Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Neal Stephenson observed in “Snow Crash” that every man, until he is twenty five, thinks he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world if he was properly motivated; and in that book what cures the main character of this notion is running across a radioactive seven-foot drug lord who has a hydrogen bomb in the sidecar of his motorcycle.  “The Magicians” follows one Quentin Coldwater through a similar journey, except that in this case we follow him for several years, he hasn’t really completed the transition yet, and he’s also his own biggest antagonist.  There’s a lot to like about this book.  Not only is it one of the best fantasy novels that I’ve read in the past several years, there’s just a lot going on with it.

There’s a sequel on the way in August, “The Magician King”.  I’d originally considered putting my thoughts on “The Magicians” at the beginning of a review of that, but upon reflection I decided that it’s really worth its own separate post.  Namely, why I’m both looking forward to the sequel and fearing it.

The book opens on Quentin Coldwater, seventeen year old high school senior, as he is killing some time with some friends of his and waiting for the first of an upcoming long slog of interviews for expensive private universities.  Quentin attends an elite high school in Brooklyn which is a magnet of magnets, he’s a certified math genius and a gifted amateur magician, and he’s suffering from ennui.  He’s got a crush on Julia, one of his friends, but she doesn’t seem to have any reciprocating interest.  The ennui seems to be pretty endemic to his social set; they are all children of the rich or at least upper middle class, very intelligent, spend their time surreptitiously drinking and sleeping around, and are very likely to go from their high-end school to prestigious universities and eventually to become the next generation of asshole investment bankers, attorneys and politicians before settling down to spawn and start the whole process over again.  Quentin doesn’t appear to get any particular joy from contemplating this, and in fact doesn’t seem to have too much joy in anything at all besides reading the occasional fantasy novel.  He’s doing these college interviews because that’s what he’s supposed to do at this point in life, so it’s just as well for him that the interviewer happens to drop dead just before he arrives, although obviously not so much for the dead guy.  Instead he ends up sort of flirting with a paramedic and then finds himself in a dream-like state taking a bizarre standardized test followed by a bunch of poking and prodding by a slew of weird folks.  Before he knows it he’s been offered a place in the exclusive Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, term starting immediately, he’s got to forget his last semester of his senior year and if he doesn’t like it he can take a mind whammy and go back to his normal life.

This is one of the first points that “The Magicians” diverges from a typical magical school tale.  Quentin’s special but he’s not all that special.  There’s no prophecy or oracle that make him have to go to Brakebills and there’s nothing in particular that the school needs him for.  In order to use magic in this world you have to be rather more intelligent than normal and willing to work hard, but you’re either born with the magical mojo or you aren’t.  So right from the start we find that the genetic lottery is working just as hard in magic as it is in everything else in the real world.  Another thing is that all these students are fantasy-aware, they’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, they’ve read all the fantasy staples like the Harry Potter novels and “The Lord of the Rings”, so in their opinions they’re not flying blind here.  One glaring exception is “The Chronicles of Narnia” which doesn’t appear to exist in this world, but apparently everyone reads the “Fillory” novels as children and some, such as Quentin, continue to love them into young adulthood.  Grossman wanted to have a little leeway to muddle in this particular fantasy world and also he wanted to insinuate some things about the author of the Fillory books that would be unfair to C.S. Lewis, so we’ll just say that Fillory fills the same bibliographical niche as Narnia and leave it at that for now.

Quentin spends the next five years and a significant portion of the novel learning magic.  In other fantasy novels there’s usually lip service paid to how hard magic is, but at Brakebills it’s really shown.  Magic follows some sort of rules but they aren’t easy to sort out and depend on a lot of factors like your latitude, the phase of the moon, the time of day, what the weather’s like, probably the score in last night’s Cubs game, and so forth.  Oh, and if you screw up while performing a spell then your body and soul can be consumed into a magical conflagration which destroys you past any chance of recovery.  Or you may attract the attention of some eldritch horror from between dimensions which may toy with you for a while then horribly kill you.  So there are some downsides that you wouldn’t necessarily have to worry about at Hogwarts.  For the most part these are not huge risks, there’s only one student who gets killed by an eldritch horror, although for such a small student body that is actually a pretty bad loss ratio.

