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Courtesy of Jen Fidler | Fiddy Two Cents | Originally posted 4.7.2012
"It was about damn time something happened."
-Lev Grossman, page 297
This book is 402 pages long, and even though that line appears on page 297, nothing remotely exciting happens until page 338. Seriously.
I'll just warn you now...I'm going spoil the living daylights out of this book. If you haven't read the book, I do not encourage you to try. However, if that warning isn't enough to convince you to not read this book, then you should probably stop reading this review right now.
Onward to the spoilers.
Let's start off by saying just what a miserable protagonist Quentin makes in general. There is nothing likable about his character. NOTHING. He is too smart for his own good. He only attracts other miserable characters. And there is not a single instance in this book where he does anything worthy of being the protagonist. He is not a hero, nor is he an anti-hero. He is simply the character that we follow for 402 pages. Which is 402 pages too many.
And then there's the plot. Or lack thereof, for about 75% of the novel (as the cover proclaims it to be). Talk about a boring tale. The Magicians is broken into four sections. Book I introduces us to Quentin, a miserable S.O.B. with a giant chip on his shoulder and an IQ high enough to get him into any Ivy League school that he wants. But on the day of his Princeton interview, Quentin finds himself whisked away to Brakebills, Grossman's rip-off of Hogwarts. Instead of a sorting, Quentin is put through a magical SAT of sorts before being granted admission. Without even checking to see if this institution of higher magical learning is accredited, Quentin matriculates and the rest is torturous history.
So you're probably asking yourself about now, "Well, why did you read the entire book if it's just that painful?" Because I'm crazy. Obviously, there is something wrong with me. There are probably medications I can take, but instead I continually subject myself to horrible literature and films. Did you see that I read all of Modelland? Clearly. Insane.
But back to Quentin Coldwater and the Chamber of Ennui.
So at Brakebills (yes, this is still Book I), Quentin spends four years completing a five-year program where the magical curriculum covers everything from levitating marbles to copulating as arctic foxes. It's a progressive program. He becomes close friends with his classmate Alice, another special individual on the five-years-in-four-plan, as well as the other handful of miserable souls known as the Physical Kids. As far as I can tell, Grossman chose to name them the Physical Kids because 1) the magic they specialize in deals mainly with physical applications and 2) they just like to drink and fornicate. A lot.
There are two events that occur during Quentin's four years (and the books first 221 pages) that come close to being interesting for the reader. The first comes packaged in a chapter called "The Beast" and tells the semi-exciting tale of the day a random guy in a suit with a tree branch covering his face magically appears in one of the Brakebills classes and eats one of Quentin's classmates before disappearing inexplicably. You'd think that would be a significant incident, but no. Everyone reacts oddly calm about the whole ordeal, and the attack gets written off as just-one-of-those-random-moments-in-magical-life-sort-of-things. The other takes place when Quentin and the other fourth year students are hazed while studying abroad in Antarctica with a Russian magician who has a wicked sense of humor. The students are given an optional final exam where they are cast out into the snow naked and alone with only their magical prowess to survive a 500-mile trek to the South Pole. Although optional, Quentin signs up...because why not? Nothing else interesting ever happens. His journey is pretty much the most entertaining part of the book up to this point. Oh, except for that day the Russian magician transformed them all into arctic foxes and Arctic Fox Quentin and Arctic Fox Alice got it on. But that was just so disturbing.
Book I concludes with Quentin and Alice graduating (their only other friends having graduated the year before). As part of their commencement ceremonies, they each get a magic key back to Brakebills and a Cacodemon (a magical creature who will force its way out of your belly when summoned and try its best kill whoever you command...good for one time only!) tattooed into their back. And all I got at my college graduation was a diploma and a mini Etch-a-Sketch with RISD screenprinted on it. Bet that Cacodemon comes in handy. On to Book II.
Although only a quarter of the length of the first part, Book II really packs on the excitement. And by excitement, I mean more drunken debauchery. Brakebills, while impressive with its curriculum, has horrible job placement percentiles. Quentin and Alice, unemployed, join up with the Physical Kid pals (Eliot, Josh, and Jane) in Manhattan. With the exception of Alice (who uses her time to continue her magical studies and explorations), the gang spends its days sleeping and the evenings throwing elaborate dinner parties centered around enchanted ice sculptures of Leda and her Swan doing the nasty. Seriously Grossman, you have issues. ISSUES. Quentin and Alice are a couple, but they also have issues. Issues that are not made better when Quentin sleeps with Eliot and Jane following one of the aforementioned dinner gatherings. Before Alice has a chance to scream at and/or kill Quentin for his infidelity, their old Brakebill pal Penny (an almost member of the five-years-in-four-plan crew) shows up out of the blue and invites everyone to join him on an all-expense-paid trip to Fillory.
