The Magicians

Before I say anything, I want to thank Lev Grossman for being generous with his time and visiting my book club to discuss his book, The Magicians. He was open to all questions, insisted that we should pull no punches, and a lot of the stories he shared about writing the book were great. We were very excited about having an author there to discuss his book, and the fact that he spent two hours with us was a testament to his willingness to chat with readers.

That said, The Magicians is not without a few flaws and because I want to discuss everything in depth, this review has two parts to it. The first part is my usual review -- a general overview of the book and my overall reaction. The second part is a bit weird, because it's more or less a bunch of individual topics of discussion from the book, which means there are spoilers galore. BUT the second part ALSO has more to do with the visit that Grossman paid to my book club, so feel free to make your own decision about how much you read.

To start, if you heard this book described as "Harry Potter for adults" and you're looking for a magical book that could in any way merit the term "fantasy," this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a fiction book that deals with magic as though it is brought into our existing world for a select few as another facet of life, but there is a distinct lack of joy and wonderment, then your search is at an end.

I've had mixed feelings about The Magicians from the moment I read its description in a review, and those mixed feelings continue even now, after I've gotten to speak with the author and ask some lingering questions. I was initially intrigued by the idea, but had already decided to wait for paperback when my book club selected it, with the tantalizing potential of actually having Lev Grossman come to talk to us through the contacts of one of the members. I bought it; I took off the slipcover so it wouldn't be damaged as it knocked about in my purse; and I was immediately annoyed by the embossed "L.G." on the front cover. I like pretentiousness, don't get me wrong, but seriously? I should have taken this as a sign of things to come.

Those embossed initials don't even come close to the tone of the novel in general and the main character in particular. And not in a good "this is a really fascinating character" kind of way. I have so rarely wanted to punch a fictional person as much as I wanted to punch Quentin Clearwater, our protagonist. I'm a pacifist and I dislike violence, but it was a visceral reaction that would surge through me, forcing me to set the book down and take a deep breath before I could pick it up again. This annoyance would abate, and there were moments of pleasure and amusement, but through it all, I couldn't help but think that if I could just get in one solid punch, I'd be able to feel better about everything. Of course, Quentin does get punched at one point, and while I was pleased by that scene, I can't say that it really made me feel better, so perhaps I'm wrong about the therapeutic punching. (Note: despite the fact that Quentin is very closely aligned with the author in tone, this pugilistic impulse never focused on the author, thankfully. Though perhaps it helped that a month passed between my reading the book and discussing the book with the author and my book club.)

The basic storyline is this. Quentin Clearwater has grown up in Brooklyn with a penchant for magic tricks, an obsession with a series of children's books set in a land called Fillory, and a very acute awareness of his own incredible intelligence. He's always been advanced, he's always been an A-student, yet now that he's applying to and interviewing for colleges, he somehow feels a bit nervous. But when he shows up for his interview, he discover the body of his interviewer, dead of seemingly natural causes. A rather out-of-place and attractive paramedic offers Quentin a folder that might or might not have belonged to the dead interviewer and Quentin takes it, despite his friend cautioning otherwise. When Quentin inspects the contents, a slip of paper is blown away and in chasing it, he finds himself entering what appears to be an alternate world. Of course, it's not an alternate world but it might as well be; it's upstate New York and Quentin has arrived/been summoned to take an entrance exam for an elite school -- and once passing, he learns that the school is a school for magic. Instead of college, he will attend Brakebills and learn how to be a magician. Magic is real. His world is forever changed, but whether it's for the better or worse is up for debate.

Sound familiar? It should. (Well, at least up until the the better or worse bit.) It's the plot of countless fantasy novels where a young person is spirited away from a boring or painful existence and exposed to a world of magic. It is impossible not to think of Harry Potter (though Grossman insists that he conceived of the idea of this novel before The Boy Who Lived entered our lives). What makes The Magicians different is that it includes a few things that other similar novels do not (notably, lots of sex, alcohol, and swearing) and it ventures to pose some questions left unimagined in Narnia or Hogwarts. Instead of staying in school for the duration of the novel, these magicians continue on, into the world, and are left to ask "what's the point?" If you can cast a spell, can you ever really grow up? And if magic cannot make you happy, can anything?

A few words of assessment before I launch into spoiler-land. First of all, I am glad that I read this book. And I'm glad that it was written. I'm just not sure that Grossman was the best one to do it. It was very hard not to associate Quentin with Grossman (and Grossman himself admitted to being quite closely aligned with Quentin when he discussed the novel with my book club) and I think we get too bogged down with Quentin to really explore the more interesting questions about magic that the book touches upon. I did, however, like the book more after speaking with Grossman. Sure, it was nice to have a few suspicions validated, but it also reminded me that books are written by imperfect people with original ideas, and I'd rather have them attempt to bring those ideas into the world than leave them to languish in their minds.