Furthermore, Quentin is sort of responsible for that, although it’s hard to call it his fault exactly and he doesn’t beat himself up over it too much.  This is indicative of his character, he certainly angsts quite a bit but not necessarily about the things that he’s really done wrong.  Throughout his school career he makes some friends and enemies, meets a nice girl, and generally excels at his studies without having a real idea of what he plans to do after graduating.  He’s focused on obtaining things that will make him happy and yet is completely oblivious to much of what goes on around him.  The reader can learn a lot about the other characters by things that Quentin observes but doesn’t fully understand.  He doesn’t realize how freaked out his parents are that he doesn’t like to hang out with them and has some sort of mystery lifestyle, he doesn’t really appreciate how awesome his girlfriend is, many of his other friends drink too much and party too hard and he fails to notice that either.  He’s chasing the high of external happiness and completely failing to appreciate that he’s going to be along for the ride wherever he goes.  He finds Brakebills tolerable enough, though, and accomplishes quite a bit – he even finds out that he has a natural talent for a traditional magic sport, but again, this works out a little differently than it would at Hogwarts.

So after five years and a pretty awesome graduation ritual Quentin’s out on his own and quickly begins to break down.  A degree in thaumaturgy may be unique but it’s not generally marketable.  There are career paths open to him such as research mage, political wheeler dealer, even magical SWAT officer, but instead he decides to take some time off and screw around with his friends.  This is probably a reasonable enough plan in some ways but he manages to be a complete jerkhole and mess up all his relationships with his callous and stupid behavior while totally failing to appreciate what he’s doing or why he is wrong to do it.

It’s at this point, nearly three fourths of the way through, that the book takes a major shift in tone.  Because, you see, the land of Fillory is a real place and it’s possible to go there – and Quentin decides that what he really needs to distract everyone from his personal problems is to lead an adventure to this magical land, and surprisingly enough manages to attract a decent following on this insane plan.

One of the great aspects of this book is its nasty dose of realism and how obvious it is that this is a really stupid idea.  In most fantasy novels you can hand some goofball a sword or a magic wand and a few chapters later he or she will be mixing it up with seasoned warriors or ancient mages without any trouble whatsoever.  In this case these kids may be young, but they’ve just gone through a pretty daunting magical education, so their skills in that arena are top-notch.  But they’re naïve and it shows.  In a world they don’t understand they think that some sort of fantasy literature rule is in effect that’s going to protect them from danger, so the first suggestion they hear from a critter about how conditions in Fillory might be improved they’re meeting up with some grubby mercenaries in a tavern and preparing to go fight a bunch of monsters in a catacomb somewhere.  If Quentin had suggested they all go to the beach in Cabo to work out their issues would they have listened to a bartender complain and then gone out to fight the drug cartels?  I wouldn’t think so, because they might figure that it’s not their problem or they might make things worse, but since they are in a magical world they figure that somehow common sense doesn’t apply.  Not to mention the fact that it’s pretty hard for the average person to go out and kill a human they don’t know for no particularly good reason, although it’s probably easier to fry some horrific sentient pangolin with a lightning bolt.  The ensuing carnage is pretty sobering but also possibly the weakest part of the novel, mostly because their enemies’ motivations are unclear even after everyone’s loyalties are sorted out; they apparently just like hanging around being evil.  But this too is a staple of fantasy literature so I’ll let it slide.

This bunch of aimless kids find themselves caught up in the agendas of powerful people who really want something, and Quentin in particular finds that all his intelligence hasn’t prevented him from being played like a two-dollar guitar.  It turns out that he actually does have the power to influence the destiny of Fillory, but it doesn’t turn out nearly as well as he’d thought.  Although the better side does prevail in the end and he’s arguably accomplished something worthwhile, it wasn’t his goal to do what he did and he isn’t allowed to choose whether it was worth the cost.  Plus he didn’t even come up with the winning plan so he’s got to worry that he’s a coward as well as a chump.  Well, welcome to adulthood.

I’ve seen some reviews of this book that state that Quentin’s problem is that he wants something he can’t have.  I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.  Rather, his problem is that he can have anything he wants but has been put off because actually having everything is less exciting than anticipating it.  So in many ways he’s just an observer of his life, totally detached from the reality of it as things go on around him.  After the events in Fillory he detaches even further, but maybe by the end he’s finally decided to become a participant in his life and learn to forgive himself for his errors . . . or maybe he’s just decided to chase the rainbow one more time and do something that this time, surely, will make him happy.  It’s kind of a perfect ending, a little hopeful and also a little pessimistic for Quentin after we’ve seen him torch his own successes time and again.

So despite the somewhat obvious sequel hook at the end I’m not entirely sure that a sequel is necessary.  Still, Fillory is a pretty neat and scary place and there’s a lot that can be done with Quentin there, so I’m cautiously optimistic about where this is going and whether Quentin can grow into adulthood and responsibility without being a complete twerp.  We’ll see in August.

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