If you were the kind of kid that spent your childhood opening every wardrobe you came across hoping to find the entrance to Narnia, or perhaps sat waiting for an owl to arrive on your 11th birthday with your acceptance letter to Hogwarts, then The Magicians by Lev Grossman might be for you.
Quentin Coldwater is a mathematically gifted High-school student who up until now has been perfectly happy to just allow life to happen to him. He has a small group of friends and of course his studies to keep him busy, but outside of that, Quentin has no goals, no direction of his own, and no passion at all. In fact, the only thing that comes almost close to a personal interest is his secret obsession with a series of fantasy books about a Magical place called Fillory, which he escapes into any time he doesn’t have to be doing something else. However, everything changes on the day of his Princeton interview when he arrives to find that the man meant to interview him has died and left behind, in a folder with Quentin’s name on it, a handwritten (never published) 6th volume of the Fillory series. But the story doesn’t really get started until one of those pages blows away, and while chasing it down, Quentin somehow is transported to an entirely different time and place. The place is Brakebills, a school for magicians somewhere in upstate New York, and the time, thanks to the magical wards, that both hide and protect the school, is actually the present, but just a couple of months behind. There, Quentin embarks on a 5-year course of study to become a magician.
I have to admit to having a rather hard time with this book, but not because of the quality of the writing or the story being told – both are quite excellent. In fact, many of the sentences are so well crafted that I found myself stopping to read them two or three more times to savor them. Likewise, I found the story to be imaginative and entertaining.
My problem was with Quentin, the main character, because about half way through the book, I started to realize that I didn’t really like him all that much, and by two thirds of the way through, I was kind of wishing he would just disappear. I suppose part of this problem came from feeling quite connected to him at the start of the story. Not that I was a mathematical genius, by any means, but I was part of a very competitive academically inclined group of friends in high school and in college. I understood the drive to do well, to work hard, to get to the next level, and even the “not really knowing what to do once you got there” all too well. However, watching that spiral from a disillusioned malaise into what I can only describe as an almost drug and alcohol fueled death wish was particularly difficult to read. It just seemed like such a waste, and it made me frustrated and sad. I could relate to the disillusionment that comes with graduation, and the feelings of being lost, confused, and unsure. I could even relate to Quentin’s obvious struggles with depression, which I must say the author captures quite well. However, while depression, like life itself, follows certain trends or parallels across groups of people as a whole, the personal experience associated with living with it is quite unique to each individual.
So when a character I had rather strongly identified with at first, started to, and continued to, make decisions over the course of the book that seem to lead him into riskier and risker behaviors, and often made him appear to be selfish, short-sighted, and even callous, I found it very difficult not only to relate to him any longer, but to even read the middle portion of the book. I even considered bailing on the book at one point, but ultimately decided to finish because, despite my difficulties with Quentin, the story really was quite good.