Saturday, January 23, 2010

Currently Reading ... The Magicians

I’ve read some great books in the last few weeks. And I’ve read some that I loved right up until the end, but wanted to throw across the room as soon as I read the last page.

Here’s a review of one of the throw-across-the-room ones:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is an absorbing “What If” novel. Its premise--that magic is real and exists in this world alongside the non-magical--is, of course, reminiscent of Harry Potter. It also draws fondly on elements from other beloved children’s fantasies, including Narnia, Earthsea, and Middle-Earth. Lev Grossman’s characters, though, are not the innocent and noble kids of J. K. Rowling’s or C. S. Lewis’ worlds. They are young adults who deal with their issues by drinking excessively and having indiscriminate love affairs. Picture a promiscuous, passive Harry with baggage and a drinking problem.

What is interesting about The Magicians is that magic doesn’t fix everything. Sure, you can make things easy for yourself; money never has to be an issue; you can wield enormous clout … but with this ability comes a sort of existential angst. What do you do with all this power? What’s the point of life if everything is easy? Is anything worth struggling for?

This book is lots of fun to read; once I started it I didn’t want to put it down. It’s also thought-provoking; my husband read it too, and we discussed it for days. My main gripe with The Magicians is that Quentin Coldwater is such a wimpy, passive, self-absorbed main character. That’s fine, at first--because you believe he will change. He’ll eventually come into his own as a magician; he’ll discover something worth being passionate about. Basically, he’ll grow up. As I read, I expected character growth with every turn of the page. But, nope. Quentin doesn’t grow. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t learn a thing. He betrays the woman he loves with a casual fling, because he’s such a dope. You keep expecting their relationship to somehow be redeemed--but, nope. He does work very hard at one point to develop his skill as a magician, with the goal of somehow regaining the love he’s lost. Yes! Finally he’s doing something through his own effort; he’s working toward a goal! But he fails … and gives up. At the end of the book, Quentin’s former teenage crush reenters the picture, now a “hedge witch” (an untrained magician) herself. Probably they’ll get together now. But did this occur through any action of Quentin’s? Uh uh. Has he developed any strength of character, any determination, any moral principle that will make things work this time around? Sorry, but again the answer is no.

Maybe that’s Grossman’s point--that magic doesn’t solve everything. This is a literary novel, not a true fantasy, so it doesn’t have to follow the fantasy tropes and provide us with a neatly packaged happy ending. Okay. But I still feel gypped. It’s a great premise and a gripping story, but ultimately unsatisfying.

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