This is one of those books I kept picking up and putting down. For the longest time I couldn’t get into it; I’d forget I tried to read it and would put it on hold at the library. It was a sick cycle. Then I went to an author chat at last Fall’s Brooklyn Book Fest and heard Grossman talk with Jeff Vandermeer and another author. Usually I avoid these types of events because I have trouble sitting still in a quiet space filled with people, but Grossman brought the funny. I stayed the whole time and left wondering why I never heard of him.
It wasn’t until MoonPie asked why oh why was I checking out The Magicians for the fifth time that I resolved to read this thing once and for all. Wasn’t about to commit to the whole trilogy, but I was going to read this book or drive MoonPie to madness trying.
All I knew going in was that the author could carry a witty conversation and the story had something to do with magic. See, I broke the title’s cryptic code. Despite our rocky beginning, I had high hopes for this. Not since Harry Potter has a book kept me up reading until 4 am. The Magicians did not keep me up, but I’m proud to say I read the whole thing this time AND remember doing so.
The story begins in my neighborhood of Park Slope Brooklyn. Quentin’s walking around sick with love for his best friend’s girlfriend Julie. He doesn’t like living in Brooklyn and that’s probably why I kept putting this book down. I don’t need a novel reminding me how hard it is. Anyway, Quentin’s interview with a Princeton alumni doesn’t go so well. As in it doesn’t happen because the man is dead. Quentin finds the corpse and leaves with a package that has his name on it. One minute it’s a cold fall day and he’s chasing a mysterious piece of paper in a weedy community garden and the next he’s in Upstate New York and it’s summer.
Like other high school kids his age who’ve arrived from all over the country, he’s there to take a test. Pass and he skips normal college to learn to be a magician at Brakebills. Fail and he returns home with no recollection of the school and test and magical things he saw. If he didn’t pass, this would be a very short book and it’s not.
At first I assumed this would have a similar structure to Harry Potter books in that the story would march through the first academic school year. Wrong. Quentin is through his five years at Brakebills halfway through this book. There he meets his first love and makes the kind of competitive friends that give him and his magic an extra boost. Then he graduates the school a young adult without, like many areas of study, a clear What Next.
It’s satisfying to get half way into a book with no idea what’s going to happen but an insatiable desire to know. I like books set in college and would’ve been happy to spend more time reading about what it means to study actual magic sans illusion and deception. The major plus is that by reading through Quentin’s schooling in the express lane, Potter comparisons stop halfway through this first book. Now there’s open road ahead and who knows what’s coming.
I see why people love this book. Grossman writes magic well and mostly refrains from frills. I think I would’ve liked it more if Quentin and friends didn’t come across as over-privileged brats handed a life of magic. Also, there’s a wasteland of reading despair right smack in the middle. All the drugging, sex, drinking and ‘tudes went on and on and on. It read like an unnecessary, strained effort to stamp this story edgy, differentiating itself from kid-friendly magic novels.
The wasteland eventually picks up some plot, but the damage was done for me. Where the first half had me mesmerized, the second was a tedious slog. I’d completely lost interest by what turned out to be the climax. So I went back and read the last few chapters again. Ehhhhhhh [translation: my tongue is out].
It sounds like Syfy is developing a show based on the trilogy. It’s nice to see more fantasy books given a second life on screen. Me and this trilogy need some time apart. I’ll read the other two books eventually because I do want to know what happens. That’s something.