February 16th, 2011 by Will Entrekin

Review: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, or Harry Potter Y Tu Mama, Tambien

I first started using Kindle on my phone, a Samsung Vibrant on T-Mobile’s network, last summer while commuting into Manhattan every morning. I’d had the app on my iPhone but never used it; cellular displays just aren’t really meant for long-form reading, and I don’t really read much besides books. Usually novels, but lately more non-fiction, too. But it was much better to read my phone than to lug around a paperback everywhere I went, and I quickly discovered the convenience of using a device that built-in bookmarks every time you close a book.

Which is awesome. I love that. I never used to use bookmarks, anyway, but I always used to end up thinking I was on a page ten before the last one I’d actually read.

When Amazon announced the third generation Kindle, I knew I was going to buy it, because I knew I wanted to put Meets Girl on it. I also knew I was lusting after it.

I went sort of nuts downloading samples via Amazon (on the web. Because the device purchasing side of Kindle sucks), and was enjoying a lot of what I was reading. Neil Gaiman’s were among the first books I bought, and Amazon, knowing my predilection for Gaiman, suggested Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. So I downloaded the sample and began to read.

And the thing about the samples are: it takes about as long to read one as to commute. Long-form reading of books on a device blows. But reading samples is about the same as reading short stories, and reading samples is awesome.

I had picked up the book to browse (I think at the Strand, maybe?), but never gotten past the first couple of pages. Now, with the sample and a train ride, I had the better part of two.

And the better part of two was good. The better part of two were so convincing that I decided to make The Magicians the first novel I actually read on my Kindle.

What really sealed the deal was when, early on, the main protagonist, Quentin, takes a magic test, which seems mostly like a normal test except that some of the questions are odd and the test starts doing strange things, like asking him to draw a duck, which subsequently starts moving. I also liked that Quentin, rather than questioning the test or freaking out, simply assumes that the paper must use some sort of new e-ink display or something. Something rather like a Kindle.

It was neat to read on a Kindle, but I also liked that touch, that moment of a character just dismissing something extraordinary as routine. I think it’s something easy to do. I think maybe Terry Pratchett has mentioned the idea a few times. Humorous science fantasy is full of such devices. Somebody Else’s Problem spectacles, which don’t so much render anything invisible as make the wearer believe that anything hazardous or strange is somebody else’s problem to deal with. There were the hazard glasses in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that went pitch black at any sign of danger. Devices, perhaps, but I think a humorous metaphor for what we sometimes do when something unexpected interrupts what we tend to expect; we go around, mentally. Like Quentin. He’s taking this exam that’s really behaving oddly, but he’s excusing its oddness, guessing at technology and mundanity.

I liked that.

The sample ended before the exam did, but the rest of that early chapter was extraordinary. Potential spoiler: one of the questions requires Quentin to imagine a society, fill in its political backstory and cultural language, and then translate Hamlet’s famous speech into said language. Later, when he’s asked by professors to perform magic, that invented language is what springs to his mind, and he starts basically speaking in tongues and performs a complicated, actually magical spell.

Unfortunately, it’s the most extraordinary moment of the novel.

(Which might be even more spoiler-y.)

What occurs, plot-wise, is simple: the exam is an entrance requirement to what basically amounts to a magical college somewhere in New York state. I’d read reviews call the book Harry Potter for grown-ups, which is a little accurate, but Grossman’s actual high-concept is Harry Potter goes to college. Think Harry Potter meets Stephen King’s “Hearts in Atlantis” (the story. Not the collection), and you’ve got a basic idea.

Which is sorta interesting. But, I mean, it’s college. Grades and exams and studying and such, with partying and all that on the side.

I think Grossman knew that Harry Potter and University, with Internship and Entry-Level Job–For Which He’ll Need A Tie–Shortly After Graduation wasn’t going to be all that interesting, and so we get a slightly different plot, which is Harry Potter Reads Narnia, then Goes to College, then Goes to Narnia.

