I was really super-interested in this book, which was billed to me as “What if Harry Potter were really real, but the students all had to go work in the non-magic world when they graduated?” A depressing thought indeed! And that’s a pretty okay billing, but the book is more like “What if you spent your whole childhood hoping for magic, and then you got it, and then you realized that it was pretty boring, and then you resigned yourself to real life, but then the non-boring magic you’d hoped for happened, but then it was nothing like Narnia anyway?” Two depressing thoughts indeed!
Unfortunately, though I really liked the book as I was reading it, I was left with a sense of annoyance at the end. I think it was because of the disjointed mess that is the plot as described above. There are a lot of good ideas here, but they don’t all fit together as well as they maybe could. I don’t want to say that Grossman didn’t do his best, because I honestly don’t know how he could have told this particular story differently, but I think maybe he should have told a different one.
The beginning is excellent. Our hero Quentin gets to a Princeton interview to find the interviewer dead, but the paramedic on the scene has envelopes for him and his friend James. Only Quentin takes his, and, after opening it, he finds himself on the grounds of what he thinks is Fillory, Grossman’s version of Narnia and the setting for Quentin’s most favorite books ever. It’s not, though, it’s actually a school called Brakebills and Quentin is there for the entrance exam. After a really long exam and some argument among the professors, Quentin is admitted. He spends the next four years learning magic, making friends, and doing some stupid things that don’t turn out nearly as well as he hopes.
But then Quentin and pals graduate, and are learning to deal with the real world, which I think is an entirely interesting premise to begin with, but Grossman throws in a free trip to Fillory and suddenly the book is a quest novel. And then it gets weird, and I don’t want to say anything to spoil it because it gets interesting, but it’s also disappointing in the end and I just don’t know. And there are a whole bunch of guns in the first act that totally fail to go off in the third even though they could have been very very very interesting plot points, and that frustrates me immensely.
As I’m typing this I’m realizing that I liked the book even less than I thought I did! This is terrible. It’s not that I hated it; I was riveted to the pages every chance I could get because I really liked the characters and the setting and the writing. But if I could, I’d go back in time and tell myself to skip it.
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