Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"The Magicians"

One of the books I'm reading right now. I bought it a couple months back - in hardcover - which I rarely do (most books I wait for paperbacks, or until Powell's or somewhere have used copies on their website).

But I had read a really interesting review of it, and I wanted to read it.

It's what I call a "secret lover" book - one that you find so absorbing that you wind up sneaking off to read a few pages here and there, stealing time from other things you really should be doing.

Normally, for me, those kinds of books are one written in first-person POV; this one is in (if I remember the terminology correctly) limited third-person - the world is seen through the eyes of Quentin Coldwater (the protagonist)

I'm going to try to avoid spoilers here (and anyway, I'm about 1/4 of the way through the book so far, so there's not much to be spoiled yet, I guess) but I have to give a little bit of detail.

The story involves a school for magicians. But this is not Hogwarts...the students are older, the stakes are a lot higher. (And something really terrible just happened a few pages ago, something that will probably really divert the path of Quentin's life, and not in a good way, I expect).

Actually, it's reading a bit more like "The Secret History" (roll your eyes if you must, but I kind of liked that one) than Harry Potter. Or maybe it's like a mash-up of Harry Potter, The Secret History, and Catcher in the Rye - in that Quentin is in some respects kind of a Holden Caulfield-like character. Or at least, a character who read Catcher in the Rye once and decided it was cool and decided to model himself somewhat on Holden. (And I knew people in high school who were like that).

And maybe there's a bit of "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" (Another book I LOVED) thrown in.

Brakebills (that's the magicians' college) is a lot less warm and fuzzy than Hogwarts (even in Hogwarts' least-fuzzy portrayals). Bad stuff, seriously bad stuff, can and will happen. Eternal vigilance is required on the part of the faculty to tamp down that darkness and keep it from invading.

Also, the characters are not lovable Ron Weasleys or Hermione Graingers. They're foul-mouthed, one of the students apparently sexually abuses some of the other students (well, maybe abuses is not exactly the right word; it seems the encounters are consensual). Quentin gets into a spectacular fight with a punk who calls himself Penny. Again, you get a sense of a dark current running under things, that there's this struggle between good and evil and evil could just possibly win.

But aside from that, there's all the fascinating (made-up, obviously, but I find this is a book it's easy to suspend disbelief for) impedimentia dealing with learning to work magic. One of the early tests students face - they are given a clear glass marble and asked to enchant it in some way. (Alice, who seems to be the most powerful magician there, but is painfully shy and has secrets of her own, animates it and turns it into a small glass creature that runs around the table top). And there are different "Disciplines," vaguely corresponding to college majors (though they are chosen for you by the faculty, based on what they deem your aptitudes to be: there are Physical Magicians, and Herbalists, and Healing Magicians...)

And I think part of it is, really, at its base, it's a school-story. (Just like Harry Potter is, just like many of the British childrens' books I read as a kid were). And I find school-stories interesting. I suppose it's because I'm in academia, it's something I know and love and find familiar.

And I admit - something I've never totally outgrown - I catch myself writing myself into the story. Or reconfiguring the world to put myself in it. Would I be the student gifted in herbology, who can make healing potions from simple garden flowers? Or would I be a Knowledge magician, who keeps the secrets and the information and sees that it is passed on? And it's a fascinating world, despite the fact that I fear it may "break bad" in the coming chapters.

It's an absorbing book. I may not wind up loving it (many "modern" novels frustrate me in some way; often it has to do with the unwritten rule that every character has to be tragically flawed and deeply troubled and do something that screws up their life, even when that "something" is a thing that I - as a relatively innocent and unworldly person can see coming, and wind up cringing and doing the literary equivalent of the person saying "don't go in the basement!" to a character in a horror movie). But it's a fascinating story and the characters are rich and complex.

1 comment:

Kate P said...

Interesting to hear from someone who has read this! I haven't read it yet, but I ordered it in to my library after getting a request from a student (now wondering if I should've looked into it a bit more for appropriateness, but I've seen worse).

Right now I'm doing the "secret lover" thing (heh) with "Incarceron" by Catherine Fisher. The writing is so-so but the story and inventiveness is enthralling.