The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I stumbled across The Magicians by accident a couple of weeks ago. I’d not read any of Lev Grossman’s work before but there was something about The Magicians that grabbed my attention. It was partly the cover, a haunting image of a tree surrounded by fog, its leaves scattered like tears across a small lake, that caught my interest. Likewise, something about the description reminded me of a grown-up version of Narnia, an adult fantasy mixing the beloved worlds of Lewis with the sex, angst and conflict of real, everyday life. With The Magicians Grossman tries to reinvent modern fantasy for adults and it’s a novel unlike any I’ve read.

The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater, a teenager who’s just finished high school with his friends James and Julia. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life and pining for Julia, his unrequited love, Quentin lives in a near-constant melancholy; the only relief he finds is in a series of novels from his childhood about the magical world of Fillory. He dreams of living in Fillory and longs for it to be real, believing it would give purpose and meaning to his otherwise unremarkable life.

When Quentin discovers and is admitted to Brakebills, a college in upstate New York that teaches its students how to use and control magic, it seems that his dream is about to come true. But studying magic is nothing like he imagined. It’s tedious, arduous work and his fellow students are competitive and hostile. Suddenly Quentin is no longer the smartest in his class and finds himself struggling to understand his full potential. His depression returns even as he begins to fall in love with Alice, one of his few friends at Brakebills.

Eventually, after five long years, Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills. They move in with a few other graduates from Brakebills and Quentin soon falls into a familiar pattern, losing himself in a world of drugs, parties and alcohol. It begins to drive a wedge between them, with Quentin seemingly content to live a life of mediocrity, while Alice continues to learn about magic.

When another graduate of Brakebills reveals that he has found Fillory — a real place connected to a whole nexus of other worlds — Quentin’s listlessness lifts again. This is what he’s been waiting for; what he’s always wanted. Together the magicians journey to Fillory but soon find that everything is different. The real Fillory is nothing like the world they know from the stories, more nightmare than dream. Together they pledge to set things right in Fillory… but as their relationships begin to fall apart around them, they realise their quest will not only reveal the truth about Fillory but about themselves as well.

I’ve been thinking about The Magicians since I finished it last week and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. On the one hand there’s no doubt that it’s a brilliant, literate reimagining of modern fantasy. But on the other, there’s nothing about the novel that feels particularly magical or wondrous. That’s because, when you get to the heart of it, The Magicians isn’t a fantasy novel at all, not really, and it’s hard to know how to judge it.

Rather, The Magicians is a novel about fantasy. It’s an examination of the genre; it takes classic themes — like magic, strange creatures, fantastical worlds — and in dissecting them and putting them back together asks the question, what if magic were real? How would we use it? Would we value the gift or take it for granted? It’s a serious, adult novel that uses magic to explore the darker side of human nature and particularly the danger of apathy.

As such, what really stands out about the novel for me is the characters. It’s not a particularly long novel but all of the characters feel detailed and real. They’re real people, complete with hopes, dreams, flaws, jealousies… they’re magicians capable of great feats, yes, but they’re ordinary and imperfect and that’s what makes them compelling. Alice in particular fascinated me; brilliant yet shy, she seemed almost autistic at times, capable of great power but never really understanding it.

Quentin on the other hand is a study in contrasts. He is both a dreamer and a pessimist, a young man who finds himself with a gift he has always wanted, only to squander it when he realises it’s not what he thought it would be. His moods range wildly from joy to despair and he keeps making all of the wrong decisions again and again, so much so that as a reader you just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. But Quentin can’t help it. He’s our eyes into this world and represents our own expectations of magic; in a way we are Quentin and it’s hard to imagine that we’d react any differently.

Quentin is the main protagonist but it’s wrong to call him the hero of the story; there are no real heroes in The Magicians, just people. Everything Quentin does is because he longs to escape from his life but each time he just makes things worse and in the end that’s what The Magicians is really about — learning to accept reality, to make the most of what you have. It’s a lesson Quentin just can’t seem to learn and it costs him everything.

If there’s one problem I have with The Magicians, though, it’s that while all of the characters feel well developed, none of them are particularly likeable. With the possible exception of Alice they’re all bitter, competitive, narcissistic brats; Quentin in particular whines through most of the novel and it becomes tiring. None of the characters seem aware of the destruction they cause around them and while that’s the point, it makes it difficult to care what happens to them or to really relate to them.

Likewise, one of the other problems with The Magicians is that while it is a reinvention of modern fantasy, none of the ideas in the novel themselves are particularly original. Of course, they’re not meant to be; the story is meant to be reminiscent of classic fantasy motifs, making us look at them with new, adult eyes. For the most part that works and Grossman’s world succeeds in feeling familiar but different, but the setting still feels a little clichéd at times, particularly with some of the similarities between Narnia and Fillory.

