The Magicians

August 18th, 2009

So some time back in June some guy called Lev Grossman emails me and asks (very politely), since his book is paired with mine on amazon uk, whether I’d fancy reading it, since he was getting a copy of Best Served Cold. I was like, “yeah, whatever, free book.” If I had known then that Lev Grossman was in fact the book critic for Time Magazine, I would have been far more sycophantic in my correspondence. Far more.

Took a while for the book to arrive, and believe me, it’s a beautiful looking hardcover on which serious design effort has been expended, with the deckled edges, and the author’s initials stamped into the book under the dustjacket, and a lavish map not printed craply across two pages but on proper end sheets and what have you. It also begins with a quote from one of my favourite speeches from Shakespeare, so we were off to a good start, I can tell you.

Anyway – Quentin Coldwater is a super-clever nerd depressive who hates his life and is obsessed with a series of twee fantasy books about Fillory, an invented land highly reminiscent of Narnia. Everything seems to change when he passes an entrance exam to a school of magic in upstate New York and is trained to be a magician, but magic turns out to pose more problems than it solves…

I guess you could say – if you were fond of incompetently describing things by likening them to things it’s only superficially like, which, of course, I am – that there’s a Harry Potter meets Narnia meets Catcher in the Rye vibe about it. I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that Grossman is trying to do with Harry Potter and Narnia something not entirely unlike what I’m trying to do with Lord of the Rings and the Belgariad, that is to present a story that is self-consciously classic with a grittier, more realistic, more morally ambiguous spin and a slightly ironic raised eyebrow at its source material. In general, I think he’s been pretty successful, sometimes very – it’s sharply observed, it’s surprising, it’s often funny, sometimes very imaginative and occasionally quite scary, and ultimately gets you thinking, which is good thing for any book to do.

Some mild spoilers will follow, so the obsessive compulsive should look away. The book splits into four sections. In the first and much the largest Quentin attends magic school from entrance exam to graduation. For me this was the least effective, but that may well be because (gasp) I’ve never read any Harry Potter so I was missing a lot of references. In the third part Quentin and some of his friends (or not) travel to magical Fillory. This I felt was much more effective – the contrast between the wondrous location with its naiads and talking animals and the banality of the misfiring adolescent relationships and d&d; flavoured in-jokes of the protagonists allowed for a lot of laughs. Plus when magic began to be used in anger, it was pretty shocking.

But oddly for a book about magic (or perhaps not oddly, since it’s really about the relationship between the fantastical and the humdrum), I found it was at its most powerful when it was at its most mundane. Soul-destroying holidays in grey Brooklyn after the wonders of termtime delving into the mysteries of the universe. Loafing around in banal New York, bored, trying to work out what to do with one’s life after graduating. The best part for me was the last, in which Quentin abandons his godlike powers in order to live a tedious existence as a mid-level executive in a Manhattan office block. The depictions of magic were often fascinating, but they didn’t have the ring of truth about them (how could they, they’re magic), the depictions of depression, of boredom, of ennui definitely did, and it was the honesty of those that really made this book work for me…

Posted in reading by Joe Abercrombie on August 18th, 2009. Tags:

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