What is Fillory, you ask? Why Fillory is Grossman's version of Narnia. Throughout the previous 250 or so pages, Quentin constantly brings up Fillory and his love of the fictional fiction writer Christopher Plover. Look. Grossman even made up a fake website for the fake author: christopherplover.com. That's dedication. Or possibly schizophrenia. The stories are continually referenced as if we were all raised on the stories of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter and their adventures through the Wardrobe into Narnia...er, I mean the Chatwin children and their adventures through the old grandfather clock and Fillory. Quentin just LOVED the books as a child...and as a teenager...and often finds himself wishing he'd find a secret passage into his beloved Fillory. But he keeps having to remind himself that Plover made Fillory up, as fiction writers do.
But no! Fillory is real! And Penny hasn't gone there on his own yet. But now that he's with his very bestest of friends from Brakebills (who coincidentally have far greater power than Penny ever will), they can all go together! Huzzah! With the exception of a quick trip to the Neitherlands for Alice and Quentin (where she maims but not kills the infidel), this is basically where Book II ends.
Book III. To Fillory and Back Again: A Hobbit's Tale. Once again, Grossman rips off C.S. Lewis by blatantly patterning the Fillory journey on the Narnia tales. Quentin and co. manage to get their act together (finally!) and arrive in Fillory. They have no official goal for their trip; they just figure they'd see if they could track down the infamous Questing Beast or maybe see if the job of King or Queen of Fillory had any openings. They meet talking animals and trees. There are fauns and beavers (sound familiar?), too. Eventually, they are given a task: find Martin Chatwin's crown and reclaim the throne in the name of the Earth children. Because much like Narnia, Fillory can only be ruled by Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. Just brimming with originality there, Grossman.
But the quest for the crown is not a simple one, so the gang needs guides. And the guides are instantly provided for them. As everything has been easily given to them over the past 300 pages or so. Because who would want to read a book where the heroes actually have to do work? The guides, Dint and Fen, bring them to Ember's Tomb, where it is strongly believed that the crown resides. Dint and Fen are also handy at killing vicious Attack Rabbits and Ferrets, too. Something Brakebills did not provide training in.
Anyhoo. They arrive at the tomb, which reeks of Tolkien's Moria. (Seriously Grossman, did you even try to come up with something on your own?) The tunnels seem abandoned, but soon the the fellowship is attacked. The first attack is reminiscent of a Final Fantasy fight sequence, where Grossman assigns each of the characters a distinct attack move (Fen: Attack, Alice: Cacodemon, Jane: Run). The second attack is far more enthralling (and, oddly enough, starts on page 338...see above). The second battle marks the first time in the entire book where the Brakebills alum have to do anything of importance. It's actual work. And it was actually interesting.
I'm actually going to refrain from giving too much detail regarding the following 40 or so pages, as it's the only part of the book that is really worth reading. So for those of you who haven't read the book yet, I recommend you open to page 338 and start reading from there. To those of you who have read the book, all I can say is...do you feel as dirty as I do?
But the story doesn't end in the tunnels. Oh no. Instead, Quentin finds himself trapped in Fillory while the surviving Scoobies return to Earth. In a complete break from character, Quentin goes after the Questing Beast and wins three wishes. His first two wishes are basically a bust, but he uses his third wish to return home. And so concludes Book III.
Book IV is basically the beginning of the movie Wanted, but with rock-star magicians instead of bullet-bending assassins. Now back home, Quentin has chosen to leave behind his childish magical ways and enters (gasp!) the work force. He has an office job. It sounds boring (imagine that). But the very last few pages bring back a few of the Physical Kids (now with flying powers and spandex!) trying to convince Quentin to return to Fillory with them. Although he's hesitant at first, he eventually takes the plunge, as Grossman does have a sequel. Which I am refusing to read.
So there you have The Magicians. That took me way too long to read. Mostly because I didn't want to. I'm still questioning why I trudged my way through it. While not wholly convinced, I'm going to go with...I did it so I could write this amazing review. Yeah. That's it.
For the record, if they ever make a movie out of this book, I refuse to see it.