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Larry.

Lev Grossman, The Magicians trilogy (spoiler tags used for third book, The Magician's Land)

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From my blog's review of The Magicians:

When he left Brakebills for New York, Quentin had expected to be knocked down and ravished by the sheer gritty reality of it all: going from the jeweled chrysalis of Brakebills to the big, messy, dirty city, where real people led real lives in the real world and did real work for real money. And for a couple of weeks he had been. It was definitely real, if by real you meant non-magical and obsessed with money and amazingly filthy. He had completely forgotten what it was like to be in the mundane world all the time. Nothing was enchanted: everything was what it was and nothing more. Every conceivable surface was plastered with words - concert posters, billboards, graffiti, maps, signs, warning labels, alternate-side parking regulations - but none of it meant anything, not the way a spell did. At Brakebills every square inch of the House, every brick, every bush, every tree, had been marinated in magic for centuries. Here, out in the world, raw unmodified physics reigned, and mundanity was epidemic. It was like a coral reef with the living vital meaning bleached out of it, leaving nothing but an empty colored rock behind. To a magician's eyes, Manhattan looked like a desert (p. 226)

It is dangerous to judge a book by its cover...or by its cover blurbs. Too often, the unwary reader may be burnt by the platitudes or by the comparisons. Too often readers are suckered in by the blurbs about how Book X is like Book Y, just more of it and perhaps even better. Too often, these comparisons are very shallow and the reader often feels cheated. However, the opposite can occur. Jaded readers can react to the praise with a "So what? I'm not buying that crap," and their negative reactions to the blurbage can hurt their understanding of a novel.

Lev Grossman's The Magicians is one of those novels that will likely generate a plethora of responses from both camps. There will be those who will be drawn in by the comparisons to Narnia or to Harry Potter, only to discover that it is something else altogether by its end. There are others who will view such comparisons as being a sign that the book is trying to leach off of the success of those books and thus they will focus overmuch on the similarities and not enough on how Grossman plays with reader preconceptions.

But none of this really discusses what the novel is. The long passage quoted at the top is meant to give a sense of one of the book's dominant themes, that of how "fantasy" means much more than just magicial vistas and wondrous experiences; the word also refers to the illusions that we create or come to believe in; the traps that our desires and self-pity may lay for us; the notion that what is "real" and what is "fantasy" can be conflated in ways that are dangerous and transformative. This I believe lies near, if not at, the heart of The Magicians.

The book covers a little over five years of time, from protagonist Quentin Coldwater's odd and sudden admission into the Brakehills School for Magic through graduation, post-graduate ennui, to a very real and terrifying encounter with a magical land, Fillory, that Quentin had hoped for years was a "real" place. For some, Brakehills might, with its traditions, separate branches of study, and even its special sport, might seem like a carbon copy of Hogwarts transferred to an American collegiate setting. The surface similarities are not an accident; I suspect Grossman purposely wanted to create the illusion of something "familiar" so he could then deconstruct it. There are certain events through the lengthy Part I (which comprises just over half of the novel) that show the consequences of believing that magic is somehow "safe" and that by practicing magic, the practitioners would somehow be aloof from the concerns of the world.

Instead, Grossman explores the consequences of trying to fit in, of how adolescents explore their environs in ways that may be self-destructive. His depictions of Quentin and his cohorts, several of whom come to have vivid, distinct personalities despite the overwhelming focus being on Quentin's self-discovery, read more like a modern form of The Catcher in the Rye than like anything to be found in magical school novels like the Harry Potter stories. While some may find Quentin's brooding and self-loathing to be a bit much, I found myself being reminded of my own experiences in college and of those who were my friends and acquaintances. This led to a connection with the characters that deepened as the story expanded from the Brakehills setting into post-graduation life in New York in Part II and then in the final parts, to Fillory and its aftermath.