Early on, we learn that Quentin grew up reading a series about a place called Fillory, which is basically Narnia. Except maybe without the Jesus. Grossman exposits some of the plots of some of the books in the series (a couple of which sound exceedingly boring).

Also early on, Hogwarts U is attacked. Sort of attacked. There this point where the whole school is put under a time-sludge spell sort of thing, and we’re told it’s terrifying and awful, and it’s clear that the teachers are kinda freaked out, but at the same time, I felt like it failed to really demonstrate any real menace in the story. Also, biggish problem for me: Quentin might have sort of caused it somehow. It’s not really clear. First he’s petulant and then he’s beating himself up.

Which I think was the biggest problem: Christ I hated Quentin. Remember Emo Spidey from Spider-Man 3? Quentin is basically Emo Harry Potter, which is saying something considering how emo Harry could sometimes be. When he’s not actively sabotaging things–be they a classroom or a relationship–he’s passively just kind of hanging out. He gets romantically involved with one of his classmates, but then, later, after everyone’s graduated but all moved in to some other apartment together, gets drunk one night and makes some ludicrously bad decisions (a couple of which feel like WTF? and a couple of which feel like Grossman just trying to make it Harry Potter Y Tu Mama, Tambien).

And then they all go to Fillory.

No, seriously. About halfway through, just after they’ve graduated, they find some magic stone that takes them to Fillory. Where there’s this ludicrously enormous (and subsequently difficult to follow) battle/climax/fight somethingorother and then . . . other plot stuff.

Thing is, it’s not very well-structured plot stuff. The third act basically falls apart, and what comes before it isn’t really paced or structured well enough for plotting purposes. The pacing is off, with some things rushed and others . . . well, not.

It’s not a bad first novel. It’s pretty decent, in ways (the opening certainly kicks ass). But it definitely needed better structuring. I’d say I’d hope good things for Grossman’s next book, which is called The Magician King, apparently, and is a sequel to this one, but I’ve been reading it’s basically royalty in Fillory, and I thought the Fillory part was far and away the weak point of The Magicians. I honestly think that it might have been interesting without all the Narnia, even if it were Harry Potter and the Temp Job, because honestly I think the more interesting conflict is that between the mundane and the extraordinary. Harry entered Hogwarts when he was eleven, so it’s all he knows of schooling and, for the most part, the world (considering he was in a cupboard before then); Quentin, on the other hand, had a normal, ordinary, middle-class childhood and teenagerdom, complete with high school and a couple of close friends, and his first reaction to magic isn’t childlike wonder but rather “Oh, this must be that new display I read about,” and really, I think the real world is a far more interesting place for a magician to go than to Narnia.

I mean, consider if Harry Potter hadn’t gone on to the Ministry to become an Auror. What if destroying Voldemort had required not Harry’s death but the destruction of the magical world instead; what if Dumbledore’d had to sacrifice not his own life but the existence of Hogwarts?

Consider the most powerful sorceror in the world putting on a tie.

Then again, I should caveat that I didn’t grow up reading fantasy: for all the references I just made to it, I’ve never actually read The Chronicles of Narnia (nor have any inclination to). I saw the Lord of the Rings movies but never read the books. The closest I’ve gotten to fantasy, in fact, has mostly been Rowling, Pratchett, and Gaiman. Though I read some Stasheff when I was in high school myself. I can imagine some people might like Harry Potter Goes to Narnia. I’m just not one of them. Even if they do, however, the structure and pacing are both still off, and it’s hard to like some of the characters, including the emo protagonist, which is why, on a scale of bedknobs to broomsticks I give it a “Wait, Aslan is Jesus? I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

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One Response to “Review: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, or Harry Potter Y Tu Mama, Tambien”
  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Will Entrekin, Will Entrekin. Will Entrekin said: New post: Review: Lev Grossman's The Magicians, or Harry Potter Y Tu Mama, Tambien – http://tinyurl.com/4fy2wao [...]

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