Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review Club: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

(This is the November 2011 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click on the icon after this review.)

What would Harry Potter have been like in Magic College? What would happen if you had a bunch of magicians and no bad guy? What would happen if you wrote a book and the plot never arrived? What if the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.") were expanded into a full-length book with a little bit of magic and nothing else.

Those are some of the thoughts I had when trying to come up with a banging opening sentence for my review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians. None really had the oomph I wanted, so I threw them all in that first paragraph in a vain attempt to be witty and wow you readers into thinking I had something to say. Which is, now that I think about it, a little like Grossman did for his book.

I'm in a science fiction book club and this was the October selection. I didn't choose it, but the premise--older teenagers go to a magical college--was promising. The dust jacket was interesting. But the execution was just wrong. When the four members of my club gather, we each give the book in question a letter grade (I picked "C" because it was exactly in the middle; others included a C-, a B, and an A). This is the first time in which I preferred that Agree/Disagree spectrum because it had that one place, right in the middle, where you can say "I have no opinion one way or the other." It was just a few hundred pages of "meh."

The novel centers on Quentin Coldwater, a seventeen-year-old New Yorker who is a morose teenager. He's the third wheel with his two other friends and his parents are all but apathetic to his presence. Thus, when he learns there is a magical college, he accepts. Now, anyone who has been exposed to the Harry Potter universe will have fun comparing Hogwarts with Breakbills College for Magical Pedagogy. Honestly, that was the most tolerable part of the book because I didn't really expect anything to happen other than school stuff. It was a nice change to have magical students drink and have sex since I'm accustomed to the Hogwarts version of things where the worse thing those teenagers did was snog.

The biggest problem with the rest of the book is that stuff never happened. The most interesting scene during the school years sequence was when a creature appears. Ooh, I thought, now we're getting somewhere. Then the creature left, admittedly after doing a horrible thing, and nothing much happened. Ever.

If you read the hard copy of the book, you will see the map of Fillory--the stand-in for Narnia in Grossman's universe--so you know it occupies a huge portion of the mind's of the characters. In fact, Quentin is a Fillory fanboy, the only one who still reads the books while at Breakbills. It's not a spoiler--why else would the map be in the inside cover?--to say that Fillory makes an appearance and Quentin and his friends go there. Give you one guess what "happens."

Among the four members of my book club, two finished the book last week while I finished the book and am writing this review on the same day. The Last-Weekers say that the book has stayed with them, and that they are liking it more and more because they keep thinking about it. One member even went so far as to say that Quentin is the most complex character we've ever read in our nearly two years doing this book club. That may be so, but he's still a whiner to me. Yes, says my friend, but he's true to himself no matter what happens.

After I finished the book, I read some reviews and learned many readers appreciate that Grossman tried to turn the conventional quest/fantasy novel on its head, to write a mainstream fiction novel with some fantasy elements. Notably, other readers took note of Grossman's nuanced, post-modern take on the aspects of fantasy literature. I'll grant him that, and agree with them.

But I still want a story, a plot, or some sort of device that moves the action. I still want something that propels me forward other than a desire to finish the book because I was in a book club.

A member of my club said that The Magicians might be a book he'd give to a person unfamiliar with science fiction/fantasy as an introduction to the genre. I don't think that's a good idea. But if you're steeped in the genre and want to see how a non-genre-ian, but admitted geek, takes on all the tropes of fantasy literature, The Magicians might be a good choice for you. There's a new sequel (The Magician King) with a premise that sounds mildly more interesting than this book, but I'll be content to read the plot summary on Wikipedia. I want to know what happens to these characters, but not enough to read another book.

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pattinase (abbott) said...

I have to say I am surprised this wasn't more satisfying since I have seen so many adulatory words and felt I should read it. Now, I don't feel I have to.

Linda McLaughlin said...

I liked your opening paragraph. ;) It was all I needed to read to know I'll pass on this one. I'm old-fashioned enough to want a little plot with my fiction, no matter how genre-free it may be.

Ellen Booraem said...

Rats--this one sounded good until I read your review. Oh well...lots more on my TBR pile!

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti and Ellen - I urge y'all to give it a go. Perhaps I was in a different place when I came to it and expected certain things. Perhaps y'all, if you read it, will like it as my fellows in the book club did. You never know. If you have an e-reader, you can download the first part and give it a read.

Linda - I sometimes wonder if my love of plot has killed my sense of digging into the character's heads. That I so want the killer hook that I can't see past what may be a good story, but one that focuses on character over plotting. Who knows. I still like a good tale.

George said...

I had pretty much the same reaction that you had for THE MAGICIANS when I read Erin Morgenstern's THE NIGHT CIRCUS. How can you make magic boring? Well apparently Grossman and Morgenstern figured it out to the readers' loss.

Barrie said...

I thought it was interesting that your book club has such differing reactions? Is that typical? Thanks for reviewing, Scott. I always look forward to what you have to say.

Sarah Laurence said...

I loved this review - the humor, the analysis and the diversity of opinion in your book group. I like the sound of the premise but agree that a good book needs a plot and whiny protagonists get tiring.