Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Sorrows of a Young Magician

Grossman, Lev. The Magicians. Viking, 2009.

The Magicians is a book tailor-made for adults and teens who are and always have been bonkers for fantasy, the kind of readers who think "Narnia!" when they walk down a wooded path or compulsively pick up coins off the ground on the off-chance they might be magical.

Young Quentin is just such a teen. He has never felt at home in his own skin and can't manage the knack of being happy, so he escapes in his imagination to Fillory whenever he can. Fillory is the magical land visited by 4 British siblings, the Chatwins, in Quentin's favorite childhood fantasy series (think Narnia). "Like most people Quentin read the Fillory books in grade school. Unlike most people...he never got over them. They were where he went when he couldn't deal with the real world, which was a lot."

It turns out that Quentin actually has magical abilities; he is whisked off to a hidden College of Magic where he passes a rigorous exam and enrolls in five years of intensive magical study. Yes, the parallels to Harry Potter are strong (some of the characters even make jokes about this). Although this is a college, it feels like a prep school with its uniforms and its rivalries between different Disciplines, and there's even a special competitive outdoor magical game called Welters (very different from Quidditch, though). The focus is not necessarily on the coolness of the magic or even on the relationships between classmates. Rather, Quentin is always the focus, whether he is studying furiously or falling in love. Magic turns out to be Very Difficult, no matter how talented one is, but even mastering it only gives Quentin short-lived pleasure. Even requited love seems to pall after a while.

When Quentin and his cohorts find out after graduating that Fillory is a real place and manage to journey there, things quickly go haywire. It may be populated with cute talking animals, but it is no paradise. A fearsome enemy dwells in Fillory, and suddenly the newly minted magicians are in serious, deadly trouble. Magic no longer seems like a novelty or a game; it can have horrible consequences, as Quentin learns.

Although I was often irritated with Quentin's inability to truly appreciate what he has been given - of all people, he should most appreciate his entry into the world of magic - I dove into this book and stayed immersed for one whole Sunday. As Quentin himself realizes, "When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock ... and slips through into Fillory..., it's like he's opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better." Until some real magic comes along, I'll gladly use books. They're safer, anyway.

The language is fluid and a bit show-offy and overblown at times, much like very smart and talented college students might speak, in fact. Often it is rather reminiscent in its affectionate air of nostalgia to the language in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Mostly, I enjoyed it very much. Here's a description of a student named Eliot:

"He had an air of magnificent melancholy sophistication, as if his proper place were elsewhere, somewhere infinitely more compelling even than Brakebills, and he'd been confined to his present setting by a grotesque divine oversight, which he tolerated with as much good humor as could be expected."

I wonder if this might be something to try at work?

Readers who are tempted to give up on Quentin as an unbearable ass should hang on to the very last couple pages. I wouldn't say he redeems himself - but he gives every sign of being ready to finally shed his ludicrous and self-indulgent burden of guilt.

Most delightful. Highly recommended for teens and adults.

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