For fantasy-lovers, I urge a bit of caution in reading this novel. True, the book is riddled with touchstones and nods to other works (Fillory is quite obviously Narnia and jokes are made at one time about Quidditch)... but perhaps the biggest issue that I had with The Magicians is that the tone of the novel felt calculated. It was as though Grossman (being a fantasy reader himself) knew his market well -- and to win over the readers with a sense of being "in" on things, he left these nods to other stories so readers could go, "hey, I know where he got that idea!" or "look at that joke about this other book!" But instead of feeling like there was camaraderie between reader and writer in this recognition, there was a touch of disdain. Even as Grossman tried to lure the readers in by presenting himself as one of them, it felt as though he looked down on their love of these other works. Quentin is never really happy (and indeed, my book club unanimously agreed that without medication, he was incapable of happiness), and so I had the distinct impression that if I took delight in those other fantasy novels and expressed happiness, then I was being seen as a bit childish. The novel judges fantasy as a genre for never dealing with deeper issues, and so similarly, the reader, too, feels judged. Grossman himself didn't give this impression in person, and insisted that he's always loved fantasy (though he does have some HP issues). Perhaps it was simply my own misreading, but this seemed to be a book with a lack of respect for lighter fantasy, save as a medium through which to tell people that they're indulging in escapism. If you can be happy, then you can't possibly have it in you to tackle the bigger questions of magic. Magic was discussed without any spark of belief or wonder or joy... and so I found it very hard to see any appeal in the worlds that Grossman conjured, or feel any concern for the characters who populated them. All of this doesn't stop the book from being very interesting and having some excellent moments that made me laugh or feel deeply for the characters. There are some delightful scenes that I re-read with relish. But on the whole, I had serious doubts about how honest Grossman was being, with the readers and himself, as it pertained to his relationship with fantasy writing.

From this point on, I warn you that I will give things away. If you want to read the book and don't want any plot points spoiled, stop now. If you have read the book already, don't think you will, or don't think that knowing things about the ending of the book will stop you, then by all means, keep reading and feel free to initiate discussion on any of the topics that I raise. If nothing else, this was a great book for raising discussion questions, both about the book itself and the fantasy genre as a whole. My formal review ends here. Now it's just summaries and interesting discussion topics.


Here's the quick summary of the rest of the book. The major bulk of the novel is spent in "Book One," where Quentin attends Brakebills and learns magic. The most shocking incident occurs when somehow, a magic force (referred to as "the Beast") "hacks" into Brakebills and seems to do nothing except freeze a class in place and devour a student, departing after a few hours of keeping the class frozen in place. The encounter with the Beast alerts us to the reality of other "dimensions" of existence. As for the rest of the magical education, there are a few interesting parts (the most notable being a semester where the students are transformed into geese, fly to Antarctica, and then spend the semester mostly in silence and practical application of the rudiments of magic in every possible condition) but otherwise it's not terribly memorable. Quentin acquires a girlfriend (Alice), as well as a few other friends, mostly by virtue of their being thrown together in their studies: Eliot (gay, cruel, and somehow Quentin's closest friend after Alice), Janet (self-obsessed and a bit promiscuous), Josh (lazy and skirting along), and Penny (detached, brilliant, though not quite a friend as punches Quentin fairly early on). When Quentin and Alice enter the real world (Book Two), they become lost as to what they should be doing (or at least Quentin does), and only gain direction (perhaps too late, though, as Quentin has cheated on Alice by having a threesome with Eliot and Janet) when Penny discovers that Fillory is real. (Now, if the reader is looking at a hardcover edition of this book, s/he would probably assume that we go to Fillory at some point, because there are maps. But we don't get to Fillory until we're already SEVENTY PERCENT THROUGH THE BOOK. So you'd be forgiven if you were surprised when we actually do go, because I had almost given up on ever getting to actual Fillory.) They do, indeed, go to Fillory (Book Three) and take upon themselves the quest of finding the guardians of Fillory who seem to have disappeared and left the land a bit lawless. Naturally, this goes horribly wrong as they're confronted with true violence and they discover that the Beast is actually one of the children who appeared in the Fillory books that was left behind and learned how to manipulate magic for his own purposes. Alice dies in destroying the Beast, and Quentin nearly dies as well. He revives, mends, and finds his way back to "the real world," (Book Four) where he gives up magic for a time, but when given the opportunity to re-join his friends and return to Fillory... he chooses Fillory once more.

Now, here are a few "fun facts" that my book club learned from Lev Grossman.

1. Grossman based the structure of the novel on Brideshead Revisited, which is one of his favorite novels. As strange as this might sound, consider the basic arch -- a rather idyllic beginning in an elite college atmosphere followed with an abrupt (and alcohol-sodden) entry into the "real world" where the characters find it hard to cope.

2. Grossman claims that he thought of the idea for this novel in the mid-90s, "before Harry Potter" as a result of his exposure to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin (with whom Grossman is now acquainted and on a first-name basis) and other fantasy literature that featured students schooled in magic.

3. There's no getting away from the comparison that Fillory is startlingly like Narnia. It's foolish to suggest otherwise. And in fact, Grossman told us that the first draft of The Magicians actually was set in Narnia, with Aslan and CS Lewis as characters. Of course, he then spoke with some intellectual property lawyers and friends who told him that sure, it's possible, he could go ahead with a book set in Narnia, but the legal issues would put him up against the CS Lewis estate and Walt Disney Pictures... so you're also up against unlimited money to fund a legal battle that could drag on. So the idea of immediately being set in Narnia was abandoned and Fillory was born.

4. In talking with Grossman, one inevitably finds that he tends to name drop. He's a journalist who does a great deal of interviews and he wrote a book that draws heavily on other novels, so it's easily forgiveable. He admits to constantly adding in things that serve as nods to other works of fiction. You'd be right in your guess that the whole turning-into-geese thing is a nod to TH White's The Sword in the Stone and that the cacodemons imprisoned in the backs of Brakebills graduates are inspired from Larry Niven. Another one that I might add to this (which wasn't explicitly mentioned, though Grossman did mention this author as an inspiration) is Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. In this series, you find that a lot of power and magic is invested in children and when they grow up, their daemons stabilize -- and indeed, "growing up" might simply be synonymous with having sex. Grossman made a point of insisting that fantasy tends to see sex as the end of magic, whereas he believed that "sex isn't the end of magic, it's the beginning." I found this to be a great viewpoint, though the sex that occurs in The Magicians isn't always magical. On the whole, though, Grossman tended to say "I don't know if any of you have read [insert author/book]" quite a lot, as he must be fairly used to addressing audiences that wouldn't know his more obscure influences. Quite proudly, I can say that there wasn't a single reference to a book or author that he made which at least one of my book club members hadn't read.

