Quentin Coldwater is an unhappy, self-absorbed, self-conscious teenager obsessed with a children’s fantasy series set in a magical world called Fillory, which is very clearly meant to evoke Narnia. Then he learns that he has a talent for magic, and is whisked away to a fancy prep school for magicians, Brakebills. At first he thinks his dream has come true. But soon enough, he realizes that he’s still an unhappy, self-absorbed, self-conscious teenager, only now he’s obsessed with real magic.

I read this in preparation for being on a panel on portal fantasy. I had avoided it until then because all I had heard about it was that it was published as a mainstream literary novel rather than as genre fantasy (you can tell because it’s subtitled “a novel,”) was about how fantasy sucks and had the most unlikable protagonist since Thomas Covenant.

All that turned out to be correct. Sort of. But I liked it way more than I expected to, primarily because the “fantasy sucks” and “protagonist is unbearable” elements don’t come in, or at least aren’t major themes, until about the last third of the book. The first two-thirds, which is set in Brakebills, is terrific – distinctly on the cynical side and weighed down by Quentin’s depression and solipsism, but written in absolutely wonderful prose and full of vivid images, funny lines, and a genuine sense of magic.

As I read that part, I couldn’t understand why the book had such a bad reputation among fantasy readers. Sure, it emphasizes that magic is difficult, that magicians are not the most fun people in the world, and that Quentin is using magic to run away from essentially everything else, but it’s also hugely enjoyable to read as fantasy.

I loved the Brakebills section. The prose is to die for. It’s extremely well-structured, with a great use of foreshadowing to create surprising yet beautifully set-up plot twists.

On the con side, the characterization has problems and it isn’t just a lack of likability. Other than Quentin, who is more distinct as he’s seen from the inside, many of the characters are so similar that they blend together. Virtually all of the characters are obsessive, unhappy, self-absorbed, driven, and jaded. The main characters have maybe one or two traits in addition to that set, such as “punk,” “brave,” or “pretentious.”

However, lots of teenagers are unhappy and self-absorbed, so I read the Brakebills part thinking that Quentin and his buddies weren’t that bad and the readers who loathed him probably didn’t remember being a teenager that well.

Then he graduates from Brakebills. Almost immediately, I realized why readers hated him. And soon after, I realized why fantasy readers frequently hate the book. Spoilers ahoy! Read more... )

I looked on Goodreads and saw that there are two more books. I attempted to get a sense of what they were like while avoiding spoilers, and was interested to see that the second is partly narrated by the most interesting character in the first book, and that readers seemed to think the third was actually uplifting. It’s not that I require uplift in everything. But I’m not going to read more of the series if it’s all soul-sucking joylessness like the real world and Fillory sections. However, I would definitely read more if it’s more like the Brakebills sections. Also, the moments of uplift in The Magicians were beautiful, so I know Grossman can do that well.

If you can comment without major spoilers, I’d be interested to hear what those of you who’ve read further books thought of them.

The Magicians: A Novel
I wrote a lesbian erotic romance novelette for an anthology to benefit international LGBTQ human rights under a pen name, Rebecca Tregaron. Please consider buying it - it's only 99 cents for now, and we're hoping to bounce it on to the bestseller list before raising the price.

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