Sunday, December 06, 2009

Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

My boss won't be happy with this, and my mom's been nagging me to "stop reading novels and get your journal article done already!", but I can't resist the public library, especially the one in my neighbourhood, which stocks a whole bunch of dark, Gothic works.

Hey mom, you need to share some of the blame for dragging me there to find books for you. :)

My taste this year has shifted dramatically, thanks to True Blood, and maybe partly due to the Twilight franchise hype. But definitely much more credit goes to TB.

I've read Grossman's Codex from a few years back. Found it so-so, and got completely lost in the last few chapters, so I didn't get his follow-up right away when it was first published.

Strangely enough, I came face to face with it a few weeks ago while looking for another author, and decided to give it a go.

Am really glad I did. :)

In a nutshell, The Magicians is what I'd describe as a very grown-up, very vulgar and very disconcerting version of the Harry Potter series. The characters begin their education at the age of 18, experiment wildly with everything from booze to drugs to sex and dangerous spells of all varieties, then embark on a perilous adventure to a Narnia-like world which is actually a milllion times more evil.

The central character, Quentin Coldwater, is richly yet delicately drawn. He doesn't have a tragic history like Harry Potter, but possesses his own personal demons, and is far from likeable in the conventional sense. He is egoistic, sulky, anti-social and unfaithful. But he also displays a great talent, earning a place in the fast-track programme at school, and wins the love of a fellow top student.

Ambiguity is the common thread among all the principal characters, with Quentin's close-knit group of friends garnering the most page-time. Girlfriend Alice is wonderfully interesting -- small in stature but huge in magical strength. Eliot is clearly gay and alcohol-dependent, but provides comic relief when least expected. Then there's Penny, the punky but super-uptight fellow ( yes, he's a guy ) who leads his friends to Fillory, a land which was originally thought to be fictional, but soon turns out to be frighteningly real.

The novel has garnered rave reviews from all the top critics, and it's easy to see why.
Grossman's style is abundantly peppered with words that make me reach for my dictionary, but maintains a smooth texture and never sinks into dullness. I love reading his detailed descriptions of Quentin's school, with its supernatural fountains, hidden passages and a marvelous welters board ( read the book if you need to know ). The characters' relationships are in a constant flux, and I enjoy the fact that each chapter brings an entirely new dynamic into play.

Humour is what won me over, with 2 references making me literally laugh out loud. One mentions Quidditch, and the other - of all things - The Karate Kid. Reading the line "wax on, wax off" during a most appropriate incident was priceless!

Where mind-boggling scenarios are concerned, there are too many to choose from. Just off the top of my head: 1) Quentin's audition for magician's college, 2) the many lessons the students participate in, 3) a beautiful rite of passage involving a trip to the South Pole, 4) the terrifying first encounter with The Beast and, of course, 5) their entire journey through Fillory, with a nail-biting confrontation with The Beast -- can't imagine how that will translate onto the screen, if someone ever decides to make a movie / TV series out of this.

Grossman's already juggling ideas for a sequel, as clearly indicated in the last page, when Quentin embarks on a new adventure.

Next time, I'll be sure to make a reservation at the library. :)

At the moment, I'm hooked on Laurell K. Hamilton, whom I knew nothing about until my eyes happened to glance over at a nearby shelf while searching for something else. All the early Anita Blake novels are on loan, so I decided to sample her short story collection.
So far, it's been an exhilarating ride!
Hamilton doesn't favour bombastic vocabulary like Grossman, but her simple and concise prose is equally evocative, and works extremely well in this format. She can flesh out characters in 20 pages flat, make you love or hate them, and make your skin crawl as well.
I'm only halfway through this, and have already encountered zombies, vampires, demons, lake monsters, elves, black and white healers, and violently persistent Cupid cherubs.
If your head's spinning, I don't blame you.
It's a rollercoaster, but the adrenaline rush is so worth it!

Another book I'm eyeing: Tom Holland's The Vampyre, which claims Lord Byron was a member of the blood-sucking family. Semi-fictional - I hope.
( And yes, I stumbled across it at the library. Heh. :))

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