Thursday, July 28, 2011

"The Magicians" Redux

(The following pseudo-essay contains spoilers for Lev Grossman's 2009 novel, The Magicians. It does not contain spoilers for the sequel, The Magician King, which is due out August 9th.)

I had a love/hate relationship with The Magicians a few years ago.

I loved the writing, but the ending of the book (literally the last page) infuriated me. Also, I felt like the inside jacket flap gave away absolutely everything about the plot. See me rail about that here.

When I found out there'd be a sequel to the book, I was conflicted. Do I read?? (How can I not??) I finally decided to re-read the first book this weekend in preparation for the second, and to my surprise, I found the experience to be completely different than it was two years ago. I wholeheartedly enjoyed the experience.

Reading the book this time around, I was able to distance myself from the emotional aspects that had overpowered me last time. I realize these are somewhat arbitrary and bizarre things to fixate on, but you'll see why in a second: I, too, went to college in upstate New York. The boy I met at 19 (who eventually became my husband) is a magician who can do all the things Quentin does for his entrance exam. We, too, didn't date immediately but after a couple years of friendship and classes together. I also lived in a house off-campus with 4 other people, like the Physical Kids. As a result, after Quentin and Alice cheat on each other, I had a hard time concentrating on Fillory; I was that upset. The ennui and depression Quentin faces were familiar as well. And because Quentin's mistakes and decisions were so boneheadedly realistic, they hurt that much more to read about.

This time I focused on the whole story and didn't fixate on the character interactions as much. Since I knew betrayals were coming, I was able to shrug them off and better appreciate the intricate plot threads and call-backs to cleverly laid out clues.

Most importantly, I no longer dislike the ending -- it makes sense to me now, and I was relieved, in fact, that it didn't end the way I believed it should have before. See, the first time I read the book, I thought the "lesson" (for lack of a better word) was that you can't live in Fillory / Fillory-substitute-allegory / Fantasy Land / Childhood forever -- you must eventually leave; you must eventually grow up.

Martin Chatwin decided to live in Fillory forever and it warped him into a hideous monster. Quentin, who used to envy Martin his ability to leave the real world behind, comes to realize what a mistake it was. Because Quentin does leave (as a broken man who has suffered great losses and become a momentarily wiser person because of it) I figured that was his arc; he'd avoided Martin's fate. So when his friends show up, flying outside the office window, and invite him back to rule Fillory, I was like YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. I felt it ruined everything that had come before.

This time, however, it felt satisfying to me -- I was able to see that Quentin had still grown, he had learned things, and Emily Greenstreet was wrong; magic hadn't ruined everything. It was the people who'd ruined things, as people often do*. So now I find myself eagerly anticipating the next book. Hurry up, August 9th!

(This time I will avoid the inside jacket flap and all Amazon summaries.)

Have you ever re-read a book a few years later and had a completely different experience with it?

*This doesn't mean I believe the adage about guns being blameless, btw. 


  1. I never even thought about the similarities between Quentin's and your life! That must have made it *way* harder.

    You know, I actually had an opposite reaction when I first read it. I pretty much hated the first part because I found it rather condescending and sneering to the very books it was so heavily lifting from. But I really liked it once they got to Fillory and then through to the end.

    Don't think I'll be reading the sequel though...

  2. I'll definitely be reading the sequel!

    That's an interesting idea - that magic didn't ruin everything - the people did. I think you're right. But I do think you had it partially right the first time - a lot of the fun stops when you're a grown up.

    RE: Have I ever had a different experience with a book? The first time I read TWILIGHT and its sequels, I thought they were excellent. I was crying and tense and couldn't put them down. Then later on, I began to realize that Bella didn't do a whole lot of favors for the women's movement, with her worrying about what Edward thinks so much and always having to be protected by men. But the first time I read it? I was completely mesmerized, and I think that's what books should do. Tell a great story! (Even if later you're like, WTF was that?)

  3. Miranda~Okay...I'll admit as well--the first time I read TWILIGHT (et. al), I was into it them--read them in a flurry of a couple days. Months later, I thought I'd re-read, and I was like...what the heck? Who AM I, lol? (So get what you're saying.)

    Two books I can read and re-read and pick them up again and again and appreciate something different in them are: (well, okay, more than two, but...) Pride and Prejudice (and the rest of JA's books), and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.