Monday, November 23, 2009

[Lisa's Take] The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

Hoo boy am I ever behind on reviews. Work got quite busy for a while, so that plus traveling means I have been unabashedly slack about keeping my various blogs up to date. So! Let's see if I can remedy that.

Before I start gushing about The Magicians, I need to get one thing out of the way: I had a problem with the end of this book. After how excellent and solid the rest of the story was, the ending kind of rubbed me wrong for reasons I can't go into without spoiling.

However! Ending quibbles aside, The Magicians was an absolutely excellent book and I enjoyed it immensely. It will definitely be in hot contention for "Lisa's Top 5 of 2009." The setup is this: Quentin is a smart kid, late high-school, a bit geeky and shy. Like many smart kids, he has a big place in his heart for a childhood book series featuring swords and sorcery. Quentin is also about to head off to college, and on the day he has an interview for Princeton he's thrown off course by a mysterious package and instead ends up in another world taking an entrance exam for a school that teaches magic.

I know, it sounds a bit "Harry Potter" but please don't lower it to that level. This book is so much more.

Here's the thing: The Magicians does "magic school" without being trite. So very many books just don't pull that off. Even Name of the Wind - which was excellent overall - had moments of triteness when it came to magic school. Grossman has none of that. Everything about the characters, worlds, and situations he builds is real and visceral and moving. He touches on themes that everyone has to deal with between age 20 and 30, and he does so with poignant insights and cutting realism. Magic school is just a vessel for a much deeper investigation about character, personality, and learning what the "real world" is like.

I won't say more about the plot lest I spoil things, but I think the climax of this book deserve special mention. You remember when you were a kid, reading a fantasy story by one of the masters and they managed to build the intensity such that it got your heart racing and just scared you? When Shelob attacks Frodo, or when you see the Jabberwocky for the first time? Yeah. Grossman did that to me as a 26-year-old adult curled up in my cozy hotel room. He did it without blood or gore or any other "easy" pretense - he just built up his atmosphere and layered on the suspense more and more. I was nervous about turning off the light at bed time.

I recommend The Magicians more highly than anything else I've read in the last 4 months. It is fresh and original (in spite of all of the preconceptions you might harbor upon reading the summary) and it twinges the emotional strings like nobody's business. Huge thumbs up.