I don't think I have ever been this conflicted with a book before. I certainly do not regret reading it, I even enjoyed it, but it did not live up to it's own built in expectations, much less those of it's rather extreme reviews, both good and bad. It is good, but fails to be great. It is fantastic, and yet steeped in the mundane. It is filled with worked over archetypes transformed to the point where they have become familiar again.
If you are coming to this book in search of well constructed magical theory you will not find it. Most of the best concepts, such as the Neitherlands are intentionally derivative. If you are looking for a fun, light read, you will not find it here. While the prose is friendly, the characters are not, and they do not strive to engage you. If you are looking for something with a little modern first world catharsis mixed in with your fantasy, you most certainly have found the book you are looking for.
Like any good fantasy novel the tome is broken into internal books, I though IV. I'm going to avoid spoilers, but I am going to break them down in general terms.
Lev Grossman borrows from C.S. Lewis, Bret Easton Ellis, J.K. Rowling, Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and T.H. White. He doesn't hide this; he even comes right out and lists most of them on the Tor website. The book is filled with little allusions and nods to literature, video games, and even webcomics. It's not just a matter of a few specific references tossed in there for the fans, the whole book is essentially a deconstruction of the most popular aspects of the fantasy genre and filtered through the most dysfunctional character archetypes modern American literature has to offer. There are some really original concepts, but these are interspersed among classically constructed plot elements that have the result of being a tad predictable, in a comfortable sort of way.
One of the books best features is the honesty in which magic is handled. Magic is barely understood, a powerful crazy force that only the extraordinary can wield. At the beginning of this tale our protagonist learns what makes him different from the rest of the world, what makes him different from most every other genius and why he has the chance to go to a school that only accepts twenty students a year to study a field the vast majority of humanity does not even know exists.
"The reasons why most people can't do magic? Well." Elliot held up a long thin finger. "One it's very had and they're not smart enough. Two, it's very hard and they are not miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the startlingly charismatic faculty of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, and four the lack the tough starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly."And five" - he stuck up his thumb - "some people have all that suff and they still can't do it. Nobody knows why. they say the words, wave their armsa, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that's not us. We're the lucky ones. We have it. Whatever it is."
"I don't know that I have the moral fiber one."
"I don't either. I think that one's optional, actually."Magical theory is rarely discussed in concrete terms. But we know it is hard. It's string theory difficult, and ever changing. It's learning to play the cello while calculating the movement of astral bodies, while reciting Shakespeare backwards in Flemish to the tune of Working man. You have to be Geddy Lee and Heisenberg at the same time. There is some stress involved, which is washed away with copious amounts of alcohol and sex. They may be wizards in the making, but they are still teenage kids with raging hormones and insecurities, and everyone wants what they cannot have. They commit petty and stupid pranks. One such stupid prank has unforeseen consequences and as a result something magical and horrible enters their world and eats a child alive. Our protagonist did this. His pettiness killed a girl. No one knows but him. Eventually, through this tragedy, rigorous academic discipline, and time spent in the Antarctic our little band of mages graduates. Their dean, Professor Fogg has something different to say on the nature of magic, now that they are to be set loose in the world.
"I have a little theory that I'd like to air here, if I may. What is it that you think makes you magicians?" More silence. Fogg was well into rhetorical question territory now anyway. He spoke more softly. "Is it because you are intelligent? Is it because you are brave and good? is it because you're special?He could be talking about art, music, writing, or medicine. Magic, for all the wonder it should offer, is just a metaphor for will, even in their magical world. Unfortunately, for all of these characters for many people that metaphor is not enough to live on.
Maybe. Who knows. But I'll tell you something. I think you're magicians because you're unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what do you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than other. His wound is his strength.
"Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you have found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you."
The largest portion of the novel takes place in Brakebills. Here we get to meet the characters:
Quentin - the protagonist whose story we learn through third person limited omniscient narration that makes no bones about how unlikable he really is. He is easily one of the most intelligent kids in Brooklyn, born to parents who obviously have money, given the best opportunities and is hung up on the girl he can't have because his best friend has her. So of course he just spends his life sulking because he did not get the girl. He is our Harry Potter analogue, via Clay from Less than Zero. It's not a perfect analogue, but you get it. He has the perfect life, but he wants more.
Alice - sullen, shy, beautiful Alice. She is smarter than everyone, from a magical family, studious, brilliant, heavy breasted (this comes up several times) and so much more than her mousy exterior shows. She is Hermione of course, but reworked to be a sort of goth fantasy.
Elliot - the urbane homosexual who escaped his tawdry existence in Oregon to find himself to be a fabulous magician. I mean, fabulous. He loathes himself, loves himself, destroys himself and pampers himself. Elliot is all about himself, until of course it comes to sexual satisfaction, then he is a total bottom. He is an alcoholic, a sensate, a epicurean nihilist. He is pretty much every Robert Downy Jr. character before Tony Stark.
Janet - the self possessed A-Lister who deigns to lead her lessers to greater heights. She is pretty, smart, cool, and of course in love with the gay guy. She has to control everything around her and she does it through willpower and personality. She has to have everything and she does this through sex and guilt. She is a vampire.
Josh - In any other world Josh might have been brilliant. In this world he just gets by. He's overweight, obsessed with sex. He constantly exudes prepubescent obsene humor and exuberance, and just insn't that great a wizard. He is a simple guy. He wants to get laid, have a beer, and have a good time. He is every chubby frat boy you ever saw in a movie.
These are your heroes, such as they are. This is no complaint. These archetypes work. We've met them all before, we know them. They are familiar to us because on some level we have met them in our real lives. We have been them.
New York, New York. Post college. Thanks to the magical community they have all the money they could ever want. They could do nearly anything. Magicians insert themselves into politics, medicine, and business. They do great, secret works to protect humanity. They explore the grand mysteriess of science with tools no scientist ever could. Not our heroes though. No. They have better plans. More self indulgent, indolent plans. Despite the magical communities best wishes otherwise, the wielders of magic are still very much human, weak, broken, damaged and hurt. They are petty, lustful, vain and utterly, irredeemably human. Magic does not allow them to transcend their natures, it just gives them different tools to play with. The same old human vices hold true. The same old betrayals. Nothing lasts forever, least of all happiness. On the morning after a deep betrayal, after the callous breaking of a heart something amazing happens. They learn that the fairy tale is real. Fillory, this world's literary equivalent of Narnia, is real. It's real and they have the tool to go there.
Fillory. It is Narnia in so many ways. Grossman doesn't conceal this fact at any point. It is filled with fauns, talking trees, dainty bears drinking peach schnapps, and sword wielding bunnies. It's a more brutal Narnia than those first books, but it is recognizable. Grossman also slips in a few Dungeons and Dragons references in here, obviously and without irony. Prismatic Spray, Magic Missile, an intellect devourer, and even the brand name itself, in distinct font to let us all know he really does mean, Dungeons and Dragons. They are, quite literally, living the dream. Of course, it is tainted by their petty carnal betrayals. They are given the gift of experiencing something very few, even among the rarefied strata of magical society they exist in, have seen. In devolves quickly into their usual backbiting, orgiastic displays of sniping and pettiness. There is a real hero among them. The evil is vanquished. The quest is completed. None of it matters. Really, to them, none of it matters.
There and Back Again. I'm not going to talk about this section of the novel, except to say that is one of the longest denouements that I have read, and just as important to this work as the Scouring of the Shire from "The Lord of the Rings". Quentin is no Bilbo, certainly no Frodo, but his story is worthwhile nonetheless.