5. Grossman repeatedly mentioned that one of the issues he had with Harry Potter (and there were several) was with the character of Dudley Dursley. When Grossman interviewed JK Rowling, he even left some of his limited interview time to address the question of Dudley. Rowling insists that Dudley is simply an unimaginative child who has no interest in magic, but Grossman believes that he would. A child on the fringe of a magical world without any interest in it whatsoever? It rubbed him the wrong way. Julia (a girl Quentin grew up with and ends up dating his best friend while Quentin pines for her) is Grossman's answer to Dudley. Quentin thinks he sees Julia at the exam, then is confronted by her at a later date, when she's completely lost it -- she's a person driven mad by the limited exposure to this magical world and then denied access. Grossman's other issue with Harry Potter is with the fact that Harry is too much of a jock and never seems to pick up a book for the duration of his magical education. Clearly, Quentin's obsession with fantasy books is correcting what Grossman believed should have been a trait of Harry. Jokingly, he even called Harry "a bit of a douchebag." Of course, he also said that he was a fan of Rowling's series, "in the limited way on can be a Harry Potter fan."

6. As far as his alignment with Quentin is concerned, Grossman admitted, "Quentin is very much like me at his age... he's very much like I was at 34" (the age at which he started writing the book). He also noted that his own battle with depression certainly found its way into Quentin's character as well, along with his somewhat distant relationship with his parents.

7. The most surprising revelation of the evening, however, was when Grossman told us that originally, it was Janet and not Alice that was supposed to die. If you search the book, you'll notice that there's a great amount of foreshadowing that points to this. (Indeed, while reading the book, I was of the opinion that Janet would get it in the end... after all, she's one of the first to admit to sex and it's always the girl who has sex that ends up dying in the horror movie.) Eventually, an intervention was performed by his editor who sat him down and explained that Janet must be given a reprieve and Alice is the one who has to be sacrificed. This surprised me greatly, as I always rather assumed Alice would have to die, too, (after all, in the first scene with Alice, the breaking of the glass animal seemed to suggest that she'd be similarly shattered in the end). When I asked how on earth the book would end with Alice alive, Lev started to explain, stopped and smirked. "No, it really wouldn't have worked at all well, would it?" (I'll talk more about Grossman's use of female characters in the novel later.)

8. Yes, there will be a sequel, and as of now, Lev Grossman is planning for a trilogy. (One of our group adamantly insisted that he simply couldn't plan a trilogy as it didn't have a chance of working well. Instead, she suggested, he should write a sequel and if things go well, then go for the third, but if he plans for three, he'll fail miserably. Lev took this in stride.)

I found a lot of what Grossman had to offer in our book club discussion to be fantastic. While I might have been the only one to come with a list of questions (it's just how I function, and hence why I have a ridiculous number of individual discussion points about the book), we always had things to ask and we spent nearly three hours in discussion. So from here on out, I'm basically just noting certain topics of conversation about the book (particular scenes or themes).

The epigraph. The book begins with a selection from Shakespeare's The Tempest. It's from act five, where Prospero is telling the audience that he's going to give up magic once he's back in the real world. In addition, when Quentin is taking the entrance exam for Brakebills, part of the exam asks him to read a passage from The Tempest and translate it into a made-up language. Clearly The Tempest means something to Grossman here -- which is not surprising in terms of the main character/author link. Prospero is frequently aligned with Shakespeare as an aging "magician" speaking directly to the audience as he spins his tales and controls the fates of those on stage. It doesn’t seem out of line that Grossman is making a nod to himself as Quentin – a dissatisfied creature who expects more from himself than what can be given. But I wanted to know why Grossman had selected this particular epigraph, as the idea of Quentin giving up magic is kind of ridiculous and Grossman seems to know that. Once exposed to magic, there's no going back. So when it looks like Quentin has "given up" magic at the end of the novel, I never believed for a moment that this would hold true. Grossman nodded and said that at the end of many fantasy novels (particularly Narnia, which was a huge influence here), everyone seems to get kicked out of the magical land and then return to the nonmagical one without too much fuss. They renounce magic and seem okay with it. Of course, it's not like they have to go back to their exact lives, but it's kind of a "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" kind of thing. Grossman also said that he thought some people might have been fooled into believing that Quentin really was giving up on magic, though if they did, then they didn't quite understand what he was doing with much of this book.

The Brooklyn joke. Throughout the book, Grossman kind of beats this joke to death -- the idea that once he's gotten to Brakebills, Quentin hates Brooklyn and would rather die than return to it. Granted, I think this can stand for the larger idea of being banished to one's previous existence after having one's eyes opened to a bigger world than that which we knew. After all, no college student is totally comfortable when they return home for the holidays and find themselves in under his/her parent's roof and rules once more. Grossman himself lives in Brooklyn, so one must assume that he has some fondness for it, but he said that while he was writing this book, "I was living in Brooklyn over the Bagel Delight ... Brooklyn just seemed like the most unmagical place." (And yes, that would be in Park Slope, mere blocks from my apartment.) I suppose I fault Grossman's lack of imagination here, or perhaps it was simply a darker point of life that led him to believe there was no magic in the real world at all, and Brooklyn was the one to bear the weight of that accusation. Needless to say, though, the joke was overused and irritated this Brooklynite.