Grossman's story subtly expanded its scope as it progressed. After all, a good portion of what young adults learn in life is not learned at school and the lessons that Quentin and his friends learned were, in many respects, devastating. This was not a "safe" story, nor did Grossman tell it in a "safe" fashion. The characters swear, they fuck, they betray and are betrayed, and their various self-illusions ultimately are stripped from them. It is an uncompromising view of adolescence and the lessons that so many adolescents learn as they mature into adults. The scars that are given in this story are graphic; this is not a novel for those who want an "escape" from certain uncomfortable facets of human existence.

Although some might find the prose to be a bit uneven at times, I found for the majority of the time that the descriptive, almost florid scenes, such as the one quoted above, served to accentuate the emotions that Quentin was experiencing. Grossman varies the pace and structure of his sentences and paragraphs well, creating a sense that the character's thoughts were as haphazard as the prose appeared to be at first glance. It added to the experience and I rarely felt that Grossman was lingering too long in one place or rushing through to get to the finale.

Speaking of the "finale," the story ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. The damage has been leveled and the recupuration appears to be set to begin. Such endings are tricky ones, as they can leave the reader feeling dissatisfied, wondering if the 400 page novel were but a prologue, but for me, the novel felt as though I had read of one youth's survival of his previous life and self and that the stage was now set for an interesting character study that would play off of the fantasy tropes that had been explored over the course of this first novel. I am eager to see what lies in store for Quentin and his friends after their experiences. I can't help but want to see how the characters will grow after their harrowing adventures and their losses. C'est la vie, no?

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I'm probably ordering this along Dust of Dreams this week. I usually need a lighter companion for Erikson and King's The Gunslinger is too short to fill the role.

Interesting review.

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I've found an excerpt on the Penguin site, this looks pretty good.

Abercrombie, Rothfuss and GRRM have read it and all 3 praise it very highly.

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I've found an excerpt on the Penguin site, this looks pretty good.

Abercrombie, Rothfuss and GRRM have read it and all 3 praise it very highly.

Except good writers don't necessarily make good readers.

I found it a bit meh. Started out strong but Grossman just never followed through despite on great moment almost halfway through that seemed to actually have the writer commit and take the story to where he seemed to want it to go. One huge problem was the fact that he never once sold me on the fantasy world/series that is the lynchpin to the series. Oh there was an almost horrifically delightful melange of Narnia meets Middle Earth while attending Hogwarts and following the White Rabbit to the Mad Hatter's tea party. But it never came alive in any of the ways Grossman needed it to for this to work for me.

First the main character seems too detached and no where near the committed fan he is supposed to be. I don't care whether he dresses up like a character; not for Halloween but say jury duty. I don't car eif he frequents fan websites or writes slash fiction with characters with impossible anatomical differences still rocking the casbah. But I know fantasy series fan in all kinds of shapes and sizes and nothing about the main character said this was a fan. Or even just someone clinging to a childhood favorite series long past the expiration date.

Second, the world itself never resonated. I'm not saying Grossman needed to flesh out the fantas world, but I did want him to make me feel it was fleshed out, vibrant and captivating for this character. I think Grossman was hampered by trying to show how cleverly mature he as an author was and yet still trying to explore what is pretty much accepted social geekdom in liking a fantasy series as much as the character was suppose to like it. What could have been either homage or satire instead was overly self-aware and contrivedly detached. Or just plain blah.

Third the actual climax seemed cramped and over rushed. By the time the end came I really did not care. And yet I was supposed to be invested. Instead we had a hurry, hurry it must end type wrap up that seemed like Grossman desperately wanted to show, again, how adult and almost beyond it all he was, even as he hoped to parlay his own work into such a series.

There was decent writing and I got it free back when the arcs came out and there was probalby quite a few pending books waiting for me to get done. Free another round and I'd take my second Grossman. Go out and buy? Nah. Barely good was my take and I don't care what writer gives it the quivering loins up.

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Well I agree that what writers like is not indicative of what I myself might like, even when 3 authors whose work I rate very highly do so in similar fashion.

