Did you ever wonder about those white-haired, cynical wizards in fantasy stories? The ones that show up at strange times and disappear right when their magic would be most beneficial? Did you ever wonder what their backstory was?
Me neither, but apparently Lev Grossman did.
I wish I could take credit for the “Holden Caulfield goes to Hogwarts” thing, but I stole that from a friend of a friend. It’s fitting. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, is about seventeen at the start of the book. He’s in love with his best female friend who is – of course – dating Quentin’s best male friend. He feels like the third wheel all of the time. His parents are flakey and largely disinterested. He’s in classes for the smartest of the smart kids and his life is a constant competition to be the best. He hates his friends for how easy everything comes to them – Quentin studies for hours and doesn’t have fun because he absolutely cannot be less than perfect.
Quentin’s only escape is into a series of young adult novels about a land called Fillory, populated with talking animals and simple quests and two kings and two queens, all of whom are siblings who can enter this magical land. Quentin reads and rereads these novels and wishes such a place existed.
Poor Quentin and his best friend James have an interview with some Yale alumni person. They’re the super besty best in their class and the interview is vital to them getting into the school. But instead of an interview, they find the guy dead on the floor. One of the paramedics who responds to their 911 call hands Quentin and James envelopes with their name on it, saying it was probably something the dead guy was going to give them. James refuses the envelope and wanders off to meet up with Julia, the girl best friend. Quentin looks in the envelope on his walk home and discovers… the manuscript for the legendary sixth Fillory book! He takes out the first page, but before he can read it, the wind whips it away and down a long, dark community garden that gets longer and darker than any community garden in Brooklyn could be. And then suddenly he’s in Upstate New York and it’s no longer November. It’s August and it’s hot and he’s stumbled onto the grounds of Brakebills, the elite magic college. The college is always about two months behind the real world, which totally messes with Christmas vacation.
Quentin takes a test. Passes it. Becomes a student in the magical school. He hates it because he has to work hard and he is convinced that everything is easy for everyone else and he’s the only one who has to work hard and he’ll never be good enough and everyone else is getting drunk and having sex and whine whine WHINE, Quentin! You’re at a goddamned magical school. You’re learning magic. When you graduate you can be set up for life in a fake job that keeps you legitimate and pays you incredibly well.
The book suffers (much like this post does) from long, drawn out descriptions of things that are only mildly interesting (many pages about how the class gets turned into geese and their long flight and geese pooping and eating bugs and flapping their wings) and then glosses over other things (It’s the first day of class and suddenly they’re 3rd year students). Threads are started and not so much dropped but forgotten about until it’s convenient. (Julia was invited to take the test but failed. She’s been teaching herself magic and getting weird and twitchy and demands that Quentin talk to the school about taking her. He does, the dean says he’s going to wipe her memory of the school again, but somehow he never does, but Julia still doesn’t get in, but goes to Fillory in the end and she’s got magic, but she’s crazy?)
I hated about 78% of the book. I liked the very start of it, then almost immediately started to find every single person in the book irritating. They’re all self-absorbed, spoiled, “tragic” people. They all secretly (and not-so-secretly) hate each other, but still insist on sleeping with each other. And of course they go to Fillory and it’s not the cute happy-bunny-land of the books. People die. One guy gets his hands bitten off.
There was a point around the 86% mark where I was interested again (about the point where the hands get bitten off) and honestly it’s where the book should have ended. But there was more after that – about Quentin sulking and getting mad at talking badgers or something, and then returning to New York and getting a boring desk job and making large amounts of money and then suddenly his “friends” show up and they decide they’re going to go back to Fillory, even though several of their friends died horrible deaths there, and Quentin is royally fucked up in the head because of it. The End.
The worst part? It’s written like a young adult novel. Or a young-young adult novel. There’s a scene with foxes and later it’s explained to us that one girl gets the nickname “Vix” because of the fox thing, and female foxes are called vixens. I am not nine. You can’t tell me on one page that this group of 20-something magicians just got really drunk and had an orgy, and then on the next page explain foxes to me. Decide on your audience! Also, that nickname gets used exactly once and then is never used again.
I’m still giving it two stars because some dude gets his hands bitten off, and a talking ram-god-thing tells Quentin off.