Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: The Magicians

I first read about The Magicians in an interview with Lev Grossman. In it, he proclaimed that the book was about a mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia, set in the real world.

The book is told from the point of Quentin, who at the beginning of the novel is a bright high schooler with a crush on one of his closer classmates. When attempting to interview for a prestigious ivy-league University, circumstances intervenes and he finds himself taking an entrance exam for a wizard's college. This part is extremely well done, with head-fakes and other author's techniques use to great success to make you think that you know what's coming.

Overall, the Wizard's college part of the book was extremely well done. All the parts of Harry Potter that you might have considered childish is instead fleshed out. No fake-latin, no sorting hat. Even the spell-casting and magical training feels gritty. There's a spell-casting accident, of course, but Grossman manages to avoid evoking either Earthsea or Harry Potter.

The second section of the book, about Quentin's graduation and time in the real world, I thought was very badly done. We're given that someone so driven and purposeful in his studies would descend into alcoholism once outside the confines of school. Given my experience of top quality colleges, the kind of people that driven in school can't help but choose to maximize their impact outside school. I feel that Grossman made his characters service the plot in this case, rather than the other way around.

The last section of the book involves Fillory, the book's Narnia-equivalent. A series of novels about a family of children who visited Fillory to save the land from great evil surfaced in the 1930s, and of course, all the Wizard's college graduates have read the books and loved them, and know them by heart like any true geek would. Well, our graduates find a way to Fillory, and of course, an entire cohort decides to assault it. I love the section where they model battle-magic after spells in the D&D's Players Handbook. (Hey, what else would you have done?) I also enjoy the various vague references to D&D scattered all of the book, none of which would distract if you weren't a D&D player.

From then on, the pace of the novel accelerates and we reach the climax and after-math (which unfortunately has "sequel-potential" written all over it) are well-written and unpredictable.

I got this book out of the library yesterday, started on it last night, and finished it today. My complaint about the book is that I feel that while Grossman is a good plotter, his characters aren't as good as they could be, and his plot seem to almost work against his characterization. This is one case where the ideas behind the book are fantastic but the writer's technical capability falls quite short. Nevertheless, it is probably worth the $9.99 Kindle price, but there was no line for it at the library, so I would check that first. Mildly Recommended.
(And in case you're wondering, the parent publisher is Penguin, so it's OK to buy this book--they're not yet one of the evil publishers trying to destroy the ebook market)
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