But I liked the excerpt and I like what I read in some reviews, though I share the concern about whether or not what he is trying to do and trying to say will not overshadow the story itself.

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In her review for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, (which Dylanfanatic linked to over at SFFWorld) Elizabeth Hand describes it as "Harry Potter as it might have been written by John Crowley.", which makes it a definite sell for me, even if the review is far from uniformly positive.

Little, Big is an amazing novel, but I would have enjoyed it more if it had been a bit livelier and if the prose is anywhere near as good as Crowley's and if the story shows some of the playfulness and liveliness of Harry Potter, it sounds like really interesting.

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In her review for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, (which Dylanfanatic linked to over at SFFWorld) Elizabeth Hand describes it as "Harry Potter as it might have been written by John Crowley.", which makes it a definite sell for me, even if the review is far from uniformly positive.
Yeah, I just something about that on her blog yesterday:

For those of you near a radio, I'm featured (a small feature) in a piece on NPR this afternoon (4 PM EST) about a new novel by Lev Grossman (not, alas, MY novel, but a very good one!). This is from the NPR producer who interviewed me:

"Okay, barring late breaking news of catastrophic nature, my story on "The Magicians" is running on All Things Considered tonight. They didn't tell me when, but in all likelihood, it will run in the last quarter hour of one of the two hours, either 4:45-5PM ET, or 5:45-6PM ET. And then it will be online at NPR.org forever after 7PM tonight."

If Liz likes it, I'm sure I will too.

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My roommate dropped this on my desk yesterday. I'll probably give it a go over the next few weeks.

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The brilliant but unambitious Quentin Coldwater is uncertain what to do with his life when he is offered a highly unusual opportunity: to study real, honest-to-gosh magic at Brakebills, a college devoted to the magical arts. He seizes the opportunity with both hands, and finds himself thrust into a strange new life that is by turns rewarding and terrifying...

The Magicians has picked up a fair amount of applause from various bloggers, reviewers and authors this year, and has been cited as an 'antidote' to Harry Potter. The comparison is apt, since it features a young man going to a magical school, but at the same time also misleading. Quentin is 17 when the story begins, so the story is more adult-oriented and features more late-teenage angst than the Potter books (which may be saying something, considering the last couple of books in the series). In addition, although Grossman tips his hat with a direct reference to Potter at one point, he seems to much more be influenced by C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series. A large chunk of the storyline focuses on Quentin's boyhood love of a fictional series of novels called the 'Fillory and Further' books, which are clearly derived from the Narnia books.

It's an interesting novel which packs quite a lot into its length. In fact, Quentin's four-and-a-half years at Brakebills pass in a brisk 220 pages, although with plenty of pauses for character development and some good writing, and he still has time for a big storyline after that as well involving interdimensional travel and a traditional climatic battle.

Grossman's constant challenging of the comfort-reading status of crossover fantasies such as Narnia or Harry Potter is intriguing, although in some cases sends out a mixed message. Looking at some other reviews, a lot of readers came away from the book with the impression that Quentin's problems stem from reading a lot of fantasy fiction, which I'm pretty sure was not what Grossman was aiming for. There is also a problem in that Quentin is someone who has decent (if distant) parents, an okay upbringing, a fantastic schooling opportunity and a rich and interesting future, but spends the whole time moping about how crap his life is. True to life for a teenage character? Maybe. But it gets pretty old, especially later on in the book when Quentin is in his early twenties and should really be getting a grip by that point. Sympathising with such an arrogant character is difficult and as we are on Quentin's shoulder for the whole book (it's written in limited-perspective third-person, bizarrely except for one single sentence where we swap to another character for a few seconds), this is a constant issue.

Grossman employs a straightforward prose style with some nice flourishes, but he has an issue with getting information across clearly. Sometimes characters vanish from scenes for paragraphs at a time until you think they're not there any more (or indeed, in one case a major character's presence at an event is not mentioned at all, despite them referencing it later) only for them to suddenly start talking. This is welded to a number of what appear to be 'orphaned' storylines. At least twice events take place that seem to be hooks into further plot developments (Quentin discovers a new form of magic shooting out of his fingers and later has a problem with a childhood friend who discovers the real nature of his school) but in both cases they are simply dropped and never referred to again, making their original inclusion apparently pointless. Very strange.

