The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I loved The Magicians.  As I said in an earlier entry, I had not been interested in reading it and knew basically nothing about it when I started, but I was sucked in within a few pages and read like a madwoman until I finished. It was engaging and full of magic and fantasy, but also felt grounded and modern. Calling it Harry Potter Says Motherfucker is really quite a good summary.

I don’t want to go into many details, because I went into the book blind and really enjoyed seeing things unfold, but it’s a very Harry Potter-like set up: a normal teenage boy discovers there is magic in the world and enters a magical boarding school. However, it differs from Harry Potter in some significant ways. First, it is an adult book and there is a fair bit of sex and drugs and violence. Second, things are far less cute than at Hogwarts; learning magic is presented as a real slog, like trying memorize endless complicated multiplication tables, and it’s made very clear that magic can’t fix everything and can’t make someone happy. And third, Grossman doesn’t let things end at graduation, so there’s a real exploration of leaving school and transitioning to the “real world.”

The other thing I really liked about the book was that for me the tone and the writing fell somewhere in between young adult and adult. I worry that this sounds like a criticism, and it’s not. It’s just that as much as I love (LOVE) young adult fantasy books, they tend to be somewhat heavy on the fantasy/moral lesson side of things (Narnia, Robin McKinley, Harry Potter himself). Adult fantasy books, on the other hand, are often so dark that the wonder of magic seems tamped down by the MISERY and UNENDING PAIN OF EXISTENCE. The authors that come to mind here are China Mieville and Octavia Butler; I like both those authors, but when I finish one of their books I generally feel the need for a stiff drink and some restorative episodes of How I Met Your Mother. The Magicians does a nice job of balancing the idea that parts of life are sad and miserable but other parts (including magic) are awesome. It also uses a traditional YA template (magical boarding school, parents who don’t understand, real evil in the world) to talk about the kind of adult issues that come up in every hipster literary novel: “Why do I do such stupid stuff sometimes? What am I doing with my life? What does it really mean to be an adult?”

Abigail Nussbaum, who I mentioned last week, hated this book. I don’t personally agree with her take–she seems to ascribe a lot of socio-economic and religious themes to what I read as primarily a coming-of-age story–but she makes some really interesting points. (Note that her review includes a lot of plot details, so you may want to wait to read it until after you’ve finished the book.)

And finally, while doing some Amazon research for this, I stumbled upon the page for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This is fairly recent children’s chapter book about a china rabbit that made me cry and cry. You think The Velveteen Rabbit is touching? That rabbit’s got nothing on Edward. This book is too much for me to ever read again, but everyone else should–it’s a surprisingly layered story about love and ego and heartbreak and personal growth. It’s got nothing to do with The Magicians, I just wanted to make sure that everyone knew it was out there.