Warning: Contains Spoilers
I wasn’t going to write a review of this book because I didn’t think it was very good (or sufficiently bad to warrant excoriating). However, when someone as high profile in the literary world as Lev Grossman (he’s the senior book critic for Time) writes a fantasy novel it attracts all sorts of attention that a similar book by an unknown writer would not receive. Consequently teh intrawebs are abuzz, and I thought I’d better say something.
I should note to begin with that I’m by no means going with the herd in thinking the book is poor. Liz Hand loved it. Liz is a good friend, and I always place great store by what she says about books, but in this case I’m going to side more with another friend and expert reviewer, Matt Cheney, who summed up the book as, “a fun idea not very well executed overall, but entertaining sometimes.”
I should start by saying that Grossman didn’t have much chance as far as I was concerned because he opted for a literary sub-genre that I’m not at all fond of. There’s a certain type of novel that features as its leading character a whiny, self-obsessed male that no girl in her right mind would saddle herself with, who spends most of the book whining in a self-obsessed way that he can’t get a girl. I suspect that this type of book appeals particularly to a certain type of… well, you can guess. The Magicians is just such a book. Even when Quentin Coldwater does manage to get a girl, he messes the relationship up because he’s much more interested in having a girl than in the girl herself. Such books do not appeal to me.
But rather more importantly for our purposes, The Magicians is a (marketed as) mainstream novel by a high profile literary critic that unashamedly includes fantasy elements and is consequently going to be seen by other literary critics as typical of what fantasy is all about. As a result it attracts reviews such as this one in the New York Times in which Michael Agger gets to look down his nose at fantasy readers. I found out about the review when Cat Valente fumed about it on Twitter, and Jeff VanderMeer was apparently so incensed that Evil Monkey had to smack him around a bit.
A lot of this is, I suspect, Grossman’s fault. To start with the Michael Aggers of this world are bound to have been annoyed by Grossman’s trumpeting of the cause of genre literature in the Wall Street Journal. Also, the book isn’t a very good fantasy. And worst of all it pretty much hands Agger his argument on a plate.
What do I mean by the statement that the book isn’t a very good fantasy? Well to start with one of the classic features of genre literature is a driving plot. The Magicians is something of a page turner in many places, but it becomes clear very early on that the plot is entirely in the control of the author and has not a lot to do with the characters or the story. Most of the book is a long sequence of things happening to Quentin that move his life in particular directions, and when he does act of his own accord things almost always turn out badly for no apparent reason other than that the author wanted them to. A classic example is the whole affair of The Beast. There must be lots of mis-cast spells every day in a magic school. That that particular mis-cast spell should precipitate disaster was purely a question of making the plot work and giving Quentin yet another reason to feel sorry for himself.
This is the sort of thing you get in bad quest novels. The characters are jerked hither and yon by the author and the reader can see the strings being pulled. All that was missing was The Map. At times I even got the feeling that the characters were changing personality to suit the needs of the plot. Penny in particular never made sense to me.
The other thing that a good fantasy has to have is good world building. Grossman doesn’t appear to have put a lot of thought into his. He’s more interested in recycling themes from his favorite fantasy books than making a consistent and believable world of his own. The book begins well enough with Quentin getting a mysterious invitation to try out for a special school hidden away in update New York: Dean Henry Fogg’s School for Gifted Youngsters, perhaps. Except it isn’t anything like the Xavier school, it is a silly pastiche of an English private school at which college-age kids are required to wear hideous school uniforms and everyone goes round pretending to be at somewhere like Eton. It could possibly have been an interesting satire on the English upper classes, if it wasn’t for the fact that it is set in America. Grossman even acknowledges the problem when he describes the Fillory novels of Christopher Plover thus, “Only an American Anglophile could have created a world as definitively English, more English than England, as Fillory.” The same goes for The Magicians.
So Brakebills, the school for magicians that Quentin attends, is marked down as being a full of bunch of pathetic Americans playing at being upper class English. And yet this school apparently churns out large numbers of high-powered magicians, as do several other schools around the world (Brakebills, it appears from its performance at inter-college sports, is the weakest of them). These magicians are powerful enough to never have to work in their lives, to be able to worm their way into the corridors of power in great nations, and yet most people don’t know about them and there are no magical wars. I just don’t buy it. It comes across as silly. And to someone like Michael Agger that’s going to mark the whole of fantasy fiction out as silly.
Then there is Fillory itself. Plenty of writers have produced “magic is real after all” novels in which adult characters from our world travel to magical realms and get involved in their politics. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry is an example, and though it is by no means his best work it is far more believable than The Magicians. The trick here is that the magical world has to be capable of being taken seriously. Grossman doesn’t do this. Fillory is Narnia, full of talking animals, the sort of simplistic politics that you would put in a book for children, and inevitable echoes of Lewis’s religious message, which Grossman tramps all over and derides, making Fillory seem even more silly.
When we do get actual action in Fillory it is framed as a bad Dungeons & Dragons adventure. If Grossman had been arguing that it happened that way because that’s what his characters expected I might have bought this. Indeed, I spent much of the book expecting Quentin to wake up and discover the whole thing had been a dream. I might have enjoyed the book more if he had, but Grossman was insistent that his world was all real, no matter how daft it sounded.
Finally we have Quentin himself, who like Thomas Covenant is hugely powerful, reluctant to use his power, and by authorial dictate destined to screw up whenever he does so. Except that, unlike Covenant, Quentin has no leprosy to excuse himself. He’s just a stupendously intelligent and talented teenager from a privileged background who can’t cope with life and pines for the safe, magical comfort of Fillory where animated plushies go around looking after him and giving him fun adventures in which he gets to be a hero without ever having to take risks.
Liz is, I think, spot on when she compares The Magicians to M. John Harrison’s classic novel, The Course of the Heart. Mike’s book, which is the novel I normally name when asked for my favorite fantasy work, is also about a bunch of inadequate people fleeing from reality. It is an anti-fantasy novel that rails against the idea of fantasy as consolation. But it never tries to be anything else. Beyond that something awful happened when the central characters got involved with the supposed magician, Yaxley, Mike never suggests that magic is in any way real. It is simply something that the characters long for.
In contrast Grossman makes it very clear that magic is real, and is practiced by just the sort of serial failures that Harrison’s book warns us against becoming. In many ways the fairly obvious references to famous works of fantasy make it clear that Grossman is celebrating fantasy fiction. Yet at the same time he is apparently saying that the people who read it are a bunch of sad cases who can’t cope with reality. Agger focuses in unerringly on a key quote from Dean Fogg: “Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?” Apparently not, because even if magic is real the people who can do it are still going to be childish and inadequate.
Maybe what Fogg meant by this is that a man who can cast a spell doesn’t have to grow up. But he should know better than that. No matter how good you are, there is always something out there you can pit yourself against. A good school should prepare its pupils for that eventuality. But Quentin never does grow up. The author won’t let him.
It is, of course, entirely unfair of the fantasy community to expect Grossman to fly the flag for us. He has his own career to run; he doesn’t have to represent us in any way. But at the same time his success as a literary critic, and his own outspokenness, is bound to make him look like a leader of the fantasy community to other people. I don’t want to complain. I’d just like Grossman to writer better books (and there is plenty in The Magicians to suggest that he can). But at the same time I can’t get upset about Agger, because he’s only recycling what Grossman served up to him.