One of my favorite things to do as a reader is to reread books I loved. I’ve reread the Harry Potter series enough times that it scares even more avid fans. I’ve reread Twilight a few times now, and I’ve worked my way back through countless other books (including ones that aren’t targeted for teens, I swear).
This go round is The Magicians by Lev Grossman, which really is not for teens at all, unless you’re a really open-minded parent.
The simple billing of The Magicians is to call it the collegiate Harry Potter. A less simple, and honestly more accurate billing is to call it grown-up Chronicles of Narnia. And the honest billing is a grown-up book that pays homage to Harry Potter and Narnia but is very much its own book.
I first read the book a bit more than a year ago (and the subsequent sequels over the next few months). I’d seen the book on shelves and kept seeing it on “If you liked Harry Potter lists,” and it had piqued my interest. I finally bit the bullet and bought the book and paid too much attention to its billing.
I kept expecting a straightforward fantasy adventure. That’s not what the book is at all. When I finished reading it the first time, it was the first time I felt mentally strung out by a book and just wanted a beer to unwind. Syfy’s TV show probably helped prompt me to read the book (and looking at the previews for the show, I’m don’t have high hopes; luckily, I don’t have cable, so I could only watch if it was free online anyway).
So what’s going on with this book?
It follows a head-in-the clouds protagonist as he finds out that the magic he secretly dreams is real is in fact real, and he gets to go to magic college (hence the HP comparisons). His favorite books in the books (how meta) are Fillory and Further, a Narnia-like series kid series about a family of children who go on quests to a fantastical land.
So far the cheap billings work. On a broad level, the comparisons fit.
But there’s a problem.
Our protagonist isn’t really a hero. He’s a head-in-the-clouds character who’s constantly waiting for something to make his life better, with or without magic. He doesn’t make very many active decisions that aren’t monumentally bad and/or dangerous. If he was written about as anything other than the main character, you would think of him as a talented but whiny and ineffectual character who gets in the way of progress.
But he IS our protagonist. That’s what makes the book great. You’re following a jackass, and he knows he’s a jackass. Mostly.
Much like what made HP great was that it was really more about a character’s life and growth, that’s what makes The Magicians great. Sure there’s magic afoot, but really it’s about the characters. It’s about watching the lead interact with this fantastical world around him. And in this case, it’s about watching him mess up in the same way you’d expect any other 20-something to mess up.
It’s not a perfect book. I’m never fond of books that basic gloss over months and years. I liked the HP books because they gave you a full year for each book. This book gives you several years (about 8, give or take a year). The books that follow don’t cover as much time, so they fall more within the pacing that I’m used to, but again, being different is part of what makes this a good read to me.
And so there are two more books. I will undoubtedly read them again too. And I’m sure I’ll post here about them, but I wanted to make sure I got this one in because it’s a book a truly enjoyed and even if it wasn’t the most intellectually challenging book, it did a fantastic job of messing with me emotionally.
As I mentioned earlier, I paid too much attention to the billing. I kept waiting for the book to become the ones it was compared to. I was waiting for the clean ending where we have a definite sense of what’s going on and that our hero became the hero.
It never happened. And like Linus waiting on the Great Pumpkin, I was left tired, abandoned, and a little confused in a pumpkin patch trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
Instead of a hero’s story, I got a good character piece, even if he is a bit whiny and ineffectual.