At times I also felt that Grossman went a little too far in trying to make magic seem so ordinary in the story. Some of the scenes, particularly at Brakebills, feel like they’re included for no other reason than to show how hard it is to use magic in Grossman’s world (more like learning a science than a skill). I know that’s the point, to make it more realistic, but sometimes it just seems to take the magic out of, well, magic. On the other hand, some of the other magical scenes are captivating. There’s one scene in particular where Quentin watches the statue of a bird that a student had tried to bring to life; the spell had failed halfway through and the statue, thinking it’s alive, keeps trying to fly. But it’s too heavy and falls, only to get up and try again and again. It was little more than a paragraph but it’s haunting and stayed with me for the rest of the novel.

My only other real gripe with the novel is that while it’s well written, some of the dialogue feels a little stilted and unrealistic. Secondary characters like Eliot, meant to sound arrogant and supercilious, instead sound overly dramatic and some of the interaction between characters doesn’t ring true, particularly when they’re in larger groups. It’s a stark contrast to Grossman’s prose, which for the most part is excellent; there’s a subtle, rhythmic flow to much of his writing and some of his passages and descriptions are breathtaking.

Overall I’m still not really sure how I feel about The Magicians. I enjoyed it a great deal but at the same time I find it a difficult book to judge. As an idea and a reimagining of modern fantasy, it’s fascinating, but as a novel it’s not perfect by any means and is held back (ironically) by some rather mundane flaws.

Perhaps in the end The Magicians is a little too ambitious for its own good but in a market flooded with Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter rip-offs, it still feels refreshingly different. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent novel and as a novel that makes you think about the nature of fantasy and reality in our own lives as well, it’s a resounding success.

Fantasy fans and general readers wanting something a little different will love it. Highly recommended.

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August Reading List

I realised something this week: I’m so not a winter person. This has been one of the coldest winters in Sydney for years and I’m sitting here with a tea and four blankets as I’m writing this, trying to nurse a nasty cold. I don’t want to whine but I’m really looking forward to spring next month.

One of the things I like about winter, though, is that it’s perfect reading weather. It’s absolutely freezing at the moment but there’s nothing better than curling up in bed with a good book on a cold day and letting the story carry you somewhere far, far away. I think I’ve read more in the last two months than during the rest of the year combined.

Lately I’ve been working my way through the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. The awards are being held in Melbourne this year, which means I was able to vote for the first time. It’s a good list this year too. I voted for Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock in the end; I loved how fun and inventive it was but any of the nominees could win really. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was the only one I couldn’t get to before the deadline; I’ll be reading that next.

I’m reading Nam Le’s The Boat at the moment and these are some of the other books I plan to read soon as well. The one I’m looking forward to the most is The Girl Who Played With Fire. I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I finally managed to get the first sequel the other day. Can’t wait to get stuck into it. It seems like everyone’s reading Larsson’s trilogy at the moment; it’s like The Da Vinci Code all over again. Except Larsson’s books are well written. And, you know, good.

I’ll post some reviews once I’ve finished them. I’ve been wanting to try out my new camera as well, so who knows, I might even do a couple of video reviews.

So what are you reading at the moment?

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

First Impressions: Bacigalupi’s short fiction has taken the SF world by storm in recent years. This is his first novel, about genetic engineering and a post-oil future where global corporations vie for the world’s remaining resources. Looks very promising.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson

First Impressions: Lisbeth Salander finds herself accused of murder and goes on the run while Mikael Blomkvist tries to clear her of the crime. Dragon Tattoo was the best thriller I’ve read in years; if this one’s even half as good as the first, I’ll be very happy.

The Forgotten Garden
Kate Morton

First Impressions: A young woman’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother’s life. It seems a little too reminiscent of The Secret Garden at times for me, at least in tone. I loved Morton’s The Shifting Fog, though, so maybe it’ll surprise me.

The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster

First Impressions: I’m not that familiar with Paul Auster, although he seems to really divide readers. Illusions is about a man who investigates the life of a silent movie star who disappeared in the 1920s, only to find similarities with his own life. Sounds interesting.

The Art of Travel
Alain de Botton

First Impressions: I’ve not read de Botton before but a friend recommended this to me recently. de Botton explores the nature of travel (why we travel, what we get out of it, etc.) through philosophy, art and other musings. Sounds like just my cup of tea.

The Copper Bracelet
Jeffrey Deaver (et al)

First Impressions: A sequel to The Chopin Manuscript, this is a collaborative audionovel written by 16 writers including Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child. The Chopin Manuscript didn’t quite work but I like the idea of a collaborative novel. Hopefully this is more successful.

The Temple of Learning

reading

Do you have a favourite past-time? Something you love to do at the end of the day to unwind? Perhaps you’re a movie buff or enjoy exercising at the gym. For me it’s reading. I don’t think there’s anything better than curling up with a good book at the end of a long day to unwind.

Some of my earliest memories are of books, of my parents reading to me while I lay in bed and looked at the pictures. I often think that without those experiences I wouldn’t be who I am today. Reading is such a large part of a writer’s life; if you don’t take the time to read, you can’t develop the skills to write. But reading has never felt like a chore to me, largely because all of those stories when I was younger made me dream of my own.

