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The Magicians by Lev Grossman

When it comes to reviewing books, there are some things I don't like to do. One of them is review a book I haven't finished. Another is review the reviews of the book I'm reviewing. The things other reviewers have said about a book are interesting to me, but they should have no bearing on my understanding, enjoyment, or opinion of a novel. And even in this case, as I've taken to my computer in a gust of righteous fury the likes of which can only be displayed by a bibliophile faced by an increasing sensation of WTF, I hesitate to give opinions that are a.) incomplete and b.) formulated in part based upon the opinions of others. But, you know what? Fuck it. I'm super annoyed right now.

Let me break it down for you: Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians is a book about teenage magicians. His hero is a smart, neglected outsider who is brought to a magical school and taught the secrets of witchcraft and wizardry. He makes some friends and becomes less of an outsider. Blah blah blah...that's as far as I've gotten. But doesn't that sound just a little familiar? Does it, maybe, sound a little bit like this:

I'm giving this book the old college try, I really am. The narrator is unsympathetic and boring, the narrative is plodding and underdeveloped, and the whole thing feels like one big freaking ripoff, but okay. I don't like to abandon books. And maybe I'm being overly sensitive to the Harry Potter references/insults because, hey, J.K. Rowling didn't invent half the things in her books, either! She borrowed and adapted and integrated, and the Harry Potter story is essentially no different than Star Wars or any other hero's journey, so maybe I should just cut the guy some slack and enjoy the ride?

I was prepared to do that, I really was. Despite the boring and unsympathetic narrator and the plotless plot and the oddly familiar stuff, including the multitude of references to a series of novels set in England about children who walk through a closet and explore a mysterious fantasy land which is, quite obviously and unabashedly, a thinly veiled version of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. But, just to remind myself that I'm not a crazy person and that other people noticed and were bothered by the similarities with Harry Potter that were making me itchy, I did a quick Google and read three reviews: the New York Times review, the Washington Post review, and the A.V. Club review. And I was APPALLED, you guys! Just freaking appalled by the apologetics going on in these reviews.

First of all, it's pretty apparent that neither the New York Times or Washington Post reviewers actually liked the book. The reviews are lukewarm, mostly, but none of them will come right out and say what we're all thinking--there's already a Harry Potter for adults. IT IS CALLED HARRY POTTER. We do not need another, worse version that considers the inclusion of sex, drugs and booze its signature improvement.

I think, of all the reviews, it was the AV Club review that offended me the most. This is the actual, literal beginning paragraph of that review:

It's tempting to call Lev Grossman's marvelous new book The Magicians derivative: In a way, it follows the Harry Potter novels, the Narnia series, and everything J.R.R. Tolkien ever did. After all, it involves a bunch of kids who attend a college designed to teach them how to use magic, and who later visit a magical world populated by talking animals. But early reviews calling out the book for lack of imagination are missing the point. Grossman's triumph is that he treats these magical worlds of childhood seriously.

Let's for a moment try to forget that the Harry Potter novels also take the magical worlds of childhood seriously, which is why they have such a huge adult audience DUH, and instead focus on the fact that lack of imagination is a serious problem in a novel. C.S. Lewis, curator of Narnia his very self, once wrote that (and I'm paraphrasing) that the person who attempts to be original will never, ever be, so I don't necessary think there's anything wrong with taking something old and making it new again--after all, that's what storytellers have been doing for eons. There are only so many story types, and infinite variations thereof. And I bet Grossman isn't even intentionally ripping off Harry Potter. He might be trying to make a statement about grounding fantasy in the real world and stripping away childish delusions of a life perfected by magic. He's certainly aware of the Harry Potter books, and consciously takes cues from them. I can't find the quote, but someone along the line says that performing magic is more than just waving a wand around and reciting fake Latin. Wingardium leviosa!, etc.

But the thing is (here's the thing): Grossman and his publisher have said openly that the audience for The Magicians is fans of Harry Potter. To which I say: are you mad? I can't think of a single fan of Harry Potter that I would hand this book to. I am a fan of Harry Potter, quite a big fan actually, and I'm just frustrated and a little offended by The Magicians. I find the idea that "if you liked Harry Potter you will like The Magicians" grossly misunderstands and underestimates the amount of love and affection fans of Harry Potter actually feel about Harry Potter, and how protective they are of it. As a fan of Harry Potter, I felt as though I was being condescended to, that I was being handed something that was attempting to be Harry Potter and being told, "Look, you are GROWN--wouldn't these books be better with drugs and sex?" No they would not. So I can't really understand how I should be expected to like The Magicians BECAUSE I love Harry Potter when it disrespects, mocks, and destroys everything that makes Harry Potter great.

So I've done the unthinkable for me: I've abandoned The Magicians. I don't even dislike Lev Grossman, and would hate to cast aspersions on the author himself here, because I read his blog and find it interesting (particularly his post about Godel, Escher, and Back: An Eternal Golden Braid, which is a fan-fucking-tastic book and I've reread his post about it more than once because I find it so engaging). But Grossman is the book editor of TIME, which explains the positive reviews of an incredibly lackluster, irritating novel, and I can't help but find something deeply unfair and yet significant in those combined facts. And at the end of the day, I'm not setting aside The Magicians because it makes me mad--I fully subscribe to Henry James' assertion that "in art, feeling is always meaning," and sometimes books that make me angry are ones that I think were completely worth reading and ultimately taught me a lot. I'm leaving the world of The Magicians behind because I'm not engaged with it, and I find no reason to continue other than pure bullheadedness about always finishing what I'm reading. And honestly, my time is worth more than that.

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