Thursday, August 20, 2009

A lot more than just Harry

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Release August 10, 2009

How easy it would be to label this book a Harry Potter for adults. Here are all the familiar ingredients — a gifted but unrecognized boy genius with a rather distant family, a school of magic hidden in plain sight that takes him in, a colourful cast of students and teachers among whom our hero discovers himself and, of course, a fearsome evil that lurks in the wings waiting to strike. There is even a school sport involving magic, a sort of supernatural checkers equivalent to Hogwarts’
quidditch. Yet this book is a lot more— a coming of age tale that examines the pleasures and perils of great powers in the hands of the young , loss of innocence, the strength and fragility of love , and the struggle to come to terms with the disappointment of the real world. And though it fails to deliver on the tremendous promise of the first half, it is nevertheless a must read for the audacity in which it turns the rather familiar themes of the fantasy genre around.

Our hero, Quentin Coldwater, is your average teenager in present day Brooklyn, though brilliant and already possessed of strange powers that no one else seems to notice. He finds solace in a series of books from his childhood, about the magical land of Fillory and the adventures of a band of intrepid children there. Then, a routine interview to an Ivy League school leaves him with a dead body and a mysterious exchange with a woman who proceeds to visit him sporadically through the book, and sets him on the path to Brakebills, a college of magic on the banks of the Hudson that is invisible and out of bounds to all but the chosen.

Rather predictably, Quentin emerges as a mage with promise — he shines in his studies, attracting the attention of his teachers, his seniors and a troubled but gifted young student whom he falls in love with. After the adrenaline rush of college, however, life in the real world is a let down. Supported by a generous trust fund run by Brakebills, Quentin and his friends have neither the need nor a practical way to use their powers in conventional careers. Bored and directionless, they rapidly descend into a hedonistic life of drugs, alcohol and casual sex. Then, one of them discovers that Fillory exists for real, and the friends decide to visit, only to have their complacence about their strength stripped away. What begins as a rather casual picnic quickly descends into a horrific confrontation with the Beast, and a battle for their lives against teeming armies of creatures far removed from anything they have imagined, or are prepared for. Barely escaping with his life, Quentin is forced to deal with loss, heartbreak and the realization that he has been nothing more than a pawn in a far greater game, begun long before his initiation into magic.

The first half of the book is overly long, but crackles with energy — the writing is fast paced, the characters are intriguing. Grossman has a great style of writing, sparse yet insightful, and often very funny . For all their magical powers, Quentin and his friends are still just hormonally charged kids, and Grossman realistically reveals the weaknesses and compulsions that lurk beneath their powers . This book will delight fantasy literature enthusiasts like myself, as it doffs its hat at all the greats — Fillory and its child explorers seem straight out of C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, a wish fulfilling creature reminiscent of the Questing Beast from the stories of T H White, roams Fillory. A drunk student babbles about that Hogwarts highlight, quidditch, and even Edward Lear finds a reference.

Yet Fillory is not the world of childish innocence that is celebrated in these classics,where the morally upright always triumph. It is, if anything, a dangerous place that does not suffer intruders gladly, especially cocky young mages who think themselves indestructible. Nor is it a place for escape, as the fate of the Beast makes clear. At this juncture, the story dons the garb of a cautionary tale, warning against dabbling with forces you may control but never truly comprehend. Sadly, the narrative of the final two sections of the book succumbs to the same exhaustion that has taken hold of Quentin by now.

Quentin himself is a disappointment as a hero and therefore all the more intriguing. He is talented, yes, but also
complacent, arrogant and , for all his resilence and dedication to his craft, easily led astray by drugs, alcohol and casual sex. After the unnecessarily prolonged build up to the confrontation with the Beast, his contribution to the battle is little more than fainting and getting bitten. That he lives at all is only because of the sacrifice of someone he has flippantly betrayed earlier in the book. Nor is he very heroic after his brush with death . As he slowly recovers and the truth about the Beast and Fillory unravels before him, Quentin beats a retreat,only to be rescued from himself in an exuberant finale that is straight out of the Matrix movies and clearly indicates that Quentin and company have not wisened up after all.

Still, this is seems like the first of a series that , like the Fillory books did for Quentin, may eventually “get you out, really out, of where you were and into something better.”