Friday, April 02, 2010

Ex Libris: Lev Grossman's The Magicians

Looking past the hype, Lev Grossman's The Magicians doesn't really bring anything new to the table.

If one were to consider literary fiction as another type of genre, then Grossman's book is your usual coming-of-age story with a healthy dose of of angst-- except that it's done in the light of some of fantasy's classic and most popular tales (including J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and C.S. Lewis' Narnia).

But if we were to see Grossman's work as a combination of genres in the same way that China Mieville mixes crime/noir with Kafkaesque fiction in The City and The City, then one can see what's being done here.

In this case,Quentin Coldwater is your regular, too self-reflective, low self-esteem young man deciding on a college. Caught in search for magic and happiness in his life, he finds the former when he is picked for the magical Brakebills Academy. Unfortunately, instead of happiness, he confronts the four horsemen of literary apocalypse: (love, sex, true friendship, and booze) even as he studies the mechanics of magic.

After graduation, Quentin's story veers into Less Than Zero territory (which I didn't really appreciate: anyone who thinks that a magician fresh out of college would be bored out of his/her skull doesn't have the necessary sense of wonder to appreciate the idea). However, the characters get pulled out of their decadent lifestyle when they discover the children's fantasy world called Fillory is real and decide to investigate.

It's at this point that Grossman shakes the story up as Quentin finds the truth behind the axiom of getting what you wish for. Because aside from death and betrayal, Quentin realizes that he's not the hero of the life that he imagined.

If it seems like Grossman's book seems like two stories combined into one, it is. The first half of the book seems straight out of J.K. Rowling's pen except that Harry and his friends were never as self-centered as Quentin and his classmates. Afterward, the companions go on a quest into the fantastical world of Fillory, which was similar to the Narnia stories.

On a side note, it's interesting that there doesn't seem to be any integration between these two stories together, that the two sections could have been sold separately as stand-alones. Shades of Narnia books again? Maybe though the Narnia books were at least sold separately upon publication.

If you get the feeling that I'm feeling a bit 'meh' about the whole book, you'd be quite right. This book has been highly-praised as a fairy/fantasy tale for adults in that it tries to see the usual fantasy tropes through adult eyes. But this only works if you think that being an adult is equivalent to being bored out of your skull. Fantasy ideas like magic doesn't mean you can't screw up your life, just that you can screw it up even more magnificently and this book conveniently forgets this.

However, Grossman writes an interesting story enough. And really, it's an interesting take if you consider literary fiction as a different kind of genre that you then combine with another genre.

As an idea, it's not the Second Coming. But as a good story, I'd probably pick up the sequel... though I won't be dropping everything for it. (Rating: Two paws out four.)

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