sideways: [o] a great many photos at your feet (►not today or tomorrow)
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We read The Magicians by Lev Grossman for our book club last month, and I managed to cobble together something approximating an actual review. Not spoiler-free by any measure.

My overall feelings re: The Magicians are best summarised as “mixed”. Approximately a 6.5 out of 10: I was consistently interested (which after The Night Circus was a blessing) and I liked a lot of the concepts that were played with, but the underlying thrust of the message started to grate on me by the end.

I enjoyed book 1 the most, in which Lev Grossman deconstructs magic schools a la Harry Potter by portraying something that is finely detailed and repetitious in structure, dangerous in misuse (less vomiting slugs, more niffins), and requires gruelling hard work to master. Even the highflying dare-devilry of Quidditch is replaced with tedious wizard chess that nobody seems to have any fun playing. In this, he very much succeeded in portraying a school I would not be capable of attending, let particularly desirous of being invited to. The entry exam calculus alone would have defeated me.

It was still interesting to see how reshaping the world of Hogwarts in this way reshaped the characters and the consequences involved, and to read something that was just…different? to my own lived experiences. I never did the college scene properly and I certainly never did magic school, and I liked exploring the nitty-gritty of everyday shenanigans at Brakebills. I liked the marble lessons and the fact that people nicknamed them. I liked the disciplines and how they were tested. I liked the dark scandals lurking under the polished surface.

By books 2 and 3, however, I started to feel like Grossman was no longer using his deconstructive stick to curiously poke at popular series so much as he was peering through the fourth wall to aggressively beat me over the head with it, and my enjoyment started to sour…considerably.

The underlying message was always there: Escapism Is Bad. Grossman clearly went out of his way to target two of the best known escapist series, Harry Potter and Narnia, in which everyday children find themselves invited into fantastical worlds hidden from the rest of the everyday people. It’s handled with some nuance at first, in that our unreliable narrator tends to rewrite events to better fit the narrative he desires (ie, thinking everything is Perfect and Wonderful among the Physical Kids when there is actually a great deal of tension and backbiting) and inhibits Quentin’s personal growth as he refuses to let go of this gold standard of satisfaction that he can never quite reach because it’s 90% fuzzy childhood nostalgia. These are reasonable traps for people to fall into, and interesting to explore.

But then lo! What do you know! Fillory is real and our dysfunctional pack of adults who aren’t coping in the real world charge in there with their guns and alcoholism and emotional baggage, and any hope of nuance goes straight out the window. Fillory isn’t a thoughtful exploration of what it would actually mean to be a real other world prone to other-dimensional drop-ins; we don’t spend enough time there for it to be developed in that way. Instead, Grossman just makes it…gross. The talking bears are boring and gassy, cute bunny warriors are gorily disembowelled, and there’s a naked giant with a flaming cock. Right. Cool. Okay.

And then we meet Martin Chatwin. The concept that the big bad was one of the original kids was actually decent, but the execution was heavy-handed. In the short period he’s on the page, Martin’s manchild status is drummed in at every opportunity and Quentin finally has a goddamn epiphany just in time to dramatically intone the Aesop as if we could possibly still be unaware that Escapism Is Bad. By the time it’s casually revealed that the Fillory author (aka, the CS Lewis / Professor counterpart) was a bloody child molester and Martin found Fillory in the first place because he was trying to escape one of the most awful aspects of the real world, I was pretty over the dreary pretension of the whole thing. Your childhood dreams are unrealistic garbage! No fun allowed!

Honestly, I walked away from this book feeling like Grossman wrote this series *because* he doesn’t like popular fantasy; not as a side-effect or starting point, but because he had a frustrated grudge and decided to vent it in novel form. There are deconstructions that come from a place of love, or at least respect, and then there’s The Magicians, which markets itself as “Harry Potter for adults” – which is of course going to lure in fans of escapist fantasies, many of whom read these books as children and are now adults struggling with the real world™ – and then sinks the boot in as many times as it can manage. Do you want your Hogwarts letter now, kids? Do you??

Tldr: I came here to have a good time and I’m feeling a tad attacked right now.

Other than that: Alice was the only character I felt any sort of affection for and she didn’t deserve about 75% of everything that happened to her; I appreciated that Quentin spent the climax being completely fucking useless, it was fitting; wtf fox sex; Martin’s first appearance as The Beast was very cool (the visuals reminded me of a video game glitch) and the later revelation that a) he literally eats people and b) does it with blunt human teeth makes that semi-offscreen death a lot more horrifying; I hope Penny has fun in his Neitherworld library, hands or no; I wanted to know more about Jane.

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