Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ryan Reviews (short): The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Audiobook)

** (out of *****)

A 'postmodern' take on the wizard school genre. The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a boy who has little investment in the real world and is chronically unhappy. He's smart but doesn't care that much about school, has only a handful of friends, and is not that close to his family. His main escape is magic (as in sleights-of-hand) and a fantastical world of Fillory (which is, by the way, the dumbest name ever). He's whisked away to a school of magic, where he excels but fails to find contentment. After graduation, he moves to Manhattan where he does nothing but slide further into motionlessness--until an old acquaintance returns with a way into Fillory. Blessed with the opportunity to live his childhood dreams, Quentin, of course, finds nothing but despair and tragedy. The experience leaves him so disillusioned that he returns to New York and gives up magic, instead settling for a menial job provided as a sort of welfare for disillusioned magicians.

I expected a lot from this book and was disappointed. The 'deconstruction' of the 'boy-magic' genre is superficial, and turn instead into 'what would Hogwarts be like if it kind of sucked' along with 'Quiddich that kind of sucks.' The biting social commentary is, sadly, absent. The book touches on some important subjects: What do you do in a 'post-scarcity' situation, when the main struggle of life is not satisfying your wants, but in finding things to want? [Iain M. Banks's Culture series tackles this question much better.]
The lack of direction experienced by Quentin resonates, at first, but he quickly turns into a caricature, severing any degree of sympathy between him and the reader.

The failings of the book lie in the weakness of the main character, Quentin. Quentin exists simply to be disappointed by things. Not for any deep reason; that is just his m.o. Unfortunately, merely describing someone feeling disappointment is not enough to get the reader to go along with the character's disappointment. The fantasy genre is full of paper characters who have no purpose other than to let the author tell us how wondrous everything is; paper characters who only let the author tell us how disappointing everything is not much of an advance.

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