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17th September
2009
written by Steph
Don't be surprised if Grossman gets his butt sued by Rowling, Tolkien, or Lewis (yes, the dead might rise from the grave to do so!)!

Don't be surprised if Grossman gets his butt sued by Rowling, Tolkien, or Lewis (yes, the dead might rise from the grave to do so!)!

Steph's Take (That's right, you get a double-header, folks!  Also, sorry this is a long one; I had a lot of feelings...): When it comes to publicizing books, you need only say one of two names in order for me to be guaranteed to want to read your book.  The first is Jane Austen.  This is how I came to buy such books as No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym (who has been called the Jane Austen of her day), Beginner’s Greek by James Collins (the book evoked a sense of Jane Austen), The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler (self-explanatory… I hope), and Jane and the Upleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery (also self-explanatory, but perhaps less easy to justify).  The other name?  Harry Potter.  That is how I came to purchase Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which if it were not for Tony, would still be classified as “unread”), and more recently, to borrow The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I read the first two chapters of the book, before showing it to Tony.  He said that it seemed like a book he would probably enjoy reading, so he read the first two chapters, and then we decided to read it aloud to one another so that we could experience it together.  It was a fun experience to share Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book together on the way back from our honeymoon, so we thought it might be fun to do it again. Unfortunately, we were wrong.  Not because reading aloud sucks, but because this book kind of did.  Sad but true.  In a way I’m glad we read this out loud to one another, other wise I might not have finished the whole thing (then again, would that have been so bad?) as I just couldn’t find it within me to care about any of the characters or be interested in anything that was happening (or might happen).  And when you’re writing a book about magic and fantasy, isn’t that a cardinal sin? In The Magicians, we follow Quentin’s transformation from average Joe (who is pretty disenchanted with his everyday life – his parents don’t understand him, he’s in love with his best friend’s girlfriend who knows how he feels but doesn’t feel the same way, and he’s just generally tired of being extremely smart but ultimately unremarkable) to discovering he’s a wizard.  After a college interview gone awry, Quentin finds himself pushing through a rundown garden into the grounds of Brakebills, which he soon finds out is a university that teaches its students magic.  He enrolls, and we follow him through his years at the school, forming friendships with fellow students and also finally finding love.  But through it all, Quentin discovers that his feelings of unrest and dissatisfaction follow him there and are not so easily left behind in the real world; he find himself still longing to disappear to the world of Fillory (a fictitious world that featured in a series of books he cherished as a young boy).  But what happens when Quentin and his friends find that Fillory may not be as fictitious as they once believed, that the world of his dreams might actually be attainable?  Will Fillory live up to his expectations, will he finally take his place in the sun (or even better, on the throne), or will he find that sometimes our dreams and fantasies are best left untouched and untainted?
Brakewarts? Hogbills? And anyway, wands are trés trés démodé.

Brakewarts? Hogbills? And anyway, wands are trés trés démodé.

