Thoughts on THE MAGICIANS, by Lev Grossman

Thoughts on The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (Amazon link)

WARNING: I spoil the heck out of this book. Read at your own risk.

Brief summary of the book: Our Hero, Quentin Coldwater, is a disaffected, overachieving Brooklyn boy in his senior year of high school, doing the usual standardized tests and Ivy League interviews and so on. He's madly but unrequitedly in love with his friend Julia, who's dating their friend James. He's also madly in love with a series of children's books dealing with the Chatwin family children's adventures in a land called Fillory, which clearly hearkens to some combination of Narnia and Oz. Quentin and James pay a visit to the Princeton interviewer's house, only to discover him dead. On their way out, a mysterious woman paramedic offers them what they believe to be the interviewer's envelopes on them — Quentin takes his own and James doesn't. Quentin opens his to find a manuscript which claims to be the never-published sixth book of the Fillory series, and a note which blows away in the wind before he can read it. He chases it into the back of an abandoned lot only to discover that — surprise! — he's somewhere else.

That somewhere else is actually a college in upstate New York, and Quentin finds that he's arrived just in time for the grueling entrance exam, which, after some pyrotechnics, he passes. He then discovers that he's been admitted to Brakebills, a very exclusive college of magic. And, oh yes, magic is real. The remainder of the first half of the book describes Quentin's time at Brakebills and the friends he makes there. It's in my opinion the best part of the book, and it spoke more closely than anything I've yet read to my experience of the pains and pleasures of attending MIT and being an MIT student. It felt almost disturbingly appropriate to be reading the book as a senior at MIT, job-hunting and looking towards graduation, and I had hoped that the second half of the book would be similarly resonant. Unfortunately, in its second half The Magicians kind of runs off the rails, or at least it takes a sharp turn in a direction I hadn't expected.

At Brakebills, magic is, if not scientific, at least systematic, regular and controllable. (There are bits of dialogue about how it can't be fully understood, but I credit them no more than I credit claims that the real world we inhabit isn't fully understandable, and the main characters seem to agree with me.) The magic is self-consistent — there is an internal logic to it. This is sharply and repeatedly contrast with the magic of the Fillory books, which seems to be more driven by plot and authorial fiat than any credible mechanism. So when, after a brief hedonistic rampage around Manhattan, the freshly-graduated magicians discover that Fillory really exists and journey there, the book takes on a very different feel. I think I wanted the second half of the book to be about them finding their place in the real world — what is the place in the world of the grown-up weird kid, possessed of great power, great responsibility, and (in this case) a duty to hide both from the public eye? But the book went in a different direction.

So Quentin and his friends travel to Fillory, and, relentlessly genre-aware kids that they are, they set out in search of a Quest. And it turns out that by-in-large the books were accurate in their depiction of the place — The Magicians is no Wicked; Fillory really is a kind of paradise. Soon enough they receive their quest — if Quentin and his friends can recover the crown of Fillory, they will be made kings and queens of it. (Why can only humans be kings and queens of Fillory? Because of the "Rules," which are often cited but never explained.) Recovering the crown involves a dungeon crawl, at the end of which they discover that the rightful God of Fillory has been deposed by Martin Chatwin, one of the children who first discovered Fillory and supposedly the only one who managed to cheat narrative logic and stay in it. Quentin's girlfriend Alice sacrifices herself to kill Chatwin, and Quentin spends the last bunch of the book moping around Fillory and then returns briefly to Manhattan before flying off to Fillory with his friends once again.

