Sunday, June 28, 2009

Magicians by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman's Magicians (published by Viking in August) is a truly inspired book. The author of Codex has constructed a highly believable alternative world of magic and sorcery. We see it through the eyes of Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant, though a bit neurotic, high achieving, nerd from Brooklyn. He finds himself in a familiar situation, competing for an opening in a highly selective institution of higher learning, except he's never heard of it before, doesn't know how he got there, and people disappear from the crowded exam room. Quentin, a sensitive bookish young man, is miserable enough in his personal life and sufficiently intrigued to accept his admission way off the Ivy League track. And the work is challenging, tedious and fascinating, as he learns to transform into animals and travel between dimensions of time. Just as difficult are his peers, the incredibly talented and personally reticent Alice, Penny, aggressive with his mohawk and street creed, and the enigmatic and debauched Eliot.

They and other students are the core of this college student's "coming of age." As Quentin struggles to develop his magical abilities to deal with his workload, he also discovers what it's like, as a loner, to be accepted by a group of gifted equals. Together they experiment with sex, booze and magical excess. But he also experiences the disillusionment of learning that sorcery and magic can't rescue you, that it doesn't change your world. Love and work prove as complicated and muddled, and as emotionally painful, as they can be in ordinary reality. After graduation and an aimless dissipated period in New York City, the friends hit on an essential discovery. They can go to Filory, a place in treasured fantasy novels that turns out to be real. Yet the Filory they visit is not the benign destination of children. It's an adult world of irrational cruelty and the misuse of extraordinary power. They must deal with their own darkness, betrayal of love and themselves, in the adventure of their lifetimes.

This is a very adult book that teens may also like because the characters are insecure yet have sparks of genius. It's a smart. knowing look at adolescents--self-conscious, ironically recognizing their shortcomings, yet admirable in their desire to become their best. And in the process, as Quentin navigates the tricky passage to adulthood, he questions the relevance of his ambitions. In the end, an older Quenton suffers disillusionment with himself, the chagrin of his own idiocy, and goes beyond that to accept his own eccentric place in the world.

Magicians is not Harry Potter or Fowles' Magus though it's akin to both with some "animal house" tossed in. It's also a distant American relation to CS Lewis or EB White. But ultimately this is an outrageously original book, a page turner that's thoughtful, very funny, and emotionally satisfying. I hope Tim Burton directs the movie. Recommended--Magicians is an amazing read.