Disappointingly Not Spellbinding

There is a book I had back in high school whose title I have now forgotten. I only remember three things about it today: the first being that its cover is lavender, the next being that it is among the first books I actively despised, and the last one is the fact that I hated it largely due to the fact that I felt it shamelessly ripped off The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I have tried to search extensively for the said book in writing this post, maybe for old times, but mostly for plain writer’s diligence. But no luck. I don’t find it listed anywhere when I search for works inspired by Narnia although, admittedly, given the little that I remember about it, I only skim through the lists looking for a thumbnail that is mostly lavender and hoping that if I come across its title it will scream familiarity at me.

I no longer have it in my bookshelves. Aside from being (possibly) the first book I actively despised, I bet it is also the first book I actively let go. I remember trading it with my sister for G. P. Taylor’s Wormwood, a trade I do not regret at all. So unfortunately, if we really want that book named in here we are relying pretty much on chance, that I will come across (and recognize) the title, or maybe that I could get my hands across a working copy of the book inventory I assembled then, but I think we’ll have better luck reversing the damages of 2016 within the next month. But I am woolgathering too much. Just keep in mind that, going forward, we will just name the book I traded for Wormwood as The Lavender Chronicles.

Fast forward to today, I no longer read young adult novels as much as I used to. There is room for it in my reading list every now and then but I mostly find them not as satisfying as I had before, cliched and repetitive as they are. If I end up reading a YA novel, you can bet that I have been persuaded into reading it (heck, shelling out money and allocating precious shelf space) by a very good endorsement1. And so it is that, back in MIBF 2016, I found myself buying a copy of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

YA is not bad but if you can tell what's funny with this picture and take it with good humor, then you've matured as a reader. Image found from all over the internet.
YA is not bad but if you can tell what’s funny with this picture and take it with good humor, then you’ve matured as a reader. Image found from all over the internet.

First off, what endorsed the novel to me are the smattering of mentions it gets over at io9 which is largely thanks to the SyFy series that adopted the books. The impression I got with it is that it is a work which borrows elements from YA but is, ultimately, not afraid of tackling adult issues. Think Harry Potter if only it did not have to grow alongside its fan base, if it was written with the conscious maturity of the later books from the get go, and maybe even with more conscious maturity at that.

GRRM on The Magicians

The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. … Grossman’s sensibilities are thoroughly adult, his narrative dark and dangerous and full of twists. Hogwarts was never like this.”

George R. R. Martin as a featured review quoted in my copy of The Magicians.

See what I mean?

To get the mandatory plot overview out of the way, The Magicians tells the story of Quentin a boy who discovers he could do magic and so ends up studying in Brakebills, a boarding school for (surprise! surprise!) magic. In Brakebills he meets a group of upperclassmen who, after Brakebills, goes with him to Fillory, a place which they only knew as a fantasy land from a series of children’s novels which most, if not all, of them are familiar with.

The whole of The Magicians is divided into a handful of “books”, as marked within the novel2. It should be telling that I managed to distill its plot, all 400 pages of it, into two long sentences. By my estimate, the relatively-shorter Atonement got a better actual-words-to-Chad-summary ratio.

All this, is my very-long-winded way of saying that The Magicians is giving The Lavender Chronicles a good competition in terms of leaving me dissatisfied.

Grossman proudly wears his influences on his sleeves and, as such, comparisons to both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia is impossible to avoid. So let me start outlining my criticism with what I think is the innate flaw of The Magicians and compare it with its obvious influences: its world building.

Tolkien purists3 might scoff that I am calling out someone’s constructed world by comparing it to Harry Potter, it in itself is quite flawed and would collapse under its own weight if you take the implications beyond a British (with a few other European additions) setting. But that would just tell you how unimpressed I am by The Magicians. Almost from the get-go, The Magicians hand-waves its magic (irony, not lost on me) and tells you to pay no attention to it:

“This is not to say that we understand magic…we do not and cannot understand what magic is, or where it comes from, any more than a carpenter understands why a tree grows. He doesn’t have to. He works with what he has.”

~Professor March, in a Brakebills lecture.

And yet, throughout the book, practice of magic is laced with references to Circumstances and other vague allusions to calculations a magician must take into account before performing a spell. The outcome is that The Magicians finds itself stuck in an awkward zone where it attempts to ignore how to do magic and yet giving just enough details about what Quentin is doing so as to lend its telling some plausibility. And it never–never–quite works out.

The fact that The Magicians tries to fast track Quentin’s magical education does not really help. Whereas details of magic in Harry Potter is subtly built up and reinforced across seven books, Grossman, instead, treats us to an exposition disguised as plot. For instance, we are no more than a few months into Quentin’s first year in Brakebills when he, with a couple other classmates, is chosen to advance to the second year. This leads us to a few chapters where all Quentin does is study for the advance placement exam, where our takeaway should be that gosh magic is really hard.