First off, good things about The Magicians — well, obviously it grabbed me and held me for its first half. I don't compare it to my experience at MIT lightly. The writing is good, direct and descriptive without being dry. What I think of as Quentin's mental "voice" comes through strongly, and of course we discover the magical world through his eyes, to good effect. The infodumps about the Fillory books are delivered in that same voice, blending the raw information with amusing and sometimes sarcastic commentary, and it's very effective. The plotting strikes the right balance between moving fast enough to keep the reader interested and moving slowly enough to give the reader time to reflect on the new. At least in the first half of the book, the magical world is built well — both the Brakebills campus and the ramifications of the existence of magic and Brakebills are well-addressed. Magic is judiciously used — I never felt like the characters were too powerful, and I never felt like the author was adding gratuitous pyrotechnics. The main characters' use of magic always serves the story. Quentin is a well-realized character, and one I obviously identified with strongly at times. The other characters are deftly but often conservatively drawn, and I found that I wanted more depth to them, more understanding of who they were and where they had come from.

Shout-outs to a couple tropes which make an appearance in the book. Number one is that Our Hero's love interest dies, allowing him to mope and show character development as he struggles through his grief and his feeling of responsibility for her death. This is mitigated somewhat because Alice is an awesome character, though one (like everyone not Our Hero) who in my opinion wanted more development, and the agency in the final battle with Chatwin is all hers. Quentin is in fact cowering in a corner, bleeding out, for most of it, and Alice is protecting him — she's a significantly better magician than he is — not that it's entirely clear he deserves it. (Did I mention the adolescent who-slept-with-whom angst? It's better off forgotten, really, but suffice it to say that he spends the third quarter of the book being kind of an insufferable ass in general and to her in particular.) Her death mattered to me, because I liked her, but it still felt depressingly predictable.

Trope number two is unhappy and/or unpleasant gay people. There are two characters noted as gay in the book — one of Quentin's friends is Eliot, a burgeoning alcoholic who hides his pain behind a sophisticated, Oscar Wilde-aesthete sort of exterior. Eliot is revealed very early in the book to be in an ultimately brief and not particularly happy relationship with another boy, and no indication is ever given that his subsequent relationships, which are alluded to but never shown, are any different. The other character we only meet as a historical figure — Christopher Plover, the putative author of the Fillory books, described as "a gay dry-goods magnate" — who is revealed over the course of the book to be a plagiarist and a pedophile.

Quentin is not a particularly likable character for large portions of the book, but nor is he interestingly dislikable. I was annoyed by him at the beginning of the book because, growing up in the rural Midwest, I'd have killed for the opportunities he was so blasé about (though I freely admit that that's not his fault). Once he got to Brakebills I found a lot in him to empathize with. After Brakebills, first his ridiculously wealthy lifestyle and his angst over cheating on Alice, which led them all into Fillory, and later his nihilistic attitude towards life, made him hard to sympathize with. At many points in the book, I found myself wanting to shake him and say, "Dude, you're being stupid. Stop."

I found Fillory a deeply unsatisfying magical world, twee and powered by authorial fiat in all the wrong ways. When Quentin talks about the books in the first half of The Magicians, often one of the characters remarks on how unrealistic the world of Fillory is, even compared to the magical world at Brakebills. They want to understand the technical details of the magic performed and the construction of the artifacts discovered and so on. Yet that all falls to the wayside once they actually arrive in Fillory, and none of them seem at all bothered by the inconsistency of it. Fillory doesn't seem to have any internal logic, or, if it does, we're never shown enough to understand it, but the characters seem so gobsmacked by the world's very existence that they don't spend any time questioning its mechanics.

I was also frustrated by how the jaunt into Fillory neatly sidestepped the issue of what the characters were going to do with their lives. Sitting here on the eve of my own graduation from BrakebillsMIT, eyeing the real world critically and trying to find my place in it, I found that not just a deeply unsatisfactory answer but a total dodging of the question. Dealing with the real world is clearly a problem for the main characters — they seem well on their way to suicide by hedonism when they discover the existence of Fillory. But there is no Fillory out there for me (and I certainly don't want that particular one, thanks much), no secret world within the secret world I've already found. I don't want to run off into a childish fantasy land. I have no choice but to grapple with the real world as I find it. That The Magicians didn't really bother to address it was very disappointing to me.

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