The Magicians

Where do I start? This book was possibly the most maddening novel I've encountered over the past few years. It's a book that came highly recommended to me, listed as one of the best books of the year by people I trust, so I got it for my middle son for Christmas, who tossed it next to me when he finished it and demanded I read it. This usually means he loves a story but in this case it was because he had the heebie jeebies and wanted to share the experience, kind of like when you ask someone else if they smell something bad.

The Magicians is basically Narnia fan fiction, as written by Brett Easton Ellis. Written by Lew Grossman, who is apparently famous for posting Amazon reviews for his own books, it's the story of an obnoxious little shit called Quentin, who is utterly miserable and whiny, for no real reason I could figure out. Maybe he suffers from depression or something, but mostly he seems to suffer from a massive sense of entitlement. He's such a cliché character that he made me super grouchy. He's the smartest of the smart, unable to make any real friends, in love with his buddy's girlfriend – who of course doesn't have reciprocating feelings, etc. etc. etc. He's also mopey and is constantly looking for more than what he has. He's sure there's something out there on the horizon, like maybe the magical land of Fillory he's been reading about since he was very young. He's disdainful of everyone who lives a normal life and is convinced that they are drones eking out a miserable existence until their lives mercifully end. He reminds me of a guy I used to know who wanted to be a pilot, was rejected because of his eyesight and spent the rest of life being completely aimless with no goals, personal or career wise.

Luckily for Quentin he doesn't have to join all the rest of the peons as his entrance interview for Princeton doesn't go as planned. Instead of being interviewed he discovers a dead body and is given a file, with a cover note that promptly blows away. He gives chase and ends up at a mysterious school where he takes an intense entrance exam, which of course he aces. (Was there ever any doubt?) He's admitted to a magic university, where he spends the next few years being miserable and wishing there was more to his enchanted life. Quentin spends a lot of his time mooning over the fact that the one thing in life he wants is still out of his reach; a fantastic land called Fillory, which is essentially Narnia, with a sprinkling of the Land of Oz.
It doesn’t matter how well things go for him, he constantly thinks his life would be perfect if only he could get to Fillory.

Quentin becomes friends with a group of students, including Alice, with whom he falls in love, and Eliot, a young man that Quentin both admires and despises. He also befriends a punk rocker called Penny, but ends up thinking some pretty scathing things about him, and freezing him out of their study group.

The narrative skips around, like a record with a bad needle. We dip into Quentin's life and see little vignettes that are scattered through his time at the school and after but it's never any more satisfying for the reader than it is for Quentin. Just as he longs for Fillory we long for a character that isn't a complete juicebox. Reading about him left me feeling kind of dirty, like I'd been leaning against a filthy concrete wall in a dreary, semi-abandoned subway station.

He isn't just above it all; he's also extremely creepy when interacting with any women at all. Quentin sexualizes and objectifies every woman he meets, including teachers twice his age, paramedics trying to resuscitate dead men and his friend and best friend's girlfriend Julia. He constantly talks about their breasts, calling one woman's breasts gropeable, when talking about her perspective, which makes his sleaziness even creepier. It's amazing that he sees half of the world's population as objects for his desire. It must be exhausting to spend so much energy reducing people to nothing more than their breasts and the possibility of using them for sexual gratification.

It's entirely possible to write unlikable characters who are obsessed with sex and still make them interesting and vulnerable. The character of Harold from Stephen King's the Stand comes to mind. It's unfortunate that Mr. Grossman took a premise that could have been amazing and made it into an art project that is a chore to read.

After all that I'm still going to say you might want to read the Magicians because there is plenty in it that is worth reading. I wouldn't put it at the top of my to be read pile or anything but I guess I'm glad I saw what all the fuss was about. I have two final thoughts. One is that I keep seeing this book described as a book for adults, with the implication that it's far too grown up/dark for the YA crowd, but I had the opposite reaction. I thought it was a YA book (for one thing the protagonist is a teen) and I didn't read anything that changed my mind. I suspect whoever thinks it's far too dark and dangerous for teen minds doesn’t know any actual teens. They certainly don't seem to know that the YA genre covers some pretty serious and dark topics. Meth addiction, rape, suicide, hate crimes and genocide are all topics of YA books I've read in the last couple of years.

And finally don't read a single word about the sequel, the Magician King. I'm deadly serious about this. Every review or blurb I've seen about the sequel, which I also bought for Cullen for the Christmas season, starts off with massive spoilers. Literally the first few words spoil the very ending of the Magicians. So close your ears and eyes to talk of the sequel until you finish the first book.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is from Kate Craig, who wrote a beautiful, terrifying comic about a wendigo. (When I was a little girl I got Winnebagos and Wendigos mixed up and couldn’t figure out why anyone would want a vehicle named after a super scary monster.) Called Heart of Ice, this comic is drawn in colors of the cold; blues and whites that look like they're straight out of an iceberg. The story begins with a plane crash and things go downhill from there.