This is the show-don’t-tell rule abused. We are shown how Quentin studies hard night after night after night but the whole set-up lacked subtlety and foreshadowing in the first place that it does not work out. The fact that Quentin gets the possibility of breezing through several months of magical education feels like a cheap shot and we have not established enough rapport with his two other (lucky?) companions to even care if they pass or not.

(There are many more instances of The Magicians being inconsistent with its world building, which I would touch on when discussing other things. But just to give another example, much is made about the Circumstances a magician must take into account before performing spells but, under duress, people just cast spells with little regard to Circumstance and with little to no obvious consequence.)

Which leads me to my next grievance against The Magicians: its treatment of its characters. I am inclined to think that this is a side-effect of the fact that Quentin’s five-year education is compressed to what is barely just half of the book. But I am more inclined to believe that there is fast-tracking a period of a character’s life, and then there is lazy writing where you haphazardly throw characters into the narrative for one reason or another. The Magicians is full of the latter.

In one instance, one of Quentin’s classmates is named only so she can be killed off a few pages later, an event which Grossman tries to impress heavily on his readers. But having mentioned her only in passing a few pages back, I hope I do not appear callous if I say I just don’t give a damn. When she died she is just another name to me, sure a classmate of Quentin’s but other than that…what? Without spoiling anything, this death serves to add weight for the book’s twist but the banality of who died robs the twist of some of its gravity. No amount of telling me about Quentin’s remorse, or of toasts held for their fallen classmate, could give this name the actual character that would have made her death matter for the reader.

In another case which sticks out sorely, Quentin, for no other reason than just because, takes a walk with a couple other Brakebills students. In this walk Quentin is introduced to welters–Grossman’s version of Quidditch/gobstones/wizard chess, though given this scene’s allusion to broomsticks I think what he’s going for is pretty clear–but like magic in general the rules are not really spelled out only for welters to figure quite prominently in one of the later arcs.

But (not) introducing welters is not the point of this walk, no. Grossman made Quentin take this walk so that someone with a grievance against Quentin could burst out the door as they returned and engage Quentin in a good old fistfight. (And for the record, no allusion was made before that this character had a grudge against Quentin.) The purpose of this fistfight is so that the Brakebills Dean could inform Quentin (and the reader) that, had they used magic while fighting, it was quite possible for their magic to consume them, turning them into less-than-human sprites called niffins. The reader will be grateful for this information twice later in the book: once when an urban legend involving someone who became a niffin is discussed, and once more, near the end, when, for the first time, someone is punished for not double checking on their emotions as they did magic.

(In case you were wondering what happened to those two other Brakebills student…well, nothing. One was just there to give a non-explainer about welters while the other one was just there to say he hates welters and prompt them to go back inside, allowing the fistfight to ensue, so we could discuss niffins. Heck it would seem it was not even them who broke up the altercation. At least they were not killed shortly after being named.)

And what really frustrated me as I read through The Magicians is in how often Quentin finds himself aimless. Having tried writing a few novels myself, I understand that you will often run into a wall where you have no idea how to get the plot to achieve your plans. One way of hacking around these mental blocks is to make your character want something, anything. Be that a glass of water or the next horcrux. Just. Make. Them. Want. Now obviously, it is easy to produce something inelegant with this technique but you know what’s worse? Flat out admitting to your reader that you(r main character) do(es) not know what happens next, so you just wax whimsical about a book inside your world which the main character has read as a kid.

And that’s exactly what Quentin does when he feels stuck and aimless, which is often! Now, maybe you can argue that these times where Quentin feels stuck and aimless are the “adult” parts of The Magicians. Maybe. But whenever Quentin starts wishing he was in Fillory (recall: Grossman’s version of Narnia) instead of wherever the heck he currently is, I, in turn, end up wishing I was reading Narnia instead of this shit.

In the scant instances where Quentin actually has a goal in mind, the narrative manages to collapse in other ways, mostly due to the lack of inked limits in Grossman’s world. I already mentioned how not calculating Circumstances had little to no bearing. But even more crucial is in how we have no clear idea what magic can and can’t do. This lack of limits obscures the options and risks Quentin (or some other character) may have at the moment. Knowing a character can’t do something is part of the climax, adding glamour to their victory, and frustration to their failure. Grossman’s set-up, especially while the characters are in Brakebills, makes it difficult to attach glamour or frustration to either their victories or defeats.