The idea of games in novels. In reading The Magicians one might easily come away with the idea that Grossman believed a magical game to be a staple of fantasy, something one must include but he didn't seem very pleased about doing so. Welters is somewhat based on chess because Grossman wanted there to be some measure of intellectual strategy (he did not reference the giant chess game from HP in his explanation), but during the game, Quentin essentially throws in the towel and suggests that the game is pointless. To me, this seems like pretty clear criticism. Grossman, however, said that he loves novels with games in them. Thus, I felt a huge disconnect in what the novel seemed to be saying about games and what Grossman seemed to suggest about his own feelings.

The issue of his female characters. For a bunch of feminists, this was a big topic for us. Grossman's female characters are simply not as developed as his male characters. Granted, no one is as well-developed as Quentin, but the female characters like Julia, Alice, and Janet tend to be vehicles for larger ideas rather than characters in their own rights. One of the suggestions that Grossman said he receives from people is to re-write The Magicians from the perspective of Julia, the girl who didn't make it into Brakebills and essentially loses it as a result. Julia tracks down Quentin and accosts him, pathetically showing him the magic that he assumes she learned off of an internet site. Of course, by the end of the novel, Julia is a hedgewitch with enough of a grasp on magic that Janet and Eliot seem to think she's an acceptable addition to their party which will return to Fillory. Janet is a girl of uncertain motivation, which is most likely the result of the drastic destiny change. Originally Grossman planned to kill her off, but instead, she survives to make us all wonder what her purpose might have been throughout the novel if not to serve as a casualty in the fight against the Beast, aside from sleeping with several other characters. Well, that and foolishly (and irrationally, I think) unleashing the cacodemon imprisoned in her back the night after she receives it because she feels sorry for it. And then there's Alice. Alice, whose brother died at Brakebills, turning into a niffin after performing a spell for a girl than went wrong. Alice is smart, loving, and sympathetic... yet she's still defined through her relationship with Quentin. Despite coming off as the best and brightest of her class, she's evidently content to do nothing in her first year out of Brakebills, contrary to her own impulses, simply because that's what Quentin wishes to do. It's natural that her depiction should be limited when viewed through the eyes of another, but I feel that Alice definitely got the short end of the stick here, because she could have been much more than simply the one who could see and do the things that Quentin could not.

The "fox rape" scene. When in Antarctica, the professor in charge turns the students into foxes for a while -- and in this baser state, without human inhibitions, Quentin and Alice have sex for the first time. In the scene, it's a little uncertain how willing Alice is in the situation, though it's noted that her eyes rolled with pleasure (and later she mentions that it was nice). What is clearly written is that these instincts simply took over them. While I referred to this as the "fox rape" scene in my head (and another of the girls in book club definitely saw this as a rape scene), I don't necessarily think this was a rape against Alice -- I kind of thought that both Quentin and Alice were violated when they were forced into this state where they had no control over the fact that they were attracted to each other. I'm also not outraged or upset with the scene's inclusion, though. I actually thought it was an interesting event, given the context of their whole world where they give themselves over to the judgment of their teachers. I would have been irritated if this event had suddenly opened them up to a real relationship, but instead, it was treated as this awkward thing that neither of them knew how to deal with. I was more skeptical about the detached orgies that seemed to happen when the students were in Antarctica (Grossman evidently was remembering Adams House at Harvard, which was called the sex dorm).

Very precise details that may or may not have a purpose. Now, fantasy novels are usually chock full of lovely details that often serve a purpose. Small, seemingly random, things are noted -- and chances are, you'll see them have meaning within the larger whole of the book. Oftentimes, we come across something early on that plays an important role later in the book. True for lots of fantasy and certainly true for J.K. Rowling, who always seemed to have something like this pop up in a book. There are a few things like that in The Magicians... and a few things that should have been tied in a whole lot better. In fact, a lot of things that should have been tied in. There was a great amount of detail that felt wasted to me... detail for the sake of detail, which is just poor writing.

An example of a good tie-in: When the paramedic (who we later learn was Jane Chatwin, the youngest of the children who went to Fillory) is introduced, it's noted that she has a single button that's different from the other buttons. Later, we're told that in the last Fillory book, the children are given buttons that would allow them to go to Fillory any time they wanted, but one of the older children hides them, insisting that it's not right that they should have that ability. The idea is that the buttons were lost forever, but in fantasy, few things are ever lost forever. An astute reader might put the button clues together early on, but it's not necessary. Penny finds a button and gets them to Fillory and we meet Jane later on. This was a great detail that slipped in and then had a purpose later on.

This, however, was one of the few things like that. There were many many other details that popped up and had no value. They only served as points of annoyance, because it was meaningless detail. (1) Quentin evidently calls Alice "Vix" as a term of endearment as a result of their foxy beginning... once. Or rather, it's mentioned that he called her this, but that's the only time we ever see it used. Chances are, this came up again in some draft, so really, it's poor editing to leave it in. (2) At the beginning of their magical education, the students spend night and day with a marble each -- and this marble is the focus for much of their initial experimentation. Quentin names his marble "Martin" (the name of the child who becomes "The Beast"). After such focus on the marbles, you'd think something might come up again later. All I can come up with is that this is hinting to the reader that the real Martin is much more important than we might realize, as he comes back as the Beast, but I feel like I'm just forcing meaning into that one. (3) Disciplines... everyone goes through the idea of having a Discipline but Quentin never tests into one... and then it hardly seems to matter! The only purpose seems to be to get Alice and Quentin closer to "the Physical Kids" -- Janet, Eliot and Josh -- but then the concept of Disciplines gets rather abandoned. It was rather annoying to introduce this structure and then never have anything come of it. It felt like the desire to "sort" people in an HP way. (4) The silver statue of the bird that is in Fogg's office. It's a partially transformed metal bird, serving perhaps as a reminder about magic that doesn't quite work. I asked Grossman if this was the weathervane that Richard was drunkenly convinced he could transform into a real bird. Grossman smiled and said he hadn't thought of that.