If someone had told me when I was first learning to read that I’d become a writer later, though, I’m not sure I would have believed them; at the time I probably wanted to be a palaeontologist as Jurassic Park had just come out. At that stage I found reading difficult. I loved books but like many children – boys in particular – my literacy skills developed late and it frustrated me.

Generally the average age a child learns to read is 6; some learn earlier, others a little later. I was 7  & a ½ when I could finally read and write competently. Perhaps that’s not unusual for some children but it was extremely frustrating for me; my teachers said that I’d pick it up on the way, but the curriculum – at least 18 years ago – made few allowances for those who didn’t develop as quickly or were ill. Subsequently I kept falling behind.

Finally my parents, who’d gone against their instincts on my teachers’ advice, taught me themselves. They bought a range of reading aids to teach me phonics and they read with me, particularly my mother, for hours every night; I can still remember the Bangers & Mash series, about two mischievous chimpanzees who kept getting themselves into all kinds of trouble. They made learning fun!

Before long I had moved on to the Berenstain Bears series and Dr Seuss, particularly The Butter Battle Book. Soon I was analysing and sounding out difficult words on my own, associating words with different meanings, and my reading speed improved greatly. I devoured everything, hungry to learn, and within a month I’d leapt ahead and was reading books my parents had read to me like Matilda, The BFG and finally Narnia by myself.

My writing skills improved at the same time; my spelling was awful but my grammar and punctuation had come a long way. And before long I decided to write my first story. It was a Batman story, probably inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman film which I saw on TV. I didn’t like the ending, so I changed it; I killed Batman – so even then I had a thing for macabre endings.

Within six months I was reading and writing at an advanced level. I’d moved past most of the children in my class and within three years I was comfortably reading Dickens and Conan Doyle, which showed how far I’d been held back. I was writing poetry and short stories regularly and English became my best subject. I’d turned my weakness into my strength; that’s something I’m still proud of today.

That’s why literacy is so important to me, not just as a writer but as a person; I know how frustrating it is to feel like you’re being left behind, and the joy when all those hours of hard work finally pay off.

It saddens me when I hear of the falling literacy standards in Australia, of a growing gap between boys and girls in English and language skills. Officially Australia has a 99.0% rate of adult literacy, one of the highest in the world, but that doesn’t take into account the widening gap between genders, nor the differences in various socio-economic and cultural groups, nor the retention rate for school students (particularly among older boys, whish is rising). Many people are aware of these problems but we hear few solutions, other than the government’s “education revolution” which no one understands.

The situation with Indigenous literacy is becoming even more serious. It’s believed that by the age of 15 more than a third of Indigenous students don’t have adequate literacy skills and are disadvantaged, while in remote areas it is even worse, with only 15% of year 7 students achieving the benchmark in literacy tests. Coupled with high unemployment and mortality rates among many Indigenous communities, it’s a serious problem and something no one should consider acceptable. Yet for the most part the same policies continue to be implemented, only now under the intervention.

Likewise the fact that there are 776 million adults in the world lacking basic literacy skills (66% of them women) and 75 million children out of school is a statistic I find staggering. Surely in a modern society those kind of figures are unacceptable? Surely we can do more to help? Of course we do what we can, giving money to governments and helping to build schools and libraries, providing new equipment… but sometimes I wonder if even a fraction of the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went towards addressing illiteracy and poverty instead, would the world be any different?

I suppose I just wish that we’d be a little more responsible, that instead of giving money to corrupt regimes we’d give it directly to the agencies that are trying to help. If we made a serious dent in illiteracy and poverty in the world, it would help us as well. One of the biggest factors in poverty, terrorism and AIDS is a lack of education. The only responsible way out of poverty is to learn, to educate yourself and learn not to make the same mistakes again. If that education begins early, with literacy and other skills, then children can learn and see ways of improving their lives and they’re less likely to fall under the influence of extremism.

That’s why I like the work many of the smaller organisations and charities are doing around the world. Working at grass roots level they can have more success and make a difference in peoples’ lives. Projects like Books for Cameroon, which is aiming to establish a library in 25 schools and help 20,000 students, or the 100 Mothers Literacy Program which funds a basic literacy program for mothers in Afghanistan. These kind of projects provide a greater level of transparency and average people can support them, trying to help in their own way.

Overall, though, I think if we’re to improve literacy standards we have to change our approach. Days like this International Literacy Day help to raise awareness but it’s by building new schools and libraries and training teachers in new methods that we might succeed overall, methods that make learning fun again. We need to move away from whole language methods, towards systematic phonics. Most importantly we need to take a larger role in our children’s education as parents and role models and help them; if we read to and teach our children, they’ll want to learn.

I don’t know if I will be a father one day but I know if a child asks me for help to read or write, I’ll always try to help them. I know what it was like to struggle with reading and it’s never too early to teach a child to read, to love books – if you do then you’ll give them skills for life.

The rest will take care of itself.

“The library is the temple of learning, and learning has
liberated more people than all the wars in history.”
~ Carl Rowan

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Image Credit: Reading Books At Home ~ hortongroup