Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Second Glance - The Magicians by Lev Grossman

What is the youngest age a person should be able to learn magic? I asked a friend this, and he told me that 17 would be a reasonable age. I disagree of course. Not just because it's so much fun to argue with him, but because the age I came up with was 12.

Not a big difference, but in the case of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, it's a pretty large gap.

I first read The Magicians back when it first came out in 2009. I've always been a geek when it comes to fantasy, and magic has always been a big part of my creative process. I read the book in three days, like just about every book I've ever read in the last decade or so. I liked it, in its own fashion, but it wasn't a book I would re-read. I even used the book on a paper I wrote in my first semester about sadism in literature.

But recently I decided to go back and take a second glance at the book, to give it a more clinical, college viewpoint to it, and the first thing I have to say is this: there is a certain age that people should no longer be able to learn they can do magic.

It's cute having kids run around waving twigs, casting magic spells at their friends and pets. To imagine that they can actually do magic, to make their wildest dreams come true. Well, that's the thing that makes imaginative fantasies about wizards so much fun. Watching a bunch of chronically depressed 17 year olds do the same, well it's a little creepy, and quite possibly deranged.

Grossman's magicians in his tales have all learned to do magic at that special age right before the birdies have been kicked out of the nest. 17 is the age where people start, or are in the middle of, finding out that they are going to have to be grown-ups full-time in a year or so. They start applying to colleges, they have jobs to help support their families, some are even in relationships planning on marriage.

Magic is supposed to be that special loophole that lets kids be kids for just a little longer. When you introduce magic to people getting ready to be adults, you are just making them regress back to children, stunting their emotional and moral growth.

This is extremely telling in The Magicians. The back cover clearly states it "Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable". It pretty much covers the entire book. You start with a character who is flawed as being almost an adult, and you give him magic, where he can solve all of his problems without having to grow up, and he never grows up at all.

The Magicians is brilliant in that it is so telling about people who refuse to grow up. The book has a part halfway through that explains that wizards are aimless because when you can do anything, you end up not wanting to do anything for it.

That being said, the worst part about the book is the aimless feeling that it has. I didn't recognize it the first time I read through it, but there really is no plot. The back cover talks about the main characters obsession with the magical land of Fillory (a knock off of Narnia, if a bit darker, if I've ever seen one), but this doesn't actually come up until the back half of the book. The part about magic school is more interesting, but in the five years that Quentin is actually there, only about two years worth of schooling is actually described. The last two years he's there they don't even talk about the classes, they just go over Quentin's love life and time with his friends. Even when they do get to Fillory, the time they spend there is more like a corridor someone walks down to get to another corridor.

The book's back cover talks a lot about different aspects of the book, but in the end, there was really no plot. Even the antagonist is so random in the end that you would imagine that he ran out of ideas at the last minute. It all had the feeling that there was a plot from another side, one not explained, involved in the writing that the main character (and indeed, even the reader) wasn't privy to.

All in all, the book was a wonderful example from a psychological viewpoint of age regression in early adulthood, but as far as an adventure fantasy/urban fantasy, The Magicians was definitely worth a second glance, but probably not worth a third. Now The Magician King...

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