I could keep going, but I'll stop here. There wasn't any indication that these things would come back in future novels, but perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised. (Well, except that Alice is dead, so we can't call her Vix. And we've moved beyond marbles. And Disciplines. So that leaves the silver bird.)

Alice and Quentin skip a year. A Brakebills education is supposed to last five years, but rather randomly, Quentin, Alice, and Penny are approached in their second year by faculty who suggest that they should take an exam to see if they're ready to skip a year. There's no purpose this, aside from banding them together and then breaking them apart. (This little threesome will be an important focal point later on, too, when Alice sleeps with Penny to get back at Quentin for his Janet/Eliot threesome.) When we asked him about this, he admitted that five years started to seem a little long, and this was an easy way to create the Alice-Quentin-Penny tension. I'm not quite sure that's enough for me, but ah well.

Slipping out of character. Grossman allows his characters to slip out of character when the mood suits or it’s good for a laugh. Pretentious and articulate young people are suddenly baffled when one of them has a somewhat complicated conversation with an adult; Quentin’s parents are first seen as concerned and then brushed off quite easily and find themselves surprised when he’s in the house and home on breaks; it’s suggested that Quentin has never called anyone “sir” before. It was irritating to see that it was easy to break out of character to have a laugh.

The stand-out sentences. Perhaps it's not a criticism of the book, but of Grossman's style. He has certain sentences that pop-out painfully. They're probably intended to be clever or beautiful and poetic... but really, they just seemed dreadfully out of place. They didn't even feel like Grossman, really, so I half-wondered if they were sentences or phrases that he had gotten from other places or people. Some examples: “That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of glad he hit you.” and “Just then, for an instant, the film of reality slipped off the spokes of its projector.”

Of course, there were some great things that Grossman included, which I feel a need to list out here, as I know the overall tone of these points are fairly negative. (1) After talking about annoying lines, I'll start with a line that I really enjoyed. When Alice has just died and the Beast/Martin has been defeated: “Quentin either fainted or died, he didn’t know which.” (2) When the students are transformed into geese to fly off to Antarctica, I thought that Grossman did a great job of presenting a very single-focus perspective. I also liked the reality of things here; as when Quentin is tossed off the tower by a teacher and he “shat on her feet in panic.” (3) It was predictable, but I liked the fact that Quentin and Alice were the only ones to embark on the optional Antarctica survival trial. (4) The swearing. Sure, sometimes it's over-the-top, but it's nice to recognize that young adults swear a great deal, and certainly would in some of these situations. It was also interesting how Grossman would very consciously seem to make a stance on certain swearing... for instance, when the phrase "howling cunt" is used, he writes that "howling" was a big word at Brakebills that year. (5) My favorite scene of the book is when Quentin and Alice have split and Quentin loses it when he realizes that Alice has slept with Penny. Unable to do anything else, he seizes ahold of his anger and becomes a cheerleader for their departure for Fillory, which everyone has been consciously/unconsciously putting off. For once, Quentin becomes the one to actually *do* something. (6) And finally, here's a big one. I didn't so much appreciate the explicitness of certain things when it came to Quentin's opinion on magic, but if he was going to do it, I liked how he phrased it when Alice talks to Quentin: “That’s what makes you different from the rest of us, Quentin. You actually believe in magic. You do realize, right, that nobody else does? I mean, we all know magic is real. But you really believe in it. Don’t you.” Quentin *believes* in magic magic, he doesn’t just trust it as a type of science. Of course, this is also part of the fact that he believes magic can make him happy, which he slowly comes to realize is not the case.