The Magicians also has a problem that by its very nature it is going to be compared to Harry Potter, which by virtue of its immense length is able to explore its storylines in much greater depth than Grossman can manage here, and to Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, which is simply more coherent and better-written (although Kvothe and Quentin share some weaknesses as protagonists). This isn't to say The Magicians is not a worthwhile read, but it is one that is treading in some very familiar ground.

The Magicians (***½) is broadly well-written and interesting, with some good ideas. However, it feels like it needed a couple more editing passes and the unrelenting grimness of the second half is wearying after a while. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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I barely understand the implied comparisons between Grossman's story and Rothfuss's. One is set in the 'real world' and seems to play off of the conflict between the 'real' and 'imagined,' while the other is set in a constructed world and doesn't seem to feature the above-mentioned conflict as a major (or even minor) plot element. I don't know if there's anything more than a surface-level comparison of the two authors that can be made on anything other than two protagonists who attended a wizard school.

The strengths/weaknesses of Grossman's prose is certainly something worth pointing out; I think some of it will depend upon what the reader enjoys to read and how said reader views fantasy fiction as a whole. Good review, though, even if I differ with you on a few minor points.

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I finished this last night. I need some time to digest it. I thought it was fairly well written if a tad confusing at times. I like the theme that no matter how far you sink into your fanatasies life is always going to find you. I also liked the "be careful what you wish for theme." In some ways I found Grossman was simply trying too hard to thrust the "adult" side of the story at the reader. I have to admit While Quentin was a very familier character he was also throughly dislikeable.

If there is a sequal, not necessary in my opinion, I'll probably read it.

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I finally wrote my review of The Magicians. It was my favourite novel of 2009 (so far):

Much fuss has been made about The Magicians, the first foray into the Fantasy genre by Lev Grossman, uber-geek, author of Codex and Senior Writer for Time magazine. The most ironic of all? The book is not being marketed as a genre novel, but rather being shelved in the Literature section at most bookstores, despite being a Fantasy novel (full of every cliché in the book) through and through.

The thing is, though, The Magicians is a good crossover novel, bridging the gap between Literature-with-a-capital-L and Fantasy, by taking the usual tropes (magic school, dysfunctional band of misfits, wizards, ‘You’re a wizard, Harry’-moments, fireballs, etc…) and throwing in all that stuff the literary folk like (sex, moral ambiguity, cocaine and whiskey, cancerous relationships, etc…). The Magicians is like Harry Potter meets The Graduate, with a little bit of Trainspotting thrown in for good measure.

Of course, general debauchery and acidic characters aren’t a magical fix-all, able to turn any Fantasy novel into a work of literary genius; but Grossman is aware of this and uses these uncomfortable literary devices as an avenue to tell a sometimes funny, sometimes painful story of young people growing up in a world they hardly understand. Like Trainspotting, The Magicians is all about Quentin’s inability to cope with the trials and travails of real life, and his constant search for Fillory, a magical world that Quentin knows will solve all his problems. As most of us know, though, finding that place rarely solves anything, rather it’s often a slippery slope, leading to bigger and more serious problems.

[...]

The main knock on The Magicians is that it’s little more than a rip-off of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, just given a fresh coat of angry red paint. This is true, in every way. Rather than hurt the novel, though, Grossman turns this into a strength by playing with the cliches and expectations set by the reader familiar with the works of Lewis and Rowling. The ‘Harry Potter’ aspects that make up the first two-thirds of the novel are much stronger than the ‘Narnia’ aspects, but this isn’t your little brother’s Harry Potter; rather it’s a sex and alcohol fuelled binge that will hit way too close to home for a lot of people. Imagine Harry Potter with a line of coke, a tumbler of bad whiskey and a cigarette burning to ashes in his hand. Oddly, despite being relieved by the change brought about in Quentin, the story loses some of its steam once the narrative shifts from our world to the storybook world. Fillory comes and goes so fast that I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been left better as an analogy for Quentin’s quest for answers, rather than an actual plot device. In the final third of the novel, the story goes from feeling like a nicely self-contained character-piece to a prologue for a much larger, more typical man-from-our-world-finds-magical-world story.