Based on that summary, the book doesn’t sound too shabby, now does it?  In fact, it sort of sounds like your run-of-the-mill fantasy novel that’s bound to have a bunch of adventure and wonderment, guaranteed to transport you away and captivate for hours on end.    But whatever alchemy is involved in creating a really successful and enchanting fantasy novel was completely missing here.  I think one of my biggest problems with the book is that I never ever really believed that Grossman understood or had deeply developed the world and universe that he was writing about.  To me, it felt like a poorly cobbled together pastiche of other more successful fantasy series, which he had sampled the best elements from, but done nothing more to make them his own.  It felt so uninspired.  The time at Brakesbills is supposed to be akin to Harry Potter & co. at Hogwarts, only last I checked, Hogwarts felt special and exciting, whereas Brakesbills (and all the magic Quentin was learning) was boring and felt purposeless (I’ll get back to this momentarily).  The obsession with Fillory and its books, felt like a half-assed reworking of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and the the obsession with quests and the like a rip-off of Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy.  Very little felt inspired; instead you felt that Grossman is someone who really enjoys the Fantasy genre but doesn’t really understand it and just wanted to cash in on its renewed popularity.  I felt like he came up with enough information to write this story, but there was not much more backstory beyond what was on the page.  As a reader, I found this so unfulfilling and also really frustrating, as there were so many dropped threads and unanswered questions as we progressed through the novel.  Why was Quentin never given a discipline, despite how agonizing a process the whole thing seems to be?  What is the purpose of magic, and to what end is it used outside of Brakesbills (provided one isn’t just trying to blend in with society and pull strings in government)?  Why did we sometimes catch glimpses of Eliott’s weird sexual proclivities (and possible homosexuality – bisexuality at the very least) when it never seemed to be important in any way? Beats me! I think this issue of things feeling unresolved or like they haven’t been thought out fully is in part due to the pacing of the novel, which is ATROCIOUS.  The whole book feels poorly plotted and really disjointed, the various parts never feeling like they are all that interconnected or that the preceding section was very necessary before moving on to the next.  Within the sections there are pacing problems too, though, and in some ways I feel that Grossman wanted to write a much larger book than he did.  Would The Magicians been better if it had been a series of books rather than one, where it felt Grossman had to cram every cool detail in that he could, even if it had little bearing on where the story would ultimately go?  It felt like he had so much buzzing around in his head that he couldn’t keep track of it and so lost a handle on the narrative, leaving things dangling that someone with a more carefully plotted plan would have noted and been sure to tie up.  Within the first 200 pages or so, we sloppily progress through five years of Quentin’s life (his entire time at Brakesbills); sometimes the start of a new chapter would be several months later, the previous chapter ending on somewhat of a cliffhanger that was never resolved.  The problem with trying to cover so much time in so few pages (relatively speaking), is that it makes everything feel like a whirlwind, it never allows us to get our footing, and it alienates us from the characters.  In a blink of an eye, they’re another year older with nothing to show for it.  So much for character development!  It felt forced and clumsy, like the school years were really supposed to be an afterthough or unimportant backstory, when really Grossman should have been using that time to flesh out the rules of the world he was developing, and giving us an understanding of the parameters of magic and what it can achieve.  I did think that Grossman puts an interesting spin on magic, his being more primal and elemental (kind of like harnessing the powers of Nature), but it was never made clear to me why anyone would do magic, or really what people were learning at Brakebills.  There is a scene late in the novel where a character exclaims that some battle magic is early level Brakebills stuff, when it seems completely removed from the magic we actually saw the kiddos doing there (rather than fighting and jinxing, the magic at Brakebills seemed very laborious and time-intensive, and focused more on transforming substances from one to the other or doing weird light tricks...).  I will say that for a book called The Magicians, there actually seemed to be very little magic going on, and then the magic that did happen felt very, well, unmagical.

Avast! There really were talking animals in this book, although this particualr specimen is from The Chronicles of Narnia

Avast! There really were talking animals in this book, although this particualr specimen is from The Chronicles of Narnia

And then of course there are the characters.  I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Tony & I pretty much hated all of them. I never got a handle on the character of Quentin, because early on he is developed in a way to suggest that his awesomeness is latent but he will shine and ultimately be a hero… and then this never happens.  If anything, as the book goes on, he gets more despicable and more useless, and it is never clear to me why Quentin is supposed to be special, or in what way he is special, because he never even appears to be a very accomplished magician, to the extent that any magic is very accomplished or interesting in this book.  Isn’t it a huge problem if you write a book about a group of characters that are wholly loathsome and spoiled and petulant and lazy, and therefore uninteresting?  I’m not saying that you can’t have a flawed hero – most of them are, and most of them do have an Achilles heel (like say, Achilles) - but generally speaking we should root for the hero rather than against him, right?  Instead I vacillated between hating Quentin and just not caring about him at all and not wanting to hear about him ever again.  He was a horrible person and felt like a waste of space.  Why would a book ever be written about such a jackass? I felt like this book wanted to say more than it did and do more than it did, and ultimately it fell short in just about every way that a novel can.  I read something saying that Grossman’s inspiration had to do with the fact that Harry Potter has such a poor/abusive upbringing that he was really the ideal candidate to read Fantasy – to latch onto book as a mean of escape.  So I see how he had Quentin latch onto Fillory and be obsessed with the books… but then he gets to go to Fillory, and he gets to escape his life, and you’d think that maybe a book would try to say (as this one seemed to for the first 4/5ths) that there is only so much running we can do, that we take our experiences with us, and it is the truly brave who face their problems and do the best they can because our scars and bruises will find us wherever we go, they are knitted into our very essence and make us who we are, that the grass is always greener on the other side, and the paradise you dream will absolve you might not truly exist… only I didn’t feel like the book says this in the end.  In the end, it seems like Quentin remains unremarkable and useless and he continues to be miserable and to fail to learn anything.  And even if escaping into Fillory was dismal and underwhelming, well it should be done anyway?  Dudes, I just don’t know. Here’s what I do know: I found this book painfully inept; a hot mess, if you will.  This is not what I would call good Fantasy, and I would say that while I get the comparison to Harry Potter (given that this is trying to rip off HP), all the reviews that compare this to Rowling’s series fail to mention that Harry Potter is charming and enjoyable and worth your time, whereas this is bad, Bad, BAD.  It had promise, it could have been so good, but it wound up being uninspired dreck.  Avoid! Rating: 2 out of 5 “The Magicians”, as written by Tony
Artist's rendering. See below.

