The Magicians


Okay, okay. I know I said I was going to do mostly indie authors on Friday. I am going to do mostly indie authors on Friday. But Lev Grossman’s third book just came out, and you know where that leaves me.

Well, I hope you do, at least. That would be reading Lev Grossman’s third book.

So I decided it might behoove me to take a minute and talk about them a little. These books– The Magicians trilogy — are not only a worthwhile read, but what they do as fantasy novels is noteworthy.  Not so much for the writing– which is interesting, if only because I’m not sure words like ‘palimpsest’ and ‘lulz’ would belong in the same story anywhere else–but for the way people have reacted to them.

If you want some good genre-based entertainment, read the reviews for The Magicians on Amazon or Goodreads. Some of this I blame on poor marketing– NYT reviewed The Magicians as a ‘Harry Potter for adults’, which it most certainly is not– but a lot of it, I feel, pinpoints how comfortable people have become with those predictable YA different-but-better themes, and how much, especially in fantasy, they crave them.

The negative reviews fall mainly into two categories. One, of course, is along the lines of ‘OMG LOLZ STEELS FRUM NARNIA TOO MUCH LOLZ!!!11one’. These don’t interest me too much. I suspect their writers belong to a class of people who hear the word ‘satire’ and wonder if that’s something you can take while having more than three drinks per day. Yes, Grossman’s Fillory is a lot like Narnia. This is thoroughly intentional. He isn’t even making fun of CS Lewis, not really, as much as he’s appropriating the concept as a way to define fantasy and magic as escapism– escapism that, honestly, doesn’t always help you escape.

The other category–more worrying to me–is the people who call the books badly written (which, all right, I can get–see earlier comment about ‘palimpsest’ and ‘lulz’), but claim, above all, that they are not actually fantasy novels, because (le gasp!) they are intended for adults.

Excuse me, what?

These comments make sweeping generalizations about fantasy as a genre. They’re generalizations that are, sadly, mostly true. Most of the best fantasy IS written for young adults. Of course it is. Who needs a world of escape, where magic can happen and a suitably plucky narrator can become king or queen of a small country with ease, quite like a fourteen year old kid? You’re old enough to find your family like totally boring, but not old enough to drive and get away from them. You’re old enough to like the opposite sex, but not quite old enough to go beyond kissing and over-the-clothes clandestine fondling beneath the bleachers. You need, in essence, a way to escape from the pubescent C-4 of your own emerging personality into a world where things always wind up how they’re supposed to, and you have power over your own destiny. Because, when you can’t count on yourself to stay the same day after day, you crave these things.

What Grossman does, essentially, is take this theme to the next grade level. In The Magicians, his narrator Quentin is roughly college-aged–I think he runs from about 17-23 in the course of the book, but I wouldn’t swear on it– and his problems are college problems, peppered with the occasional f-bomb and none-too-slick cultural reference to prove it. He wants the same things he got from fantasy books as a child from actual magic–not only escape, but escape to a world where everything is fair and explainable, where his fate is writ large from the book of his own actions.

Quentin, like all good fantasy main characters, doesn’t really know who he is or where he belongs. He steps out of gray Brooklyn and into the boarding schoolesque magic of Brakebills, and he’s happy at first, but then shit starts to get real. Even a magical school isn’t what Quentin expects magic to be. Quentin–raised on the Fillory novels just as a lot of us were raised on Narnia or Lord of the Rings–has to learn the hard way that there is no full escape from trouble, no full escape from your own emotional issues. Even in a Narniaesque fantasy world, your actions have real consequences and the person you’re left going to sleep with at the end of the day is yourself.

However, sometimes you don’t have a great golden lion to step in and put you on the right track. Sometimes you make the wrong decision. And then–then, my dears, all you’ve got is damage control.

I wish I saw this lesson in more fantasy. Even when they’re crowning you King of Gondor, even when you’ve defeated He Who Shall Not Be Named, you’re still the same fucking human being. Heroism doesn’t engulf and change you like a bright cleansing light. Someone’s still slept with your girlfriend–or maybe you’ve slept with somebody else’s. Or maybe both. And these things aren’t separate from saving Middle fucking Earth. They’re a part of your world, the only world you know. Wherever that world may be.

Also: just because you went to college and graduated with honors doesn’t mean getting a real job will be easy.

Grossman deals with themes of escapism, elitism, the protection and arrogance of youth. I know, that’s a few more isms than I’m usually inclined to, but for me at least these ARE the themes of life in your twenties, of growing up and discovering that you can’t just run from your problems, because they are suddenly actually your problems and not your parents’, teachers’, or friends’. And Grossman deals with these themes just as well–better, actually–than most YA fantasy deals with those old high school themes of not belonging and finding your own ‘special powers’. The thing that makes him special–more special than a lot of people who write in similar theme in different genre–is that he does this honestly, baldly, and with few apologies for the giant dick you probably were in college, just like Quentin, which is why you love to hate him just a little bit.

So get out of your genre rut. Mr. Grossman did a brave thing and extended common fantasy themes into a whole new age group. If you’re still in high school or college–still looking at that $2,500 a month apartment and thinking ‘sure, I’ll be able to afford that once I graduate’–these books might not be for you. However, if you’ve had your dreams knocked around a bit–especially if you’ve done some of the knocking yourself and you still, obstinately, find ways to believe in them– these books will resonate.

And I have to add–on a semi-related note–that Mr.Grossman apparently read at a local bookstore around here last night. I, having no idea this was going on, spent the night cooking and watching a Korean horror movie.

ARGLFRGLBRRR. I could kill myself. No Korean horror movie is worth that shit. Especially not this one.

In other news: my spellcheck recognizes the word palimpsest, but does NOT recognize ‘escapism’, ‘honors’, or even, yes, ‘recognize’. This is why, in this little world of writing, you need an editor.


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