Friday, April 1, 2011

The Magicians - Lev Grossman

Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn't real, until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in the joys of college - friendship, love, sex, and booze - and receives a rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery. Magic, though, doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey, sure to finally fulfill Quentin's yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they'd imagined.

The Magicians is one of these books that leaves a hole in your life once you’re done – what a friend of mine used to call Post-Book Depression. It is a sort of adult Harry Potter, certainly, but only in a very minor way. There is none of the wonder and black-and-white morality of Harry Potter here. This is a gritty, shades-of-gray universe, where magic doesn’t change the basics of human nature, and the solution to all the world’s problems isn’t at the end of a wand.

The technical aspects of the novel are excellent – the writing is incisive, the characters well developed, the workings and system of magic well thought out and explained. But there is more to the book than just another urban fantasy novel – it is a coming of age, a realistic approach to what would happen if you let loose a bunch of troubled, over-achieving twenty somethings in a very original college, and endowed them all with magical powers. There is the usual love and lust, the loneliness that comes with that part of your life where you aren’t sure where you’re going and the world seems a difficult mess to unravel. There are mistakes and questionings, parties and heavy drinking, and through it all budding friendships and love shot through with sorrow and suffering.

I loved all the references to other literary sources – most obviously C.S. Lewis’ Narnia that is at the origin of Fillory, but also Rowling and LeGuin. But I loved even more that which is particular to this book, and that is clearly the character’s journey. I was simply amazed at how rich, complex, human, are the secondary characters, that seem to leap out of the page with fully formed personalities, flaws and secrets. Quentin takes a little longer to form, reacting to those around him, and the new world he was trust into – and it is through his eyes that we discover this new universe.

I picked this up thinking it was a normal fantasy book, but believe me, it is much, much more. If you haven’t yet, go find it. It isn’t to be missed. And , even though this book is complete on its own - there is an ending, and it is a good ending - a sequel is expected soon and I can’t wait to see where it leads.

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