The short version: A story of college students at a school of magic who aren’t happy with their lives and sit around drinking and complaining before they graduate and do a lot more drinking and complaining before they go looking for trouble…and find it.
Warning: a somewhat snarky review follows.
Quentin is the smartest kid he knows, but he is bored as hell. His parents are wrapped up in their own lives, and the girl he’s in love with isn’t in love with him. He has grown up reading a series of books about children who had adventures in the land of Fillory, and he’s stuck on Earth. In other words, his life is atrocious, and no one else has ever experienced such horrendous torture. You should all feel very sorry for him. Quentin certainly does, until an odd series of events leads him to Brakebills College, an elite school of magic where he passes the entrance exam.
From then on, it’s magic and studying and magic and studying with a few high and low points, like having sex while transformed into a fox, nearly dying in the wilds of Antarctica, and sitting around playing welters, a game of magic. Then Quentin and his friends, Eliot, Janet, Josh, and girlfriend Alice all graduate. Life as a magician in the real world is pretty boring. Do you get a real job? Well, why would you? There is a mysterious “magician’s fund” that apparently is never depleted and provides magicians money when they need it. (I’m all in, by the way.) However, again these characters are miserable – drinking too much, doing drugs, having meaningless sex – and they need something. That something is Fillory. Because lo and behold, it really exists. So the gang ponies up and heads to Fillory, but it isn’t all magic bunnies and beautiful nymphs. Something is wrong in Fillory, and Quentin must figure out what it is in order to try to be happy. (Here’s where the plot finally comes in, right around page 240.)
Because that’s all this novel is really about. Quentin is really really unhappy with absolutely no real reason (until the end) to be unhappy. But I have to start this review with this: Lev Grossman has some serious writing chops. In fact, that’s the only reason I finished this novel because lord have mercy, it was long. And drawn out. And not a lot happened for two-thirds of the book. There is no overarching plot here, and I guess that’s what annoyed me the most. At times I checked to make sure it wasn’t a spoof of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia, since it referenced each multiple times. Fillory was essentially Narnia, which made me think Grossman could have just used it in the book instead of creating something so darn similar but not calling it Narnia. I kept checking to see what page I was on because I could not believe how long it was taking me to read this book. Without any real plot to move the book along, Grossman relies on his characters, and they are kind of a bunch of assholes. They are selfish, lazy, and pretentious. Alice, Quentin’s girlfriend, was the only character I remotely liked, simply because her background and unhappiness made sense. Everyone else just sort of claimed unhappiness for sport. Alice is the only one who actually points it out, telling Quentin:
[L]ook at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it; there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.
And pretty much, he is miserable forever – at least the forever that is this book – even with a pretty cool, British-y magic school, some pretty darn good friends, and money out the wazoo. Ultimately, this book was an exercise in futility, reinforcing the idea that some people ain’t happy and ain’t never gonna be happy, no matter what. If that’s magic, I don’t really want any part of it.
So I gotta know – have you read this? Did you react at all to it like I did? Or have I lost my non-magical mind?
jenn aka the picky girl
P.S. All is not lost. The nice folks at Viking sent me this book and The Magician King, the sequel to this book, for me to read and review. Come back tomorrow for a giveaway and to see why I think it’s (somewhat) redemptive.
The New York Times
Fantasy Book Review
Entomology of a Bookworm