I thought about writing an equally celebratory first post, but decided I wanted to (finally!) close this file on my computer. So pardon the length and overanalysis—I’ve had a long time to think about this one!
As far as I can tell, The Magicians is a book that people react to pretty strongly—one of those love-it-or-hate-it affairs. But I’ve just finished the novel, and my feelings are still pretty mixed. I feel like I should love it (and I do love parts of it), but more and more over the course of the novel, I noticed myself not caring about either the plot or the characters. It wasn’t a chore to keep reading, it just wasn’t compelling.
And I was definitely compelled in the beginning. Part I felt like your classic fantasy fare, albeit conscientiously edgy. From “Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed,” to “He was going to be a motherfucking magician,” I felt like it was more or less delivering on its premise of “Harry Potter for grown-ups.”
But then Quentin graduated.
And what does a wizard do after graduation? What do you strive for, or take interest in, when you can bend reality to your every whim? I heard variations on this theme every time the book was mentioned, and I was undeniably intrigued. I used it—excitedly—every time I tried to talk people into joining our book club. But as it turns out, this kind of interrogation of fantasy conventions felt cold and clinical.
While I do realize that my feelings of dissatisfaction from the post-magic-school experience mirror Quentin’s own (and that such a reaction was definitely deliberate on Grossman’s part) I still didn’t enjoy reading it. Quentin’s self-indulgence and ennui became incredibly difficult to swallow, until—for me—the initial appeal of the book had definitely soured.
I’ve spent a large part of my college experience learning to enjoy books that didn’t satisfy me in familiar ways. Unlikable characters, difficult language, lack of exciting (or, occasionally, any) plot…all of these I’ve become accustomed to—to the point that I now genuinely enjoy books I never would have been able to finish (or even begin!) a few years ago. So why is it that The Magicians—a book with an admittedly unlikable protagonist, but far from dull or inelegant—became so intolerable?
I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, now, and I think it comes down to intent. Not of the author or anything so unfashionable, but of the book itself. We’ve talked about the line that Northanger Abbey walks between criticism and celebration, and I would argue that The Magicians attempts to do the same. But even though such intimate knowledge of fantasy tropes seems like it should be as celebratory as it is critical, it just didn’t feel that way. It felt like the parts of fantasy I love had been emptied of meaning.
Because it’s not about the magic school, or the magic world, or escape. It’s about purpose and connection (and love and house elves). Even when fantasy gets towards the bleaker end, characters tend to have a driving motivation, a reason to continue—and a reason for the story to continue as well. The Magicians felt like what happens after the story moves on—about what’s left, for better or worse, after the climax.
…can you believe we succeeded in not talking about our first (official) book club book until the blog? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!
P.S. Look who remembered her color!