grate after a while. Probably they were intended to impress and tickle the fancy of the geeks reading the book, but they just never stopped and weren’t anything more than annoying. At least to this reader.

Then there’s the matter of our main character, Quentin. Quentin was so damn morose and angry and stupid through the whole book, acting recklessly and rashly, indulging in stupid activities because his quasi-friends did, being mean to real friends, saying rude and mean things. He didn’t go through the emotional journey you expect your hero to, at least not to the extent that he’s transformed or taught anything. He’s still morose and self-centered at the end: no generosity to others, still drinking like a fish, still easily ensnared by a pretty face. Even Harry Potter, who was pretty morose and angry in the fifth book of that series, finally learned the value of caution and thinking through problems and not to assume someone’s behavior was all about you.

Quentin was absolutely his most interesting when he was matched with Alice but before they consummated their love. Grossman carefully walked him through the surprise, interest, fascination, and revelation that come when meeting your soul mate, and, just like all good fantasies, the Other seems to be better: a better magician, smarter, braver, whatever it is that you need to learn yourself. Yet once Alice declared her love and they were paired, Quentin continued his profligacy. He indulged in alcohol, drugs, unhealthy friendships, and eventually betrayed Alice.

Every single other character in that book was infinitely more interesting than Quentin. I’m not sure I could even say what Quentin’s character is like. Maybe that’s the problem here: the primary hero has to be so bland and generic that there’s nothing interesting to be said about him. But even Harry had a character you could identify throughout the books. You finished them thinking you could predict pretty well how he might behave in any particular situation. I had no idea with Quentin.

Why do so many male main characters in these modern quest or fantasy books have to be insufferable? I mean, Wart from The Once and Future King wasn’t that way; he was impatient and timid but not thick (the smart way is always so obvious but the male heroes keep blundering down the wrong path). Will in The Subtle Knife was thoughtful, quiet, and smart, even when he didn’t get the point or understand what was going on around him. Even vain Achilles and uber-confident Odysseus weren’t so annoying as Quentin Coldwater in The Magicians. The person who wrote Amazon’s top review for The Magicians provides the perfect comment about the book: “Wondrous — but you still want to smack that idjit.”

Quentin’s character notwithstanding, there were fun, interesting things to consider about a coming-of-age fantasy book for adults, plus a lot of exciting action to read and ideas to mull. The idea of books taking you out of your real life and into another that feels more real, the heavily allegorical business with the Questing Beast at the end, and the introduction of more modern elements in several characters (Eliot and Penny, for example) all impressed me. I just couldn’t love it with that “idjit” dominating the action.

I chose not to read the first 20 pages of the next novel, which were added to the paperback edition I read. I don’t want to know what happens next, not when I won’t be reading it right away.

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From → Meh

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