Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

Oh, how I loved this book. I enjoyed it so much that I limited myself to a chapter a day, so that I wouldn't get through it too quickly, because this was my only opportunity to read The Magicians for the first time, and I wanted to savor it. After twenty pages, I pre-ordered its sequel, The Magician King, which was released last Tuesday.

I've read very few fantasy novels in my adult life -- other than Neil Gaiman (who I love), I probably haven't read one since high school. This may be the novel that turns me on to the entire genre. Sometimes, when a fantasy novel is reviewed in the mainstream press, a reviewer will make a point of saying that, though it is a fantasy novel, adults can read it, too. In most instances -- for instance, the Harry Potter books, or the His Dark Materials trilogy -- the critics really mean "this young adult novel is so well-executed that adults can read it without embarassment." The Magicians, on the other hand, is a fantasy novel written for adults. Quentin, a nerdy, fantasy-loving know-it-all living in Brooklyn, goes to interview for Princeton University, only to find that the old man who was to interview him had died shortly before Quentin arrived. A paramedic hands Quentin an envelope, apparently left for him by the old man. Quentin opens the envelope, and a note flitters out, deep into a community garden. Quentin enters the garden to search for the note, and finds himself whisked away to Brakebills, a magic school on the Hudson River in upstate New York, inspired by Hogwarts, Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and other famous fictional magic academies. Quentin's entrance exam, equal parts written and practical, is a gorgeous, laugh-out-loud funny set piece that could stand alone as a short story in a prestigious liteary anthology. Besides Quentin, only two other students pass, out of hundreds sitting for it. That test earns Quentin one of the twenty seats in the first year class at Brakebills. Only then does Quentin realize that the entrance exam was the easy part.

The Magicians is also noteworthy for its dark psychology and attention to detail. How many books attempt to reconcile the bizarre combination of medieval, Victorian, and modern technology found in most fantasy novels? In how many fantasy novels is one of the main characters a self-loathing homosexual? When you encounter a talking bear, should you be surprised that it primarily wants to talk about honey? If magicians did exist, how would they find meaning and avoid depression in a world in almost everything came to them easily, where they could, for example, coax money from an ATM with a simple spell? The Macigians' characters struggle with these problems, the, um, "real world" (?) implications of magic, which I haven't seen a fantasy story discuss in depth. The novel's only drawback is that some of Quentin's friends are familiar "types," but they're all real-world types, and none of them are the sort of pure, virginal teenagers who populate other fantasy novels. I can't wait to see how those characters grow and evolve in the next two books in the series.

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