I came to this book with a lot of respect for Lev Grossman, as I love his book reviews in TIME magazine. I left the book with respect for his writing, on a basic sentence level (including description), but not so much for his pacing/execution of a story.
This was an odd book. I enjoyed a lot about it in parts, but it was definitely many books and many things trying to be one book, and an ambitious book in other ways, too. It was impossible not to make comparisons to Narnia and Harry Potter in particular (there were even references to those books, as well as Lord of the Rings). The first half of the book was the multi-year magical education in a magically concealed boarding school; the second, shorter half was about discovering what is, to all intents and purposes, Narnia. (Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read any of the Narnia books, as I grew up largely under the control of a parent inclined to ban anything prominently featuring witches, an inclination naturally combined with complete ignorance of how said book might also be a well-respected Christian allegory. At any rate, I did see the first movie in 2005, and I’ve absorbed a good deal about what the books contain from other pop culture references and other people’s discussions — enough that, as a teenager, I discarded a story I’d barely begun, about kids discovering a hidden side to a house, because I thought it would be scorned as a Narnia ripoff. Oh silly adolescent who had not yet learned that there is nothing new under the sun, and that works inspired by masterpieces can become successful in their own right.)
The lengthy magical education half didn’t have a plot beyond coming-of-age stories and cementing the group of friends (and their developing alcoholism) who adventure in another world in the second half. There was one significantly disturbing event — the first appearance of the Beast, which brings the death of one of Quentin’s classmates — and the ominous line about how Quentin told no one, and so the guilt in him would fester and turn septic, but very little is directly tied back to that. Did his relationship with Alice fail because of that, for instance, or was it because of the greater lethargy and restlessness they were all lost in at that point?
Even the second half, when they find a way to Fillory, the point of the journey is a desperate search for a Quest, a sense of purpose that they had totally lacked in Manhattan. Ultimately, they realize at great cost that the Quest was a lie (the twist-revelation of the Beast was very good, incredibly disturbing, and I liked the theme of humans turning into monsters, which is a favorite of mine). Quentin eventually makes his way back to Manhattan, where he takes up a totally empty life free of magic — except how his entire situation (well-paying job where he does nothing) is enabled by magic, which makes it pretty hard to respect him or his resolution. And in the final scene, done in an transparently anime-like style, his friends reappear (hovering in midair) to break his office window and urge him to return to Fillory again, to take up the original pure, quixotic dream of becoming kings and queens, as promised in the original book series (Narnia or what). And he leaps out the window to join them, just like that, despite how a few pages ago there was a fairly lengthy treatise on how magic is corrupt, not a worthwhile pursuit.
At least I know this is the first in a series — that softens my judgment of that abrupt ending. Still, I’m not that interested in seeking out the sequel, so I’m afraid Mr. Grossman has fallen short.
It seems the biggest theme of the book is about malaise and whether magic, from that much-coveted magical school to the wonderful fantastical world of talking flora and fauna and places of honor for visiting humans, is even a good thing or worthwhile pursuit. From the opening scene introducing Quentin, he’s shown as someone who feels chronic dissatisfaction with his life. For a while, he thinks Brakebills (the magical school in upstate New York, hidden much like Hogwarts in Scotland) is the answer, the purpose he’s been looking for; but from the moment of graduation, he realizes that’s not true and the problem is deeper within him.
Even his love for Alice and the promise she begged from him, that they won’t find themselves like her parents, adrift and purposeless and jumping from meaningless project to meaningless project, don’t save him. He and his friends are living what many people would think of as a dream life: unlimited money, unlimited time, all the amusements of New York City at their disposal. Instead he and Elliot (one of my favorite characters from the start; I was very much hoping he and Quentin would hook up at least once, even though Quentin’s mostly straight, and I guess they kinda did through Janet) start doing drugs, as well as heavy drinking. And that Quentin/Janet/Elliot liaison I just spoiled you about is the final destructive act that implodes his relationship with Alice, and in the fallout, it’s the direct motivation for them going to Fillory.
So Fillory is presented as all of their salvation, and while the Quest proves fraudulent, he and Alice do make up…shortly before her death. I’m not so sure how I feel about that, beyond irritation and disappointment. Does this fall under the definition of fridging a woman, to help the male protagonist along on his journey? Or was her self-sacrifice that saved the entire group more an example of Harry’s or Neo’s Jesus-like sacrifices? At any rate, I’m displeased that she and all of her intelligence and skill had to die.
Also, I’m not impressed by Quentin’s progression after her death, once he wakes up under the centaurs’ care. It’s pretty cheesy, honestly, with his mystical wooden prosthetics and white hair, his solo pursuit and attainment of the most elite magical skills that had eluded everyone but the Russian teacher at Brakebills South. And after he catches the “Questing Stag,” gets his three wishes and returns to Manhattan, he does…nothing with all of that? Sits in an office and plays video games all day, not even seeing his old friends? Seriously? There might be something to respect in that choice if he had actually gone off the magical grid, thrown himself into an actual job, but he was still living on magical welfare, still had no purpose despite Alice’s sacrifice. And then, as I described above, his friends chase him down and with very little discussion, he’s off to join them again in returning to Fillory.
Only now, at the conclusion of this review, am I glancing at other reviews and the general reception to this book. To my surprise, it got a pretty positive reception, and I think (perhaps cynically, touched by old bitterness from how my too-much-of-the-same lit classes in college burned me out on Higher Literature) it must have scored in the higher, more depressing literature themes (malaise! What is life? What is the point of anything? Why don’t we sit around drinking our lives away until we lose everything we hold dear?) that seem guaranteed to get a lot of accolades. This reminds me of when, in college, I had to read a collection of James Joyce stories and noticed they all ended the same way: a moment of disillusionment, with tears in the protagonist’s eyes. (“James Joyce was a one-trick pony,” my best friend palapalabra observed.) Like a good student, I copied the same trick when I wrote “On the Flying Trapeze,” though I like to think there are other reasons it won second place in my university’s writing contest.