Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What it Means to be a Magician

I finished Magician's Land a year ago now, and I can tell you that Lev Grossman's three books on twenty-something spellcasters are my favorite trilogy. Books, movies, whatever. These are the stories that are closest to what I want to write myself. I'm still not sure I've nailed this, but I think I could write about it in circles for years, so it's going up now.
My wife, my dad and a few of my best friends gave up on it after the first book, and I can't think of any people whose literary opinions I hold in higher regard. And usually, their critiques sway my opinion somewhat. Not so here. Rather, I felt compelled to try and share what I found in them that felt so profound. So if you've given up, read on. At the very least, you'll get to see how things play out. Needless to say, stop here if you still want to read them, or if you're waiting for the SyFy series (please be awesome), because this will spoil EVERYTHING.
The grander the scope of a fantasy novel, the harder it is for me to engage with it. I grow distant from the tale once it becomes more about politics and history than individuals. One man is a tragedy, while a hundred is a statistic and all that. Call it narcissism, or blame it on my ADD baby, but I need characters I can project myself into with personal problems I can relate to. Nations and empires, or even lineages spanning eons like Lord of the Rings tax me, because the character's personalities feel secondary to the world. I only found Dune and A Song of Ice and Fire more palatable because of their use of close POVs.
Maintaining that kind of human-driven drama is something I wrestle with in my own writing, because long-form fantasy seems to gravitate toward tropes and trappings of epic scale.
Star Wars and Harry Potter come closer to what I'm after, without the black and white reductionism. They have an epic scope, but at heart, they are family dramas that deal with about three generations of people. By the end, the Potters and Weasely's are one family, as are the Skywalkers and Solos (even if you discard the now non-cannon EU, the sentiment is there), and they are a mircocosm for the world they live in and shape. The main characters are broadly drawn, but the supporting cast is eccentric. Both invite us to project our own relatives and acquaintances onto those people, and fall in love with them all over again.
The Magicians finds an arc that is even more personal, with a cast of characters that hones closer to real people. I've been spoiled by a charmed life. As an only child with two incredibly successful parents, the only baggage I've really had to carry are the huge expectations I've created for myself by looking to their example. So there is something that resonates even more strongly with me than family drama: the pursuit of personal growth.
Courtesy of Better Book Titles

Growing up I had everything in the world, but once I hit my teenage years I was terribly unhappy. That's everyone to an extent, but I think I was madder about it than a lot of people. I confused my expectations of myself with my expectations of life. It's not hard to see how a frustrated teenager and young adult could transmute a lack of fulfillment into perpetual dissatisfaction, or assume happiness is inherently frivolous. Quentin was also an only child born to well-off parents (though they never really "got him") and on top of that he was told he was a genius his entire life, (up to the beginning of the books). He was raised on fantasy books and wanted to be the hero. But he couldn't do magic for real, and he didn't have the girl, so everything sucked. But even when he could do magic, and he did get the girl, and he discovered the beloved fictional land that shaped his boyhood was real, things still weren't right.

I like to think I was never that petulant, but I came close enough to recognize the same root problem: we were waiting for the world to make us happy instead of doing something about ourselves. Sounds simple, but it took me years to figure that out and I'm still trying to do the work. I guess that's why I was more willing to be patient with him. I get why he's an asshole. His acerbic voice and aimless but incredibly fervent ambitions struck a chord.
Despite being a cautionary tale, The Magicians outclasses standard "be careful what you wish for" stuff because it never loses sight of why the wishes were worth pursuing in the first place. It's not about scoring points, or putting line items on your CV, but about figuring out how your dreams can make you better, and getting it wrong--a lot.
The first book just hints at that broader message. If you have to read just one, the is the one to read, but I think stopping there takes a hard heart, or at least, less patience for very believably flawed people. He is not as sensationally fucked up as Joe Abercrombie or GRRM's characters, who I think hold broader appeal because they are more distant from reality. You don't have to deal with masochistic boy-kings and schizophrenic berserkers on the daily. Quentin is just kind of a prick and everybody has to put up with pricks.
The Magicians closes with him going back to Fillory, the magical land from the books of his boyhood, even though it ended up being horrifying, and later empty, because it cost him his lover. I read that as hopeful; maybe I can still find something to love about magic. Maybe I was wrong about myself. But "hopeful" isn't closure, and recognizing so many of Quentin's flaws in myself, I wanted to see how this played out.
The Magician King I think, is the weakest link of the trilogy. This one is really Julia's story, told in the middle of Quentin's, and while it's deeply compelling, it fits oddly into the arc of the other two. I think it taxed the trilogy in ways Lev could not anticipate when he started out with just one novel.
We come back to old Q at the end, and it's an important turning point: for the first time, he is subjected to true unfairness. He is viciously punished for doing the right thing. What happened to Alice hit him harder, but it was also his fault. Here, he saves magic. All the magic, in every world, and in response he is stripped of his crown and exiled from Fillory. Why? Because fuck Quentin Coldwater. That's why.
How a person reacts to punishment for doing the right thing is the truest test of their character. In Magician's Land, we finally get to see if Quentin passed. Given the veins of despondence shot throughout the series, I was afraid. I expected something brutal. Which is why the last book is truly magical. Quentin becomes a good person. Not all at once, but rapidly.
Even though his friends have seemingly abandoned him, he keeps fighting. He begins by swallowing his pride and seeking a job at Brakebills, a college he initially loved but came to resent. When he is fired for doing something risky, he acknowledges it and takes it in stride. When he hypothesizes a fantastic cause for his estranged father's death, and turns out to be wrong, he carries on instead of moping. And when he is presented with a terrifying opportunity to correct his gravest mistake, he seizes upon it.
It works, but doesn't go as planned. He rescues Alice and she hates him for it. She was utterly consumed by magic and disconnected from the world, in a blissful state of power. When he brings her back, gives her emotions, and taste buds and a body again, a life with meaning, she is livid. The first Quentin would go "this is bullshit," and give up. This Quentin keeps trying and manages to remind her that being a human beats being a selfish monster; I mean, talk about epic role reversals. At the end, things aren't perfect between them, she flat out tells him "we're not dating." Given her actions at the end, I think that they might pick things up again, but even if they don't, Quentin is just happy to have rescued her from madness.
He also becomes a dragon and then, briefly, a god, which is, you know, freaking awesome.
I love the way Lev does magic. Sure, the study and theory might be a little mathematical; not sufficiently subjective, (which was Robert's gripe), but when it actually goes off, wow is it cool. I can't decide whether the fox transformation or Quentin's first spell cast is my favorite scene of magic, and the probability-shifting card game that starts the third book is great as well. The first appearance of the beast, and Reynard's rape of Julia are both as terrifying as they need to be, which is no mean feat.

One of my favorite scenes in the whole trilogy is in book one, where Fogg speculates as to why certain people can use magic. His hypothesis is that magicians are inherently unhappy. Which made a lot of sense to me. Maybe I just liked it because I can be a broody sumbitch, but there is logic there. You won't try to change the world in earnest unless you feel like there is something wrong with it. I was bothered by the implied corollary, however. Once you find happiness, or worse, in order to find happiness, you have to break your staff, bury it fathoms, and drown your book. Prospero could have done better.

Quentin's story is a journey to another conclusion: you can keep your magic, and have happiness too, as long as you work on yourself in tandem with the world. Find your magic, find a goal, and use them to figure yourself out. That's what it means to be a magician.

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