Saturday, August 8, 2015

Book Review: The Magicians

Well, since this book is being adapted into a tv series later this year clearly this means it's time for me to read it and tell everyone how bad the adaption will be! Naaah, actually since this book popped up on my to-read list I must have had it on my list for several years now and I would never go so far as to say an adaption will be terrible before I see it, although I might concede that it's going to be a tricky thing to adapt....

The Magicans by Lev Grossman


Quentin is smart but insecure, he hates being a third wheel to his two friends but craves his position anyway because maybe he can somehow become smarter, cooler, and more handsome like his friends. He never tries to do anything differently however and instead burrows more deeply into his fictional life, instead of reading Harry Potter like his friends did he never quite gave up this reality's version of Narnia. So it's easy enough for someone to lure him off the beaten path with a new manuscript but Quentin doesn't end up in his fictional Fillroy. He finds himself testing into Brakebills, the only college for magic in the US and with no better ideas he enrolls, only to discover how tedious magic is and that this isn't giving him any better ideas for what to do back in the real world and long for the world of his badly written children's novels again.

This is going to be a hard book to adapt. Books, and to a degree comics, are ultimately much more flexible with how they play with pacing and time than tv series and movies and the pacing just doesn't flow in a very conventional way in this book. The story will focus intensely on a period of Quentin's life for several chapters and then skip ahead, sometimes by weeks and other times by years since the whole book covers five or six years of his life. That alone would be hard enough but when I think about the moments it did choose to follow, they're the moments I would expect to be cut out of a streamlined adaption, like the not-Quidditch tournament arc for it's irrelevancy to the plot as a whole, or the Brakesbills South mini-arc since it would be so hard to convey on screen in an interesting way. And yet it's those moments that make up the first half of the book or so, I wonder if all of those moments will be cut away and the tv series will instead focus more on the second "half" of the book, Quentin's life beyond Brakebills. But, when I think about those parts there wasn't that much material there either and I feel like it would be easier to condense it even farther instead of expanding it, a few years beyond the big Harry Potter boom this is an odd choice to adapt. If I was a fan of the book I'd be really worried at this point but since I'm not I'm more curious than anything else.

I did not like this book very much since I did not like Quentin and it's hard to separate his character from the larger story. He reminds me a lot of the characters I hated at 17, people who have luck and privilege and smarts but who can't see it, the people who just whine and complain and don't do shit about it. That's always the key point for me, does this character honestly attempt to do something differently about their situation or not? There are instances when a book will do everything it can to prevent a character from succeeding in doing things differently, which is a different complaint of mine, but while I have come to better understand a number of characters I didn't like in high school (all of those stories about slowly going insane from daily life make way more sense after working retail) this is one character type that never has. And for all his complaints and whining, he's still somehow special in a way that the book shows and yet absolutely refuses to define. He has an unknown discipline in magic and yet literally no one ever bothers to work out what it is; he's given the opportunity to skip a grade along with the smartest two kids in his class and when asked why they included him he's met with a shrug. Perhaps this is meant to mimc how, random and unanswered life can be at times but this is fiction, fiction plays by different rules and one of them is that if you set up something important you either use it or you cut it out of the story!

Ana of The Book Smugglers has a very fiery take on Quentin with many of the same complaints I do and about the world as well (although her review is a little more spoilerly, I do totally agree with how she describes the books "realism"). Conversely, Kate Milford (The Greenglass House, etc) has the opposite take on the books, she also didn't like Quentin at first but seemed to emphasize with his life journey more, something I could see myself doing if Quentin wasn't such a barrier to my enjoyment. I almost want to read the next book to see what changes but I'm hesitating, maybe I'll just find a very detailed review instead (which is also the current plan for the tv show). I was really hoping to like this book but boy howdy, you had some ideas that I thought were just plain dumb.

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