Monday, September 29, 2014

Review Rerun: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Cover art for The Magicians, featuring a sparse, golden-leafed tree behind a shallow puddle set in short, golden grass. Three more trees are vaguely visible through a mist that hangs in the background.
A slightly different version of this review originally appeared on my old blog, Stella Matutina. I've updated it to reflect my current feelings for the book, which I reread earlier this month.

Quentin Coldwater nurtures a powerful intellect, an enduring obsession with the magical land of Fillory, and a strong desire for something more. He gets his wish when an admissions interview for Princeton instead becomes an entrance exam at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. At Brakebills, Quentin finds a new purpose in the magic he's always longed to wield, but discovers it has very little in common with the version he knows from the Fillory books.

And the same is true of supposedly-fictional Fillory itself.

Part of me is desperate to write about THE MAGICIANS and part of me would really rather not. It's the sort of book you want to share with everyone and also keep more or less for yourself. Obviously, I've opted for Option Number One, but I'm still not entirely sure I've made the right choice.

And so I shall ramble.

Before we get any further in, let me assure you I loved the hell out of it both times I read it. It's fucking awesome My reticence springs not from indifference but from the highly personal nature of my love. When you get right down to it, I loved THE MAGICIANS because I’m me, and because I’ve spent time considering certain things and feeling certain things, and I’m not sure I want to analyze all that. I just want to feel it.

Plus, as I read it--and I’m well aware my reading is not the only possible one--THE MAGICIANS heavily focuses on Quentin’s failure to combat his own unhappiness, and that ain't the sort of thing you want to drill down into in a public forum.

I am prepared to analyze, or maybe just gush about, the academia and the otherworldliness, both of which entranced me every bit as much as Quentin’s emotional state, so let’s get down to that.

Y'all know I'm a total sucker for a good school story, and post-secondary school stories hold a special place in my heart. Brakebills, with its uniforms and its regulations, reads rather more like a boarding school than a university, but Grossman still hits all my favourite academia-related notes as he follows Quentin through his years there.

Brakebills is both a familiar place (see: boarding school trappings) and a unique sphere with its own particular rules. I had a hell of a good time poking through it, figuring out how everything worked. The social system, the seasonal divergences, the magical hierarchy... I ate it all up. I especially enjoyed the many opportunities to contrast it with that most famous of wizarding schools, Hogwarts--opportunities which serve equally well as homage and satire. I feel like Grossman really, really likes this sort of thing, even as he's prepared to examine the faults in the system and call out the many ways in which contemporary magic isn't all (other) literature would have us believe it to be.

I know many readers who've found this examination bleak, cynical, and altogether offputting. Me, I find it fascinating, and I'd argue it's never without a touch of hope. We'll talk more about that on Friday, when I review THE MAGICIAN'S LAND.

Anyways: school stories. I love ‘em to death.

I also loved THE MAGICIANS for all the ways it talks about Narnia without ever actually talking about Narnia. The Narnia books were a huge part of my childhood, just as their Magicians-verse equivalents defined Quentin’s. And, by happy accident, I first read THE MAGICIANS just before I finished rereading (well, relistening-to) C.S. Lewis's series. That made it all the more interesting to consider the parallels between Fillory, the object of Quentin's childhood (and adulthood) obsession, and Narnia.

The stories themselves are quite different, aside from the obvious children-from-our-world-discover-a-magic-land element, but many of the trappings are recognizable. Magical buttons transport Earth folks to a city from which they can reach other worlds, just as rings took Diggory and Polly to the wood between the worlds. Ember and Umber, the godly twin rams, stand in for Aslan. Ember’s Tomb is clearly Aslan’s Howe, with Narnia’s transitory vicious beasties in permanent residence. Castle Whitespire and Cair Paravel both house the four thrones meant for otherworldly rulers. And those are just the super-obvious, top-of-my-head references; there are scads more packed into every page, on levels both surface and subliminal.

The real Fillory, however, is a decidedly adult realm. (The literary version, not so much.) It’s Narnia stripped of the idealism; Narnia as it would really have been after decades of political upheaval and magical abuse. The talking animals, sentient trees, and human helpers are tired. They’ve chosen sides, and not all of them are on what we'd consider the side of right. Fillory is a complex, difficult, dangerous place; a reading of Narnia that is at once utterly magical and painfully real.

I loved that, too.

Back in the day, I held off on reading THE MAGICIANS for quite a while because I was worried this more-real Narnia would distress me. As clever and thought-provoking as the parallels are, I know many people have read them as deeply negative. I love seeing magic treated in a realistic, difficult manner, but I hate the idea that it’s something we all need to grow out of. That it must pass from the world to make room for adulthood and "progress." This is a common theme in magical children’s literature, and I feared it’d rear its ugly head again here.

Since THE MAGICIANS has two sequels, you should be able to guess whether or not Quentin breaks his staff and burns his books at the end. But hey, maybe you'll guess wrong.

Me, I fully expected THE MAGICIANS to rip my heart into tiny pieces. And it sort of did, but then... damn.

I loved it so much that I had to take a break after my first reading. I needed time to process what I'd read before I could dive into THE MAGICIAN KING. This time, I leaped into the sequel as soon as I could clear a gap in my schedule (ie, finish the fucking behemoth I read in print white I listened to THE MAGICIANS on audio). We'll talk about that on Wednesday.


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