Nobody likes Quentin Coldwater, it seems. I mean in the real world, not the world that Lev Grossman has created. Lots of people liked The Magicians – if you needed proof, all you needed was to look at the blurbs and the critical praise. Then The Magician King came out and everyone started re-evaluating the first book with a more favorable eye. I include in this blanket “everyone” personal friends and the noisy folks on Twitter. Fortunately, someone was kind enough to loan me his copy.
This is a funny, clever book – not funny ha-ha, either, mostly. I spent a great deal of time wondering what was going on, as our protagonist, the down in the mouth, self-pitying, over-privileged Quentin Coldwater succeeds almost in spite of his own best intentions. He goes to a school for magically gifted youngsters (loud echoes of J.K. Rowling and softer ones of Marvel Comics’ X-Men sound here) where he attends classes. Like Rowling, he gives us a trio to follow Quentin (Harry), Penny (a boy; Ron), and the more-talented Alice (Hermione). Then he breaks the trio up in short order. And they study. And Grossman builds his world. And a horrible Beast appears and then goes away and lots of other things happen and there seems to be a lot of people struggling and not really succeeding or failing, just more or less getting on with life.
All of which is to say, this book bears a great deal more resemblance to what the publishing world calls “literary fiction” and not terribly much to fantasy. Sure, with all due respect to Tzvetan Todorov, there are a great many fantastical elements: students learn magic, after all, and they travel between worlds in a narrative sweep that does nothing so much as re-imagine C.S. Lewis’ Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew, down to the pools for traveling between the worlds and the token necessary to make the pools work.
The thing is, Quentin has basically won the lottery with the whole I-can-do-magic bit. You could swap that out with Quentin accidentally stumbling across a bag full of money or the secret knowledge of all political power. But it’s not any of those things and it is magic so regardless of all the kinds of novel this could be, it is at heart one that embraces the fantastic but that is not about fantasy. It is about unhappiness.
Grossman seeds his writing with articulations of happiness, all the way down to the Dean’s suspicion that magic is probably just an expression or a manipulation of despair. “I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy.” Beyond that, of course, there is Quentin’s perpetual and trying-to-the-reader dissatisfaction. His dreams keep being fulfilled and they keep not being what he expects. Reality can never match up, and his best and worst decisions are inevitably the result.
In other words, Quentin is a terrible hero and a fantastic protagonist. His character and his malaise are those that have been explored and dissected by generations of writers before Grossman, but the context is new. He upends the rules of the quest novel by giving us a coming of age novel and then turns around and drops a quest in after all. It’s a good trick from a guy with all of the vocabulary to pull it off (when one of the characters triumphantly incinerates some nameless bad guys with a spell he’s reverse-engineered from Dungeon & Dragons, he exults, “Boom, bitches!”). As befits a protagonist-not-hero Quentin is the center of the action (the narrative orbits around him), but is not the solver-of-problems. Sometimes he is a follower, sometimes he’s a catalyst; very rarely is he a leader, and then only usually as a result of self-pity and alcohol.
You don’t like Quentin Coldwater? You’re not supposed to like him. He goes so far as to utter the worst refrain we’ve all heard from determinedly miserable people: “You can’t decide to be happy.” Thankfully, with a book this devoted to messy solutions, Grossman doesn’t try to offer us anything as pithy as “yes, you can,” or “love makes it all better.” He gives us the answer in two ways, in fact. The pithy symptomatic version is uttered by Alice, one of Quentin’s classmates: “Quentin, you have always been the most unbelievable pussy.” The second version is embodied with the final actions of the book. You don’t decide to be happy; you decide to make your life, not to let your life get made for you, for good or ill.
It’s a risky strategy, placing such an asshole at the center of a novel in which there is no immediate goal. Grossman pulls it off by his attention to the world. In another era, he might have described a kind of economic life that was out-of-reach to his reader, the kind of place Theodore Dreiser’s character Clyde Griffiths might have yearned for. Easy credit means that we can all imagine that world much more easily. We’re jaded, but we still have our imaginations, so Grossman imagines a world in which there is no Ministry of Magic, no cabal of dark wizards, but people live next to us and are trying to do their level best not get bored given what they’re able to do.
The bait-and-switch of the stylistics has its own pitfalls. One reader exhorts readers to “run away” from the novel – you won’t like it if you like epic fantasy. That may be true, then again, this isn’t epic fantasy. It’s not Harry Potter for adults, really, either. My guess is that the marketing gurus figured they’d win more audience with that line than they’d lose die-hards. Looks like they were probably right (see for example this reviewer at Amazon, with whom I agree in substance but not in diagnosis – I don’t think Grossman is sneering at us). Good grief – he even provides us a map of his fictional world. He’s setting up our expectations, to be sure. Whether that’s “subversive” or “deceitful” is your call to make.
I found only a few false notes ringing flat for me in the novel. Throwaway observations about thestrals and “we got to get a faun up in here” were great, assuming you share Grossman’s vocabulary. The seemingly obligatory “dark magic” reference, however, felt misguided. Aside from the fact that it was dismissed as quickly as it was raised, in Grossman’s richly textured gray world, the idea of dark magic hearkens back to the Manichean ethos he’s been so diligently undermining throughout.
The larger issue for me was the uniformity of the characters. There was a Russian exile and a sprite but holy shit did I feel like I was at a whites-only country club. Initially we’re told that it’s only the absolute smartest kids who have a chance at becoming magicians, the best of the best – and by “smartest” we are given to understand “academically gifted” (incidentally, this bit of classism comes back in the obligatory taunting during the Big Fight Scene – and it was in character, but it would have felt stronger if Grossman had deconstructed this idea with the same fervor). Okay, so let’s presume that economics predetermines some behavior and knocks out a bunch of poor kids who might have been geniuses if they’d been given a chance (except why should we?). And sure, only twenty students get accepted every year, and yes, there’s a school in Asia, we’re told (how open-minded). But Brakebills, where Our Gang preps at? I don’t recall a single descriptor of ethnicity. I should say that this doesn’t reflect on the quality of the writing so much as it does the world and the imagination.