Series Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

TheMagicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Viking. 402 pp. 

I remember when The Magicians Land came out and what a big deal it was. I kept seeing it everywhere, described as the conclusion to a bestselling trilogy. And here’s where I lose some nerd cred: I couldn’t remember ever even hearing about the series! A friend of mine recommended them when the first book was released, and I must’ve forgotten to write it down or something. (I only realized that he recommended it because of those “On This Day” things on Facebook a few months ago.) So I’m not the best friend. Or the best reader. And yet somehow I managed to find my way back to this series.

I scored a paperback copy of the third book at BEA and set it aside for future reading. Then, a couple of months later, I found a copy of the first book at Now and Then, my third-favorite used bookstore (second only to The Strand, which I feel doesn’t really count because it’s sort of its own category at this point, and Arcadian Books, which has an excellent selection and a kind proprietor and poses the added benefit of being located in the French Quarter). I figured that owning the first and third installments meant it was high time that I gave this series a shot. A hundred pages into The Magicians, I discovered two things: syfy was going to release a series based on the books, and my local library didn’t own a copy of the sequel. I promptly placed a request via interlibrary loan and decided to stay away from the TV series until I’d finished the books. (I’ve since watched the trailer and the pilot, and I’m almost inclined to stay away from the show entirely. It looks like they’re trying to have a hit — making it cutesy and trendy — instead of sticking to the books. However, Hank Green is obsessed with it, so I’ll give it another shot. We tend to like similar stuff.)

Sadly, the interlibrary loan took three weeks to come through, so I did something unthinkable: I stopped reading The Magicians halfway through because I didn’t want to wait if there was a cliffhanger ending. Then I flew through the first two and a half books, slowing down halfway through the third because I didn’t want it to be over.

This series is magic. Pure magic. And I’m not just saying that because it’s quite literally about magicians. I enjoyed the idea of magical ability as a hot commodity, practiced and protected by a select few. (Side note: I want to go to Brakebills! Magical grad school? Yes, please!) Any book about magic is about power struggles, but these books’ portrayal of that war is one of the best I’ve seen. The blend of high fantasy and modernity, the almost-winking references to other popular fantasy works, the way that old characters come back just when you thought you’d never hear from them again…I can’t say enough positive things. I guess the best thing I can say is that I bought a copy of the first book for a friend as a Christmas gift; that’s pretty much the highest endorsement I can give, right?

The world-building is intense. I mean, there are so many different worlds — and they all feel different without overwhelming the reader. None of the characters is terribly likable — except maybe Josh (and Eliot?) — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’ve got a lot going on over the course of the books, and they all grow and develop into entirely new people. It’s not a trilogy that spans six months, either; it takes place over about a dozen years, so there are many happenings and many chances for the characters to “become.”

Before I finish this raving, all-over-the-place review, I want to share my favorite passage with you. It’s from the final ten pages of the final book, but it won’t spoil anything for you. It’s just…well, this is what my life as a reader has been like. These words hit me hard.

“This is a feeling that you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.

“Years later you went to Fillory, and the Fillory you found was a much more difficult, complicated place than you expected. The Fillory you dreamed of as a little boy wasn’t real, but in some ways it was better and purer than the real one. That hopeful little boy you once were was a tremendous dreamer. He was clever, too, but if you ever had a special gift, it was that.”

Quentin nodded — he couldn’t quite talk yet. He felt full of love for that little boy he’d once been, innocent and naive, as yet unscuffed and unmarred by everything that was to come. He was such a ridiculous, vulnerable little person, with so many strenuous disappointments and wonders ahead of him. Quentin hadn’t thought of him in years.

He wasn’t that boy anymore, that boy was lost long ago. He’d become a man instead, one of those crude, weather-beaten, shopworn things, and he’d almost forgotten he’d ever been anything else — he’d had to forget, to survive growing up. But now he wished he could reassure that child and take care of him. He wished he could tell him that none of it was going to turn out anything like the way he hoped, but that everything was going to be all right anyway. It was hard to explain, but he would see.

I don’t know. Maybe that doesn’t make you cry, but I’ve read it three times and it’s made my eyes tear every time. The hope of magic existing in the world can do wonders for a lonely kid who feels like he (or she) doesn’t fit quite right. And that, in itself, is its own kind of magic.

All in all: Highly recommended. One of the best series I’ve ever read; it finishes just as strong as it starts. Buy it. Now.

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Series Review: What happened when I caved and read the Divergent books

 

Divergent by Veronica Roth. Katherine Tegen Books. 487 pp.

Divergent by Veronica Roth. Katherine Tegen Books. 487 pp.

This review is chock full o’SPOILERS, so stop here if you haven’t read these books yet and plan to. Or, if you want, you could take my recommendation and avoid them like the plague they turned out to be.

I’m always wary of a series that’s deemed the Next Big Thing. Divergent kept popping up, and I kept ignoring it — especially after watching the film trailer — because it seemed like a cheap snack to satisfy readers’ post-Hunger-Games appetites. However, I avoided Twitter the week that Allegiant came out, because I didn’t want to be spoiled. You know, just in case. Then the Kindle edition of the first book went on sale for $4.99, so I bought it and flew through it. And — surprise! — I really enjoyed it. The writing is nothing to rave about; it’s plain and to-the-point and really not very good at all. But the plot grabbed me, and I found that I needed to get my hands on the next two books, so I did.

Sadly, this is one of those situations where I wish I had my fifteen dollars (and fifteen-ish hours of my life — yes, I’m a fairly slow reader) back. Insurgent, the second installation in the series, was a notch or two below its predecessor. The previously-strong (not in writing but in personality) characters of Tris and Four became lying, manipulative sneaks. They made reckless, childish mistakes that put their society in even more danger than it already was. Then, at the end of the book, there was a discovery that gave me hope for Allegiant, the final book: their society was a genetic experiment being run by the U.S. government. Culture shock and a master plan? I was intrigued.

Upon reading Allegiant, however, I was more disappointed than I’ve been by a book in a long time. This is a blockbuster series; how could it be such utter crap? I thought to myself. The characters become even bigger wrecks; Tris and Four’s relationship seemed about to crumble, but they miraculously made up right when they needed to in order to tug at the reader’s heartstrings. I saw this manipulation happening, though, and I wasn’t even sad when the Big Sad Thing happened because I felt like it was thrown in there just to make me cry. And I’d be damned if I was going to give Roth the satisfaction of doing that. Because — SPOILER ALERT, just in case you missed it earlier — Tris dies. Needlessly. When an author kills off a character for a good reason, it’s devastating. I’m still mourning Albus Dumbledore; I actually sobbed when he died. And I flung Deathly Hallows across my hostel bunk bed in London when Fred Weasley died. But Tris’s death? It was so stupid, so obviously thrown in there as a last-ditch effort to make a poorly-constructed book give readers “the feels,” that it made me angry — angrier than I already was because of the shoddy writing and loose plot.

All in all: Divergent is an above-average dystopian YA novel, but these books get progressively worse. Read them if you want to see what all the fuss is about, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.