I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians
this week, and I think you should too.
is about Quentin Coldwater, a bright young man just on the cusp of entering adulthood and exhibiting a scarily accurate portrayal of depression. Despite his impeccable student record and strong collegiate prospects, Quentin is a dour, sullen man who is desperately searching for something, who stays awake at night waiting for the day when he'll start living his “real” life. He's obsessed with the Fillory series of books (a thinly disguised in-universe version of the Narnia
series) and is given to escapist fantasies where he's whisked away from the slow steady press of a life of filling out collage applications and watching the girl he loves neck with his best friend, to a world of magic. Then one day, it actually happens. And it sucks.
If you go into this novel thinking your going to be reading another fun fantasy story, it's going to punch you in the gut and laugh. This is a full bore deconstruction of the age old geeky fantasy book. It takes Narnia and Hogwarts and fills them up with real people - the kind of weirdos who would actually have the brains, guts, and various personality disorders to attend and survive a school dedicated to breaking reality over its knee. It makes magic strange and dangerous and decidedly something that probably shouldn't be taught to a bunch of angst filled horny collage kids who drink too much.
examines the practical problems of being a magic-man in a muggle world that most fantasy series gloss over or play for laughs. How exactly do you tell your parents you're blowing off University to go study at an “eccentric trade school” that will teach you how to animate glass figurines and make levitate your desk? What about the process of learning magic? If all it takes is waving around a little stick and speaking some bastardized Latin, why isn't everyone a wizard? So the obvious answer is that magic is actually really hard. More than hard, it's BORING. Imagine if every class you took in collage was calculus mixed with computer science and taught in Greek. How long would it be before you were considering opening your wrists as a favorable alternative to slogging through the required reading? And for that matter, what exactly do you DO when you graduate from magic-school? It's all hush-hush, so you can't just go use your flashy fireball spell to impress that cute coffee barista, you have to pretend to be an ordinary, uninteresting dude. Going off to become middle management at a textile distributor doesn't seem like a challenging career path after you've split the seams of the universe open and gazed upon the infinite mysteries within. It seems the most common post-grad past time for wizards is to experiment with drinking before noon.
It isn't hateful. The book doesn't delight in ripping apart the fantasy genre or seem overly malicious about it, it's just a bitter spoon of medicine. A fantasy novel not written for children, but for people in their mid-20's and early 30's who might be coming to grips with some harsh realities in their own life. Who realize that maybe THIS really is all there is, that you're getting older and it's getting less and less likely that a friendly owl is going to drop by with your ornate invitation to a better world clutched in its beak.
I think a lot of us, especially millennials who have inherited a broken economy, are saddled with student debt from courses that landed us primo jobs folding shirts in the mall, and are struggling to actually make it as adults still secretly cling to these fantasies. Maybe not necessarily getting shipped off to Narnia or the Forgotten Realms, but the idea that somehow, even though you don't know how and can't really describe it, one day your life is going to be perfect. You'll get that one chance you always needed and turn it all around. You'll finally find that secret talent buried inside that will change your life. You'll discover an old rusty key that opens up the locked cupboard that's been sealed up in your basement for years and what's inside will change everything.
I see some criticism online that Quentin doesn't learn anything at the end. That the book does a ruthless job of dismantling the escapism of fantasy, but never provides an uplifting ideal to take its place. I think those people weren't paying attention. If this was just a story about nihilism and giving up and being a miserable twat, I wouldn't be recommending it. What Quentin finds (all too late) is that there isn't a magic way out. That meaning and happiness in your life won't just flutter down from on high and land in your lap, that you have to make it yourself and with the people in your life. That it's hard, tiring, and will never live up to the ideal in your mind, but it can still be achieved.
Escapism is a theme in games as much as it is in fantasy. In fact you could argue that the entire point of video games is escapism, being someone else for a little while, being capable of doing amazing things, or having the freedom to go nuts. I don't want to paint with too broad a brush, but I think a lot of us are attracted to games, or at least have stayed with games as we get older, because we feel like there is something missing in our lives. They fill some hole in the center of our being that threatens to expand and swallow us unless we do something to stave it off. That's not a bad thing, a little escapism is healthy. But it pays to remember every now and then that it's no substitute for the real thing.
I suppose it's similar in that way to Ready Player One
, a book I've previously recommended in my caps and might be more approachable to video game fans. But where Ready Player One
is a largely fun romp through 80's nostalgia, cyberpunk trappings, and video game worship, The Magicians
is slower, sadder, and ironically for a book that spends a lot of time in an imaginary land, more real. I'd say check them both out, maybe one after the other for contrast, and see which one resonates with you more.
* - Terry 309 injects his eyeballs with steroids and gets wild with F-Zero. * - Maybe the payoff wasn't what he hoped for, but Nesscoat did a great job of cracking Hohokums code. * - Tony Ponce ponders how cool a female Link would be. Sadly, the comments predictably go exactly where you would expect them to go and no reasonable conversation can be heard over the din of "SJW, SJW, SJW, WHAAAA!". A - Mother 3 is a heck of a game. D - Always interested in seeing how games get made. Coming from the art designer though, I would have liked to see some more interesting screengrabs. T - Character roster, mechanics, and quality aside, I mostly expect Pokken Tournament to be super weird. L - Cute little Metroid reference hidden in DK:TF. C - Hey it's a podcast that's kinda sorta video game related, but mostly about four people you don't know talking about the Twitter arguments they had earlier in the week. That sounds, well actually that sounds fucking awful.
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