February 3rd, 2020

Books

The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

I read Codex (Grossman's novel before this one) about a decade or so ago, and hated it with a burning fiery passion and swore off ever reading anything else by him, particularly as I had vaguely osmosed from the premise + this being more or less the theme of Codex that The Magicians was going to be essentially "everything you love was a mistake and also life is a pointless barrel of suck."

But I decided to try the books after reading approximately a million pieces of meta about the show and its terrible life choices last summer, and I have now discovered that I was about a million percent wrong about this book and its general themes. I loved it. I didn't love everything about it, but on the whole I found this book delightful, and delightful in many ways that were 180 degrees opposed to what I was expecting.

I think what I was most wrong about was that I had expected this book to be pointedly tearing down the entire Harry Potter/Narnia/portal fantasy genre - I went into it braced for it to be a book whose purpose is to make you ashamed of loving portal fantasy - and it's literally the opposite of that. This is a book clearly written by someone who loves portal fantasy, but is also working through that thing that happens when you grow up and start to recognize the feet of clay in the books you loved as a child and the people who wrote them.

The basic theme of the book isn't "portal fantasy sucks and loving it makes you naive"; it's "wherever you go, there you are." A magic world isn't going to fix your problems because what you get out of it is in large part what you bring to it. It's not a magic bullet to fix your problems; it's just ... the world. It is what it is: beautiful and terrible and magic and full of wonder. You'll still be miserable in paradise if you don't fix what's making you miserable first. And yes, growing up means you'll have to recognize the problematic elements in the books and authors you loved when you were a kid, but the wonder is still there; it's still okay to love them, just with a more nuanced appreciation of the good and bad.

I think going into it with a general idea of where it was going (in vague terms) was also helpful, since I kinda generally knew that magic school and Knockoff Narnia were going to turn out to be a lot darker than the protagonist is expecting, so I think rather than being thrown by it, I was relieved it ended up being actually less dark than I was braced for. I also knew ahead of time which characters not to get too attached to Collapse ) Plus knowing that there are more books and having a (very vague) idea of how everything turns out helped with the ".... but wait" of realizing how much isn't explained and how often characters just meander in and out of the plot and are never heard from again with their story only half finished.

It's also a book that's steeped in incredibly charming detail with a lot more humor than I was expecting (even in the middle of the book's darker half, I must have giggled for a full minute at the line about Enthouse, the tree porn magazine). I found the first and last parts of the book more engaging than the somewhat depressing and draggy middle, but on the whole I really loved it. I'm not sure if I would have also enjoyed it at the age when I hated Codex so much, when I was a somewhat less cynical person, but I think it happened to resonate for me now in a particular way: it's essentially a book about coping with the disillusionment of the world not being what you wanted it to be, and figuring out how to navigate through that and find your own meaning and be happy with the imperfect world rather than waiting forever for a perfect version to come along. And this very pointedly does not have to involve giving up on magic; it just means learning to accept that magic is going to be flawed and imperfect too. I think it was abundantly clear to me, especially in the Narnia sections, how beautiful and fascinating the magic world truly is, and how much Quentin's depression and self-hatred are influencing what he gets out of it.

I was completely baffled that apparently a lot of book readers hate Quentin until I got to the middle of the book and then I was like "....oh, okay, I get it now." XD At 17, he's sweet but self-absorbed and obsessed with the opposite sex in that awkward teenager way. At 22, he's ... still the same, and it's a lot less charming on a 20-something than on a teenager. I did genuinely like him and feel for him all the way to the end, especially because of certain spoilerthings Collapse ). But yeah, I found him relatable as a teen and progressively less relatable as he continued to fail to grow up. The book does a great job of depicting the clumsy flailing towards adulthood of adolescence, the falling in and out of friendship and love that is the college experience, but then they got out of college and were still like that and I started finding them harder to like, though it picked up again toward the end.

Despite its charming elements and humor, this would still be a pretty depressing book overall if it weren't for the last two pages. You know how some books can be lifted or shattered by the strength of their ending? This is one of those. The ending actually made me cry. It ends on not only an absolutely wonderful image but also an emotional kick in the teeth that I really, really loved.

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So yeah, I loved this book far more than I was expecting, and I'm looking forward to diving into the next one.

It also makes me EVEN MORE baffled that the show did the thing that it did, because Collapse )

EDIT: Aaaand the comments are now full of future-book spoilers, so I've turned off comment email notifs on this post and am neither reading nor checking comments anymore. Feel free to continue discussing things, but be aware that I am not monitoring comments here anymore. If things go massively sideways, someone please tell me.

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