And last but not least... the whole unhappiness issue. It pervades the entire book. I would have preferred this to be a bit subtler, but nope. From the very beginning, Quentin is unhappy. Indeed, it almost appears as though he blames books for his unhappiness, or at least for giving him a vision of happiness that he cannot achieve: “In Fillory, things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world. In Fillory you felt the appropriate emotion when things happened. Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility. It came when you called. Or no, it never left you in the first place.” Grossman has pointed out in interviews that he wrote The Magicians while struggling with his own depression, so he certainly channeled his own experience to craft that of Quentin's. Indeed, Grossman noted at our book club that he thinks Quentin's depression clouded his abilities -- that he was on the cusp of not making it into Brakebills because it blinded him to certain things, and so he required the extra push from Fogg to get out of the haze to recognize what he was capable of doing. Even when he makes it into Brakebills, Quentin "experiments" with being happy... laughing out loud and toying with the idea, but it doesn't suggest that anything is genuinely felt. At one point, Quentin wonders, “Wasn’t there a spell for making yourself happy? Somebody must have invented one. How could he have missed it? Why didn’t they teach it?” The only surprising thing here is that to recognize his unhappiness suggests that he had somehow broken out of it for a time. Prior to the obsessive studying required for skipping up a year, Quentin doesn't seem happy, but he must not have been quite as down, for he notices a difference as he slides: “He recognized the irritable, unpleasant, unhappy person he was becoming: he looked strangely like the Quentin he thought he’d left behind in Brooklyn.” Of course, Quentin feels terribly alone in his unhappiness (and Grossman has said that he was definitely wrestling with his own depression while writing part of The Magicians, but not a single one of the magicians seem happy and each one of them has different ways of dealing with this. When asked why most people can’t do magic, Eliot says: “One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to get it right.” He continues with points, but this second point is perhaps the most telling. Shortly after that, there's a scene where Quentin and Eliot are on the river, looking at the eight-woman skull out of West Point -- it's beautiful summer weather for Quentin and Eliot, but it's cold and gray for the women, who are described as grim. Quentin and Eliot know that the enchantment on Brakebills locks the women out of the beautiful summer weather that Quentin and Eliot got to experience. But really, it’s Quentin and Eliot who are the miserable ones, it simply has nothing to do with the weather. I rather enjoyed the dark and twisted Fogg who takes the graduates into the cellar where they're forced to have a cacodemon imprisoned in their backs. Fogg (who seems to have given the unhappiness issue even more thought than the students) asks them, “Can a man who can cast a spell every really grow up? ... I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy.” He twists this into something positive, that magicians can use the pain, but he doesn’t seem to make a terribly convincing case here. Indeed, when we see adult magicians, we see Alice's eccentric parents who seem to live separate lives. Later, when Alice and Quentin are having sex in her parents’ house, Alice makes Quentin promise her that they’ll be happy, and she says it as though they’re arguing. The novel says that Quentin wouldn’t have disagreed with her in the throes of sex, but it doesn’t explicitly say that he promised, and indeed, if he had, that's a promise he would have broken. I'm not sure if Lev Grossman was all that surprised when my book club unanimously agreed that, without medication, Quentin has no chance of ever being happy. And even with medication, I'm a little skeptical. (Side note: the effects of medication mixed with magic... this was never touched upon in the book and I was a little surprised. Perhaps in the sequel.) Clearly, the question of whether these unsatisfied people can ever be happy is a main question of the book, and indeed, the book seems to suggest that the best one can hope for is simply to be invested in a project. Or at least that seems to be the best Quentin can hope for.

So... that was a very long review/discussion topic post. Sorry about that. I did a lot of studying of this book to make sure we were prepared to meet the author, and on top of that, this really was an interesting book in the commentary it make about magic and fantasy. I didn't like the main character and the book felt like it could have achieved so much more with the material, but ultimately, it was a really great book for discussion and one has to give Grossman credit for bringing this idea into the market.


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Not to be trite, but The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is one of the tastiest reads that I've devoured this year. It's one of those rare books where you'll fret over your desire to gobble it down versus savoring it in small bites. It's a delicious-- okay, I'll stop now. But seriously, it's a great book, you should read it.

The setting is Bishop's Lacey, a small, sleepy English town in 1950. Flavia Sabina Dolores de Luce, eleven, is better at chemistry than most of us can probably ever hope to be. (And the Dolores is a lie. She sometimes fabricates things.) She is our narrator and when asked what her passion is in life, Flavia unhesitatingly says chemistry. She even has her own lab which was originally created by a great-uncle and then used by her mother, who died in Tibet when Flavia was still a baby. It's her sanctuary in her her family's sprawling and somewhat dilapidated manor house where Flavia lives with her reclusive father (Colonel de Luce), two sisters (Ophelia and Daphne, whom she loathes), and Dogger (Colonel de Luce's once-manservant/driver and now gardener with a loose grip on the day-to-day, as he came back from the war a bit shattered).

The novel starts on a seemingly normal day (after a fight with Ophelia, Flavia stole her lipstick, melted it down to mix with the essential oil of poison ivy leaves, and reformed the lipstick using a .45 caliber slug) and then something peculiar happens. The housekeeper opens the kitchen door to discover a dead jack snipe with a stamp impaled on its beak. Flavia's father is visibly shaken and later, Flavia eavesdrops at the keyhole of his study to see and hear him argue with a redheaded man Flavia has never seen in her life. For her quiet philatelist of a father, this is uncommon behavior -- but perhaps more uncommon is when Flavia walks through the cucumber patch in the pre-dawn hours and discovers a body. It is the redheaded man with whom her father had been arguing and he breaths his last word into Flavia's face: "Vale!" Unlike most eleven-year-olds, Flavia does not run in fear: "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the opposite. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

Well, I think you can guess by this point that Flavia is not the kind of girl to simply leave this matter to the authorities, particularly when she calls them and once arriving, they tell her to run along. While the police conduct their investigation (in which her father is the prime suspect), Flavia does some sleuthing of her own. The result is a fantastic journey into her father's less-than-innocent school days, priceless stamps, and magic tricks that go horribly right.

By far, the most delightful part of this novel is the refreshing voice of Flavia, whose steadfast determination and piercing intelligence might be characteristic of a mystery novel detective, but her charm and occasional childish whimsy make for something original and fresh. With her knowledge of poisons and capacity for revenge, she is certainly a dangerous force; though despite her vast knowledge of chemistry and her very adult means of analysis, she is still a child wrapped up in fights with her sisters and desperate to clear her somewhat distant father, for he is the only parent she has left. Flavia also knows something adults tend to forget, which is that the best way to get information is to ask someone, and in a small town, certain people will always know everyone's business. Her search for information takes her all over Bishop's Lacy (on her trusty bicycle, Gladys) and as a result, we are exposed to a delightful cast of small-town characters, who might not always be as smitten with Flavia as the reader, but certainly understand that this is a remarkable young girl who sees far more than anyone else.

