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The Magicians lacks any magic

‘The Magicians’
By: Lev Grossman
Price: $26.95
Rating:Two out of five bookmarks

Since my favorite books mostly fall into the fantasy adventure category, I tend to scrutinize novels of this genre a little more acutely than others.

Right now, the "real-world-crossing-over-with-the-magic-world" variety of fantasy is popular in young adult fiction, and Lev Grossman’s novel, "The Magicians," is of this breed, only intended for a mature audience. This is definitely not a novel for young readers, as it centers on the journey of college kids (who are oftentimes very vulgar, and very hormonally charged) who attend a secret school of magic hidden from the public eye.

The protagonist is a boy named Quentin Coldwater, who from childhood has been obsessed with a series of children’s books about a Narnia-esque land called Fillory. Since real life pales in comparison to the whimsical stories he loves so much, Quentin jumps at the chance when he is invited to attend Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, since he has an innate ability to perform magic. Eventually he learns that Fillory is, in fact, a real place, and it becomes his fixation to find Fillory and live out his beloved childhood tales — only to find that the world of magic is much darker and more complex than he ever thought.

The premise of "The Magicians" is promising, and at first it seems like it is going to be a parody of the Harry Potter series or of the "Chronicles of Narnia." It turns out to be more of a strange hybrid of teen fantasy (in more ways than one) and realistic drama; that is, there is not much difference between how this magic school operates than any normal school, with the exception that the students are learning magic applications rather than your standard curriculum. This is why it feels like the novel cannot quite decide what sort of story it wants to be: is it a coming-of-age story with fantasy elements, or is it a fantasy story that focuses more on character relationships than any actual adventure?

Almost two-thirds of the story is about Quentin’s college experience and his relatively normal interactions with his fellow classmates, and does not even get to any serious fantasy adventuring until the last third of the story.

There is nothing particularly wrong with this, other than it is not enough fantasy for the hard-core science fiction/fantasy reader, and it is too bizarre for the average teen fiction reader. It ends up somewhere in between, and it makes the magic elements rather lackluster (much of the magic-world action plays out like a video game) and the teen drama peculiar.

A large part of the problem was the difficulty to identify with Quentin; while he is a very human character, he is also pretty despicable. The main drive of the story is Quentin’s constant quest to find personal happiness, and since he cannot seem to find it in either the real world or the magical one, his selfishness ends up hurting (and even killing) several of the people who love him. His girlfriend Alice even points this out to him bluntly, but by then he’s too obsessed with Fillory to even realize what a jerk he is. I’m not saying a protagonist should always be a shining example of heroism and virtue — the most intriguing characters are the ones that are flawed. But there has to be something about a main character that is likeable in order for us to root for them, and in his descent from self-loathing loner to self-abusive, sex-addicted, insanely-delusional magician, there was very little to like.

Finally, the novel cannot decide what on earth its moral should be. On the one hand, it tries to tell us how there is no magical means to happiness, and that all we can do is make the best of reality, but then the last three pages of the story turn this moral completely around in order to lead into what will be the sequel.

"The Magicians" is trying to be too many things at once, and yet not enough of any one element to really connects with a particular class of reader. While it is a mildly entertaining story with some clever plot points, it wasn’t enough to quench my thirst for a genuinely magical journey.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.