All my points so far does not mean that all the praises which made me buy The Magicians in the first place, are false advertising. Post-Brakebills (aka, the latter half of the book) pits Quentin and company against issues of adulthood and they are, I’m relieved to say, sensible treatments at last. Grossman subverts the genre of magical adventurers discovering magical lands by showing us how his characters remain victims of daily inanity, victims of routine, despite the Grand Adventure thrust into them. Grossman even waddles into the muddy waters of adult relationships, showing them as the messy tangle of lines that they are. This is not Ron and Hermione playing jealous with each other, nor Harry failing absurdly with Cho Chang, nor Ginny in a wild schoolgirl crush on The Boy Who Lived. Quentin and company ends up in a game of who-slept-with-who, trapping them in a messy web of intrigue. Finally, Quentin and company feels strongly about something.

But alas, we are not reading a contemporary Great American Novel, addressing the issues of adulthood through the lens of its oft-derided millenials. Even at its peak, The Magicians is haunted by its poor world-building and haphazard character encounters if maybe at this point already forgivable. It is ultimately framed by its fantasy backdrop and, as such, would keep running as a fantasy novel. There is no running away from that, for better and for worse.

Setting aside the slight hand-waving of how Quentin and friends managed to keep up their easygoing lifestyle at the start of the book’s later half, their adventure to Fillory finally starts to distance The Magicians with its influences. Grossman’s allusions to The Chronicles of Narnia can’t be missed but, at the same time, Fillory is better-constructed as an analogue to Narnia, in contrast to how Brakebills is an analogue to Hogwarts. Fillory is what Narnia would be, were it not so biblical, for lack of better term. Freed from the burden of trying to get a Christian thought-experiment (or allegory, depending on how you want to look at it) across, Grossman can paint Fillory darkly and subvert more tropes of the magical land genre.

At this point, Grossman’s writing starts to tighten up, making it difficult to critique without giving away spoilers. Reading this latter half gives the impression that The Magicians is more a response to Narnia than it is to Harry Potter, that Brakebills was just one whole set-up for this book’s actual point. In Fillory, Grossman intrigues the cast with the mystery of the Chatwin children. No points for guessing they are this world’s version of the Pevensies. Finding Fillory to be more than fantasy after all, is it not then possible that the Chatwins are more than figments of an author’s imagination?

A controversial issue which people debate in Narnia is Susan Pevensie’s non-inclusion in the last book. One side would pontificate that this is misogynistic on Lewis’ part. She discovered lipsticks, they’d argue, and that makes her unsuited for your heaven now? After all this time, I still interpret it differently; that it is not sexual empowerment or glamour which left Susan behind but, quite simply, being a grown-up. You see, grown-ups were never welcome to Neverland, could never see the important things like the horror of an elephant inside a boa constrictor.

But I am going off-tangent. Grossman turns this controversial issue on its head by his portrayal of the Chatwin who won the lottery and managed to stay in Fillory. I do not think he is trying to put his two cents in the debate of Susan. He is merely showing a fresh perspective on magic lands being tantamount to paradise. Saying more would definitely spill over to spoiler territory so let me just say, boy, what a take. Makes it all the more irritating that this twist had to be entangled with the sloppily-written death earlier.

The Magicians winds down like most first books in a series. After a lengthy and tiring adventure, a damaged Quentin is left to deal with the aftermath and, for a time, returns to Brakebills, presumably giving its academe something of interest that may direct future magical research. The last handful of pages read oddly Campbellian, if subverted like Narnia. Whereas the hero with a thousand faces finds himself unable to appreciate the banality of his former, ordinary life, Quentin, on the other hand, craves it. Scarred physically and emotionally, Quentin whiles his days away as a suit doing vague leadership in some big corporation.

Until Fillory, and three of his friends, show up in his life once more, and in rather dramatic fashion too…

But in the end, this sequel set-up of a resolution is overshadowed by the problems the novel has, as I outlined earlier. There are a few more reveals after the twist which, in retrospect, do not make sense. Mysterious characters are finally unmasked, even if only partially, and yet their earlier appearance serve no purpose other than to lend an air of mystery around them. It feels like a misuse of Chekhov’s gun; yet another example of haphazard foreshadowing, as if this book needed another. Granted, an explanation might be awaiting me in the two other books of the series but if I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’m buying those.

(Finally, if you feel pissed that I had to dedicate the first few paragraphs of this review reminiscing about a book that is ultimately just used to throw shade on Grossman’s writing, well, that’s kinda the point. I hope it serves to illustrate my points in this critique better.)
  1. Which, if you are paying attention, unfortunately does not convert to a good reading experience all the time. []
  2. I am sorely tempted to go into a tirade as to why authors/publishers would demarcate sections of an actual physical book further into “books”. Why not just call them something like “Part I”, “Part II”, etc.? Unless maybe you are publishing a compilation of books bound between a single pair of covers. []
  3. Or snobs at Quora. Hee hee. []