When I finished the novel, I rather lamented the fact that the story is so wrapped up in Flavia's family history that a second might be a difficult thing to pull off -- but evidently, Alan Bradley is working on a another Flavia de Luce novel, for which I can only be thankful. Bradley himself is retired from a career in media and television, and this is his first novel (though he did co-author a Sherlock Holmes work). He won the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award for this particular tale, so mystery lovers should take note. And even if you are not a mystery lover, I heartily recommend The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I don't think that you'll be disappointed with the remarkably enchanting Flavia de Luce -- and if you love books, I recommend buying this in hardcover, as it's a beautiful little volume, compact and elegant without a dustjacket. Though really, if you're a friend of mine with whom I exchange presents at the holidays, forget everything you've read here -- you'll be getting this novel soon enough as a gift.


Sense and Sensibility - Read Aloud

Loving Austen's work as I do, it would take me months to write a real review of Sense and Sensibility that would encompass my emotional and intellectual reactions to the novel and its place in Austen's oeuvre, so the only thing I'll be "reviewing" here pertains to my latest reading of the book that spans April to September of 2009. My significant other and I read aloud to each other. (Yes, it's sickeningly adorable, we know.) It started as a project of reading the other our favorite novels. Since he had already read my actual favorite, Persuasion (at my encouragement the year before), I selected Pride and Prejudice and to continue the Austen education (as we're still muddling through his selection of Moby Dick), he requested Sense and Sensibility.

Reading a novel aloud, you might guess, makes for an interesting experience, particularly when it's a novel that you're quite familiar with... because somehow, you stumble upon things you never noticed. Words that you might have skipped over in a quick read or never knew how to pronounce are brought into the spotlight as definitions are requested or pronunciation corrections given. In addition, to read a novel aloud to someone means that reading is no longer this solitary communion between reader and novel. With an additional participant, there's an added dimension of dialogue and discussion. We try not to get "teacher-y" with leading questions, as obviously one of us knows how the story will turn out while the other is being exposed to everything for the first time. I also tried not to let my Austen research seep in too much as side commentary, but I couldn't always help myself. Some things, like how the novel was originally titled "Elinor and Marianne" or that it was originally published without Austen's name, but rather it was listed as "By a Lady"... well those things are harmless. Telling him that in the Ang Lee version, Emma Thompson plays Elinor and in real life, she married Willoughby... well, that got a little confusing for him.

So, my listener and I might summarize the basic plot of the novel as such: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are two sisters with very different means of expression. Both are thoughtful and feeling young women, but Elinor tends to keep things to herself whereas Marianne sees no reason to hide emotions. Their father dies and their family (including mom and a little sister that we basically ignore) moves into a cottage owned by their mother's cousin, but not before Elinor develops an attachment to her half-brother's wife's brother Edward Ferras, who is considered out of her league in terms of fortune by his family. Once they move to Devonshire, Marianne falls head over heels for the dashing Mr. Willoughby, though she also inspires a quiet love in the older Colonel Brandon, who has a somewhat complicated past. Austen originally intended to show "sense" triumph over "sensibility," but as she wrote the novel, her feelings wavered on whether one should entirely discount "sensibility."

My own love for Sense and Sensibility aside, I was a little surprised at certain of his reactions to particular sections... and then quickly realized that, as an intelligent reader, he did have some points. Whenever he complained about Elinor being a bit of a wet blanket... well... he's kind of right. And yes, Marianne is incredibly selfish. And it's not terribly easy to remember all the names and family connections. (I made him a character list/family tree chart that he would occasionally consult as I read.) But it was comforting to know that a surprise at the end of the novel was just as much of a surprise for him as a first-time reader as it was for my pre-teen adolescent self when I first read it. And even more so, I was pleased that he found this to be a delightful and interesting plot-point rather than something ridiculous that reflected poor planning on the author's part.

I might adore the novel, but even I can admit that it certainly reflects Austen as a younger, less developed writer. Sense and Sensibility is a very different novel from Pride and Prejudice, but it's impossible to not make certain comparisons as both novels focus on two sisters who are not wealthy. And while S&S might have been written and published first, it's a much sadder novel than P&P, and actually a little more complex when it comes to how Austen feels about her characters. This is not to say that there are more complex characters here, it's just that this is a more interesting novel to study in terms of an author's complicated relationship with her characters. Austen might align herself with Elinor, but we must admit that there's the touch of the Marianne about her.

I've discussed Sense and Sensibility with people any times before, but never in a situation where our reading at the same pace allows us to address immediate scenes and actions. As a result, we often discussed particular phrases as it pertained to her writing style, making comparisons with P&P or Persuasion. We spent a lot of time talking about some of the supporting characters (and why their voices are so much more fun to do than the main characters'), why Austen considered certain scenes to be necessary in the general arch of the story, and where we saw clear foreshadowings of particular scenes or characters in P&P.

Overall, if you're looking to read an Austen novel to your significant other, I would recommend Pride and Prejudice over this one, unless you're prepared to handle a few outbursts. ("Yes! We get it! Elinor is bottling it all inside! But can't she just punch Lucy in the nose just once?" or "Wait a minute. That was a duel. There was a duel in an Austen novel and we don't even get to see it?! And they both miss?! That's utterly ridiculous!") We had a great time, though, and it was a quick read for us. It's a beautiful, fantastic novel that any real literature fan should experience -- preferably before the Ang Lee version, though I consider it to be one of the best Austen movie adaptations out there.

Next up for our reading? Wuthering Heights. But we're still disemboweling whales on his side, so I might try to make it through a bit more of that before we start to tackle Heathcliff and the moors.


