I have been meaning to get round to this book for a while (thanks mainly to the Bookrageous podcast) and with the final book in the trilogy due out in August I thought it was about time I got started. My first impression of the book was that this was Harry Potter for adults. Instead of a 12-year-old boy going off to school to learn magic and wizardry this is about a 17-year-old boy going off the college, in upstate New York, to learn magic and become a magician.
There are some similarities with Hogwarts, the Harry Potter novels and other fantasy classics like The Chronicles of Narnia but Lev Grossman acknowledges all these sources in clever and often humorous ways so you never get a sense of them being ripped off in any way. Grossman has also constructed his own unique and vivid world(s) so you know you are definitely in a different type of story.
One of the other big differences is the main character, Quentin Coldwater. He is not your like-at-all-costs hero. He is a flawed character which isn’t apparent at first but manifests itself as the book goes on. He is struggling to find himself and has an almost superiority complex which is only fed more by learning to become a magician. Grossman packs all of the years of magic college into the first half of the book. This is not one book for every year of college and it is college life warts and all (pardon the pun). And when Quentin and the friends he makes finish college they don’t set out on a big adventure or quest but instead waste their new-found knowledge and skills on drinking, drugs and sex. (This strand of the story reminded me a bit of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.)
The major difference though is the tone of Grossman’s novel. Often books of this type have a sense of earnestness. The heroes of the story are the chosen ones with a strong sense of their purpose and what is right. Grossman flips this on its head. Instead of earnestness there is a layer of cynicism and the characters purposefulness alludes them (for different reasons each). Instead a sense of entitlement clouds their judgements, destabilizes their relationships with each other and ultimately leads to tragic consequences.
While this does make everything sound dark and broody everything is tempered with an epic, adventurous narrative that moves along at an addictive pace. It was refreshing to have a main character who was not perfect, was guilty at times of being selfish and struggling to find his own identity. I also really enjoyed the way other worlds weren’t the escape people hoped them to be, especially if what you are trying to escape is yourself.
I can’t wait to see where Grossman takes the story next.