[...]

If it seems I’ve been hard on the novel, consider this: The Magicians is my favourite novel of the year. The characters are flawed and realistic, eliciting real emotion out of me, rather than telling me what fake emotions I should feel. The Magicians excels as a crossover novel because of its uncompromising nature, its ruthless insistence to deal with real world issues and its ability to use the Fantasy trappings as a setting for the story, rather than a reason for the telling. Grossman balances the sorry side of life by also revealing those genuine moments that often occur between friends. The Magicians is a multifaceted exploration of growing up, and, as Quentin learns, bringing down the Dark Lord is rarely as important as the journey to get there.

You can find the whole review HERE.

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More than halfway through this one, and I like it well enough thus far.

But it's nothing special. A book that you take with you on vacation, that's good all around and entertaining enough. But not something you'll be thinking about or discussing in a few months' time. . .

More when I'm done. . .

Patrick

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It's garbage.

A boring, cowardly book that is technically well-written and also quite dreadful.

Grossman is the head reviewer for Time magazine, and as such I would take blurbs for what they are worth -- nothing. One would be stupid to lambaste him as he deserves. I don't blame George, as this dude called him the American Tolkien.

All of these review blogs... gah. Thank Heinlein for Pat.

Grossman tried to write a Harry Potter for overprivileged wankers who go to Narnia after graduation. His characterization is poor. The only person he actually grasps and is able to write somewhat cogently is the insufferably rich New York Jew. He does a decent job writing a self-absorbed harpie with Daddy issues, but makes her a world class genius which simply does not mesh with the personality. I'm quite sure he just took it from his obviously limited experiences with females, but one can not simply transpose any random personality traits into a person with the purported mental abilities of Ender Wiggin and have the audience believe it. Basically, he writes women about as well as Robert Newcomb.

He has the balls to mention Tolkien and Rowling, but refuses to comment on Narnia, because he absolutely steals the setting for the second half of his yawn-fest. The first half of which shows promise. You end a few chapters believing that the next chapter will have what you've been waiting for, but it continues to lack.

The point of the book, or the moral if one thinks this work deserves such, is the pointlessness of narcissism. Ooooh, how original. Many a short story has been more successful at conveying what this pseudo-articulate wordsmith attempts in hundreds of pages of beveled-edge pretension.

Simply because one does not write in simple declarative sentences does not make on literary, folks. The Magicians is not worth your time or effort.

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Grossman is the head reviewer for Time magazine, and as such I would take blurbs for what they are worth -- nothing. One would be stupid to lambaste him as he deserves. I don't blame George, as this dude called him the American Tolkien.

Martin said in Finncon that he really enjoyed The Magicians. I think he was sincere.

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because he absolutely steals the setting for the second half of his yawn-fest.

Oh come on. I dunno about his comments in the publicity, but reading the book there was no question in my mind that the homage to Narnia was intentional and meant to be noticed- he couldn't have made it more obvious if the book was called 'My Homage to CS Lewis' (despite, you know, the implication that Lewis was a pedo, which I'm pretty sure was a light-hearted if sly dig). You're making out as if he's claiming originality here.

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Then he should have called it Narnia.

He actually did when he wrote and sold the book (according to a talk he gave at this past Readercon); he had something like Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan" in mind. Then the publisher's lawyers made him change those references to something "original."

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Narnia doesn't exist in Grossman's universe, Stego. It's replaced by the Fillory novels. I figured you'd be sharp enough to understand this.

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