Artist's rendering. See below.

Once there was a boy named Quentin. He was, droll, boorish, too old for his years in some ways, mystifyingly underdeveloped in others, and a gifted academic underachiever. He had a tendency to justify bad behavior in selfish terms and take the truly worthwhile people around him for granted. He was confused about the definition of friendship and love, and waited for life to gift him with a purpose rather than seeking one out himself. Some might say he was a flawed hero, however, sensible people would say he was, in fact, an unlovable anti-hero. He (and his fellows) tended to use awkward profanity that made otherwise childish moments seem cloyingly and artificially adult. He had inattentive parents who didn’t seem to notice he was there, and this seemed to be a wan justification for his oafishness. One day he found a magical world where magic was real and he just happened to be a hard enough worker to make it into this tiny, incestuous primordial ooze. Turns out that the magic in this magical world was tremendously hard to do, fickle, and almost entirely useless. Hardly anything Quentin learned at this magical school in this magical world seemed to have any practical application, and it wasn’t hard to see how people who took up this profession ended up at loose ends for the rest of their lives, justifying a slow descent into obscurity and selfish overindulgence with vaunted elitism. THEN Quentin discovered another magical world, even more magical than the first, and he figured this would solve all of his self-induced problems. It so happens that this world was one he was familiar with through books he read when he was a youth. This world looked pretty good, as the magical analogue to MIT seemed to have left him flat and his downward spiral into drugs and latent alcoholism wasn’t getting him the happiness and freedom he had hoped for. As fate would have it, the newest magical world was deeply flawed and did not allow Quentin to suddenly become a happier version of himself. His stubborn refusal to recognize any of his failings resulted in the maiming and death of many people around him by an unlikely mystical force. Quentin rattled around for a while trying to figure out what his problem was, and finally left, unresolved. As Quentin reflected on the myriad of his past foibles, he remembered how he justified betraying the trust of the woman he loved with pleasure seeking rationalization, how his desire to escape his tortured mind destroyed the lives of many of the people around him, how so many things happened that seemed important but were never resolved properly, how the tapestry of his life and story seemed so thin in the telling, almost like the narrator wasn’t even trying, how his memories seemed to lack proper pacing and jumped around erratically, he came to a realization — SNAP! A giant beast with the head of a unicorn, the haunches of a Holstein cow and the jaws of gharial crocodile bit Quentin in half, played a tune on a banjo and flew away (using unicorn magic), thereby ending this chapter of his life. Best story ever. Rating: 2 out of 5

16 Comments

  1. 09/17/2009

    “a poorly cobbled together pastiche of other more successful fantasy series” – yes, exactly!

    Although I didn’t loathe this one as much as you two did, and I’ll probably end up reading the sequel (if for no other reason than to see if Quentin ever gets his head out of his ass), I did find it disappointing.

  2. 09/17/2009

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one totally disappointed. I’ll have a turn by turn review of everything I didn’t think worked up on Monday. I’ll link back to yours. All the great reviews he’s been getting, you think he’d have gotten them were he not the Books Editor for Time magazine?

  3. Oh no! I had this one on the wish list as it sounded great. I think it needs to be struck off after this review. Thank you for the honest, amusing reviews!