A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty has edged its way onto many a tabletop display in bookstores and I finally decided to break down and see why. To start, the cover is pretty darn alluring for its market of adolescent girls. Giant type over a beautiful girl in a corset... immediately, we're clued in that we're going to find a historical novel with some luscious undertones and most likely a romantic (though probably forbidden) storyline in the background, but with one girl's struggle to fit into a particular mold of society taking precedence. (Or at least if you study bookcovers like I do, you might think this.) And this is true... somewhat. I'll admit, though, I was surprised when the back of the book told me about the supernatural elements at play that were more than the usual ghosts and suspense found in Gothic novels.

This is the first in a trilogy of books set in the late 1800s about Gemma Doyle, a young British girl raised in India. On her sixteenth birthday, she feuds with her mother over her desire to visit London and runs off, only to then have her mother and another man die in a strange and mysterious way. Also mysterious is the fact that Gemma witnesses their deaths in an overpowering vision, but cannot understand what forces are at work, both in their deaths and in her vision. Gemma's father, whose hold on things already seems tenuous at best, suffers a nervous collapse and they return to England, where Gemma will attend the prestigious Spence boarding school for young ladies.

At Spence, she is immediately faced with the structured Victorian lifestyle that requires young ladies to be well-bred, compliant to the wishes of their elders, and highly accomplished. But let's not forget we're also dealing with adolescent girls and evidently, they remain the same no matter what the time period might be. At Spence, there is a strong clique of beautiful and wealthy girls that Gemma at once despises and yet feels pulled towards. At the same time, Gemma is still having flashes of visions and she discovers that she's been followed to England by a young Indian man (the brother of the man who died with her mother) who warns her to block out the visions at all costs. At this point, I find it hard to summarize without laughing a little bit... girl is unsure of her powers; girl is led to find a secret diary of another Spence girl who had similar powers; despite being warned by the Indian boy, she tries her powers out with her friends and they enter "the realms," a place where everything is shaped by their desires; girl is reunited with mother in these "realms" and mother warns her about taking magic into the real world; girl and friends do this anyway and subequently get in way over their heads with some darker force named Circe. Yeah. I suppose the less laughable summary would be: "As she struggles to keep her secret and still learn more about the powers she seems to possess, she and three friends play dangerously with forces beyond their understanding." but that's not quite as honest.

I admit right off the bat that I have a soft spot for young adult literature. There's something fascinating about work aimed towards a period of life where there's so much going on in terms of one's psychological development, education, and personality... not to mention the outward expression of it with inter-personal relationships. Young adults are finding out who they are and who they want to become. There's this interesting issue of trust at work whenever you're dealing with children's and young adult literature. What the author chooses to convey to the reader could shape this young person's life in ways they might not realize. It's fascinating and that's the logic I use whenever I think I should be reading a grown-up book. In addition, I really enjoy historical novels, so I was guiltily assuming that I'd really enjoy this series.

Not so much. On the teen education front, clearly Libba Bray's focus here was on the idea of personal insecurities and the question of coming to terms with one's self and having sincere friendships with others. There's also a healthy dose of forgiving each other and ourselves for the wrongs we've done or think we've done. Certain members (the leaders, really) of the pack of cruel girls at Spence become some of Gemma's closest friends (though honestly, it seems that this happens because of limited options) and they all have their own secrets, even as they bluff their way through appearing perfect. I feel that I'm not alone in thinking that these girls are not terribly likeable, but then, they're teenage girls. They do mean and hateful things to each other. When first entering the realms, Gemma is asked if she really trusts these girls and she immediately said yes -- which rather shocked me. Trust had not yet been earned and despite the professed bonds by the end of the book, I'm not sure it ever was merited. But, as I mentioned, we are dealing with teenage girls and at least Gemma herself is not some shining and perfect example of trust, honesty, and goodness. Everyone has flaws, though we might be a little too forgiving towards some of them. The historical features of the novel are more or less used for background elements and and when convenient in plotpoints -- one girl is being forced to marry a rich older man, gypsies (in a very stereotyped portrayal) populate the woods, there's the general backdrop of girls in a society that has specific expectations of them when they have different desires, etc. The time frame basically gave us some more Gothic elements, but clearly these girls were clearly created to seem more modern as a means of getting adolescent readers to relate to them. There are some steamy fantasies and underage drinking... definitely things that seem engineered to be more modern.

In the end, I also wasn't terribly swept away with the idea of "the realms" and the magical things taking place. Intrigued, perhaps, but never really convinced that they would be fantastic. In addition, I found most everything to be quite predictable, so I wasn't surprised by any betrayal, death, or revelations of character. And here's an incredibly petty criticism, but I was surprised when I discovered that Libba Bray herself is a redhead, as Gemma is not a convincing one. She lacks the spark of personality and there was a complete lack of a reaction from surrounding characters to this fact (and surely at the time, there would be something snide about Ireland or Scotland mentioned to Gemma once she reached Spence, and in India it would have been even rarer and comment-inducing). A bigger deal was the fact that she has her mother's green eyes. Alas.

What I did appreciate, I suppose, were the great pains taken to suggest that we're all flawed and no one is perfect. There was also a good emphasis on how there were very limited options for girls in Victorian times (even if everything didn't quite feel accurate enough). And perhaps another benefit might be that the adolescent girls reading this might end up reading real Gothic literature as a result, and fingers crossed that they won't stop reading when they realize they won't be getting the same kind of steamy scenes and blunt, modern language in the older stuff.

So... will I be reading the rest of the trilogy? Normally, you'd assume that a reviewer with these opinions would say no, but then you have to remember that I have trouble letting go of things. And when it's so easy to read young adult novels quickly, I find it hard to justify the abandonment of them. In the end, I'll let my pocketbook make the call. If I end up finding them at a used bookstore or on super sale, then I'll continue, but I will not be paying market price, even for a fellow redhead.