the blurb on the back of this ARC (plus the pretty, pretty cover) really sold me. magic in the real world? loosely disguised Narnia? nightmares and shocking truths? yes! well, except for the phrase "coming-of-age" -- that always makes me want to not read a book. too many high-school english class connotations. but i went ahead and read it anyway.
and i loved it! it's Harry Potter plus some Narnia plus sex, booze, lies, guilt, and other actual human emotions! the beautiful thing about the Harry Potter and Narnia series, and books like them, is that they are perfectly suited to reinforce moral codes: bad people are bad, good people are good (although they sometimes may make mistakes), and when you try and fight the good fight, you know exactly which side you should be fighting for. it's what makes them great reads for children (aside, of course, from the magic). but that's also the unrealistic thing about HP and Narnia (aside, of course, from the magic): good people aren't always good and bad people aren't always bad, and sometimes what appears to be the right side is absolutely not. and sometimes you don't even want to fight the good fight, sometimes you just want to go away and have a cocktail and see who comes out on top. and no, you don't necessarily want your 10-year-old to wrestle with the reality of these things. but if you're an adult (or teenager) reading Harry Potter, don't you find yourself wondering if Harry and Ron ever snuck up to the Astronomy Tower with something a bit stronger than butterbeer to get a buzz on? or if Hermione smuggled in some caffeine pills to help her stay awake during all that Time Twisting?
i definitely wondered, and so did Lev Grossman. THE MAGICIANS really, truly, does an excellent job imagining what we'd all be like if we could actually do magic and/or get to Narnia. sure, we could make pretty lights appear out of nowhere and levitate and shoot static charges at each other from across the room, but we would also cheat on our tests, sleep with the wrong person, make friends who are not good for us, have torturous childhoods, and in general continue to be dissatisfied with our lives. in other words, magic doesn't make us any less human or angsty or damaged. if you're like me, this thought makes you giddy with the sheer audacity of the premise. if it makes you cringe, then don't read this book.
so there's the love, now for the hate. yes, reality does often involve drinking. lots of teenagers (as much as we'd like to think otherwise), college students, and many, many adults drink. some more heavily than others. but everyone, and i mean EVERYONE, in THE MAGICIANS is constantly drinking, drunk, or hung-over and contemplating their next fix. always. all the time. every waking moment. some of it "sanctioned" by the magical Academy, and some of it "extracurricular." and these are supposed to be the brightest of the bright, the creative creme de la creme, collected together for the express purpose that they have talents no one else has. and ... they're all alcoholics? why, Lev Grossman, why? i understand that it's key to a specific character's development in the story. but all of them? all the time? now really. i knew a lot of very bright, very creative kids in high-school and college, and i can assure you that while they did indulge, the frat/sorority population was far more likely to behave the way Grossman's characters behave. unless he's going with the "tortured artist" cliche, but usually artists tend to be a bit older than 18 when they hit that point in their lives. i mean, Hemingway was probably a pretty tortured teen, but it took him years to work up to the level of debauchery that THE MAGICIANS' protagonists achieve.
i would really love to hear from the author about this -- if you're out there Googling yourself, please comment! i'm also curious to see if anyone else who has read the book feels the same way -- maybe i'm out of line here? unless and until those comments come, however, i will have to just continue to be torn. THE MAGICIANS pubs August '09.