  4. 09/18/2009

    @ softdrink: Thanks for commenting! The more I thought about this one and worked to write this review, the angrier I became with Grossman. I REALLY hope there is never a sequel, and I guess at this point I feel that Quentin had 400+ pages to turn it around and he never did… so are 400 more pages going to fix this mess? I doubt it.
     
    @ Cara: I look forward to reading your review, and am glad you felt similarly to us. As you say, most of the reviews have been really positive, and I do wonder to what extent it’s linked to his job. Honestly, I think Grossman just realized what a resurgence the Fantasy genre has been experiencing, has read a good deal himself, and so wrote this mess.
     
    @ Jackie: I wish I didn’t have to be the bearer of bad news here, but better I warn you off than you wasting your time and money on this one! I really expected it to be awesome, and it couldn’t have been farther from that.

  5. 09/18/2009

    I was going to say “Maybe it was meant to be a spoof?” but then I saw the other comments. I guess it was supposed to be good. So sorry.

  6. 09/18/2009

    @ Rebecca: Yeah, nothing I had read about this book beforehand lead me to believe this was a spoof. An homage perhaps, but not a spoof. I think Grossman approached this with the best of reverential intentions… I think he just failed stunningly.

  7. 09/19/2009

    I’ve been on the fence about this one, but this seals the deal: I’m skipping it. The book sounds like a total mess, but your review, on the other hand, was a joy to read 😀

  8. 09/19/2009

    @ Nymeth: I really could see the premise of this book appealing to many book bloggers, so I felt I had to sound the alarm. There is so much good Fantasy out there (certainly tons that is better than this) that it would really be a shame for anyone to waste his or her time on this! But at least it made amusing review fodder… 😉

  9. 09/19/2009

    I am the opposite of you, in that comparisons to such beloved and wonderful authors (Austen, Rowling) tend to deter me from reading a book. I’d heard the buzz surrounding The Magicians, and part of me wanted to read it, and part of me didn’t, since I was hearing those references to Harry Potter. But the only real commentary I’d read about the book has thus far been unanimously negative, so I have decided not to put this one on my teetering TBR pile. Thanks (to you both!) for such a detailed and helpful review!

  10. 09/19/2009

    @ Lesley: I guess I should clarify in some sense about the Austen comparisons – I am always intrigued when reviewers or blurbs compare a book to Austen, BUT I pretty much avoid any book that reappropriates her characters (fan fiction, if you will) or attempts to continue her stories in any way. I also am not all that interested in the books that literally try to tap into her cache by featuring heroines that are obsessed with Jane Austen or what have you. Essentially, I love puns, but if a book’s title is a play on Pride & Prejudice or its ilk (e.g., Prada and Prejudice), then I will likely avoid it.

  11. 09/20/2009

    I wish my review were as amusing as yours. I didn’t read yours before I wrote mine, because I didn’t want outside influences creeping in. I ended up hiding my analysis in white font. You have to highlight it to see it. I also linked back to yours. http://bit.ly/Mj8Kv

  12. 09/20/2009

    Thanks for sharing your review, Cara. I’m going to pop over and read it right now!

  13. 09/22/2009

    I had heard so much unabashed praise for this book and was thinking about reading it, but now I think it sounds sucktastical and I am going to stay far away from it. This is the only review I have read that really digs into the myriad problems of the novel. Most of the other reviews just seem to be mindlessly lavishing praise all over the place, and not really discussing the plot, characterization, and world building. I really liked both your takes on this book, and although I am sure now that I would not enjoy this book, I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  14. 09/22/2009

    @ zibilee: I’m not sure if the people who seem to enjoy this book are those who read a lot of fantasy or not, as to be honest, I haven’t read many (positive) reviews about this one (though I know they exist). Tony clearly has a stronger background in that area, and while I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in terms of what “makes” good fantasy, I can and will speak to what makes a good book, regardless of genre. This was definitely not it! 😉

  15. Kay
    10/09/2009

    Oh, how did I missed this review?
    First, it was an excellent double-review (I love to hear both of your opinions!) This was one of the books I was wanting to read, but after hearing so many less than positive reviews, I’m not so sure. Maybe if I can find it at the library… maybe.

  16. 10/10/2009

    @ Kay: Apparently this is going to be a series, and I can unequivocally state that I will not be reading any more of the books, from the library or otherwise! 😉 If you do feel the need to read this, however, definitely stick to borrowing it, not buying!

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