This is the fourth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.
I’ve noticed something about Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy: a lot of wannabe sci-fi/fantasy writers love to hate on it. It’s become sort of a thing where everyone sits around in a circle and names things that are just so bad and everyone rushes to agree. It’s a good way to show how much one belongs in the in-group.
For my part, however, I admire a lot about the trilogy, often for the exact reasons other people dislike it. One of the most common complaints I’ve heard is that Quentin is an unlikeable hero, that he’s too wishy-washy, that he doesn’t learn anything.
Ready for a strong opinion? Folks don’t like Quentin because most of us are Quentin.
Early in the third book, The Magician’s Land, Quentin has returned to Brakebills as a teacher. In the first book, as a student, the faculty were never able to determine his magical discipline. So early in book three, he goes back to Professor Pearl Sunderland, who has a knack for discovering people’s specialties.
She figures out what it is, and he wonders why nobody was able to figure it out the first time, when he was 18. She tells him,
…I couldn’t find your discipline last time because you didn’t have one yet. I always thought you were a bit young for your age. Personality is a factor – maturity. You were old enough to have a discipline, but emotionally you weren’t there yet. You hadn’t come into focus.
As uncomfortable as it is to admit, I identify with that late-bloomer quality. Grossman consistently hones in on the very real granules of personality located in his characters – the ways their intelligence and enthusiasm does not protect them from mistakes, anxieties, actual violence, and heartbreak.
My love of the trilogy is also bound up with a personal sense of discovery. Reading The Magicians signaled my return to reading sci-fi and fantasy after a roughly fifteen-year break. I quit reading it because, in the late 90s, I became fed up with the rather consistent sexism in the books that took up the most real estate on the bookstore shelves. And, while I love a good medieval European setting, there are other stories out there, too.
I turned to literary fiction and to dramatic literature. I worked in the theater for a while before switching careers for financial reasons; I still review shows regularly. I even wrote a mystery novel which is so far in the trunk that it has justifiably gone the way of some former laptop’s hard drive and has ceased to exist on this quantum plane.
Then I had a kid. Turns out, it’s much harder to spend seven nights a week at the theater once you’re caring for a small human being. (Actually, it’s much harder to do everything once you’re caring for a small human being.)
When mine was a newborn, I discovered one thing I could do while breastfeeding was have a hardback book open on my lap while my hands were trapped. The Magicians was the first sci-fi/fantasy book I picked up in about fifteen years, and holy crap you guys, the genre changed a lot in that time.
Let it be said that there were absolutely writers of diverse backgrounds working in the 90s who were artistically and intellectually ambitious and accomplished. As a high school kid, I just didn’t know about them, and the genre appeared monolithic enough that I assumed there was no place for me in it. There was even an upper-level course at my university in science fiction, and I was excited – until I found out the syllabus included no women, and all white people. (Maybe Ursula K. Le Guin got on there? Don’t recall. I didn’t sign up for the class.)
After The Magicians, I discovered Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, Sophia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, N. K. Jemisin’s work, and plenty more. It was like the joy of a kid with unlimited birthday gifts. The skill and imagination of these and other writers have transformed speculative fiction. For a prodigal fan of the genre like me, it’s as if it happened all at once rather than over the course of several years.
I admire all these writers for forcing a place in the genre for different kinds of stories, and amazing ones at that. I include Grossman in that, too, for stepping far outside the last century’s expectations for the genre. With Quentin’s obsession with Fillory, he captures the childlike obsession so many of us felt for our favorite stories when we were growing up; the way we hold onto that adoration secretly, even as we try to push ourselves beyond it; the disenchantment of discovering that the worlds of our imagination are flawed in ways we hadn’t allowed ourselves to admit; and what it means to return to those lands and rebuild them from scratch.
Should I have persevered and joined the writers and fans who made it possible for new writers with radically new visions to find an audience, rather than given up on the genre? Perhaps, but in all honesty, I wasn’t yet articulate or mature enough to do the sort of work that would have made a difference. As Professor Sunderland would say, I hadn’t yet come into focus. I’m only grateful to find out what part I might play now.