by Lev Grossman
What if you grew up wishing that you could really go through the wardrobe to the perfect world of Narnia and stay there forever, and then you found out that you could? Wouldn't that just make you insanely happy? Well, don't be so sure. Quentin Coldwater, this book's hero (in a a loose sense of the word), believes the elusive secret to happiness lies in such a world, the magical world of Fillory depicted in a series of famous children's books. But when an unexpected twist in his pursuit of college entrance exams leads him to a real school of magic in upstate New York—a sort of post-secondary Hogwarts, if you will—he brings his unhappiness with him, right into the very fantasy world he used to dream of.
Unlike most of his classmates, Quentin doesn't seem to have a magical specialty, only a generally strong talent. Nevertheless he gets moved to the head of his class (promoted to the next year up, in fact), and grouped with the elite students of the Physical discipline (which blends, like, magic and physics). He experiences the pressure of competitive exams, the horror of a classroom lecture gone hideously wrong, the marvels of being transformed into a goose, the rigors of a semester in Antarctica (a.k.a. "Brakebills South"), the diversion of a game called Welters (which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Quidditch), the joys and disappointments of first love, and a graduation ritual absolutely guaranteed to surprise you. And then, all too soon, he is turned loose on the world, a fully qualified magician...
...And remains as unhappy as ever. He has lots of reasons for it. His family isn't particularly warm and fuzzy. His high school pals did not live up to his hopes for them. He is dissatisfied with his career prospects, and even his love affair with the brilliant Alice (who is like Hermione Granger might have been, had she been born to an all-magical family). He spends most of his time wasted on drugs and alcohol. And then... and then, out of nowhere, one of his former classmate shows up, claiming to have discovered the way to Fillory. For real.
Fillory turns out not to be the happy, morally instructive place the books depicted. Things have deteriorated. The country needs human kings and queens again, to set right all that has gone wrong. But are Quentin and his friends the right humans for the job? As they fight their way through hordes of Fillorians—giant, talking animals and half-human creatures who seem fanatically opposed to their quest—the Brakebills alumni cope with Fillory's ugly, violent reality in different ways, ranging from a rampage of deadly magic to being sickened by what they must do, to falling apart entirely. In the unspeakably awful disaster that awaits them at the end of their quest, Quentin—the one who wanted this more than anybody—achieves unheard-of levels of unhappiness.
I won't tell you more about what happens. It would be unforgivable to cheat you of the opportunity to experience this emotionally gripping adventure, probing the very boundaries of fantasy as such, except to say that Quentin returns alone to the mundane world, scarred by a terrible loss and nearly fatal wounds... and that, even at the lowest conceivable ebb to which his quest for happiness arrives near the end of this book, the story is not over. And I think we can expect still more mythopoeic marvels from Lev Grossman, crusading book reviewer at Time magazine by day and novelist by night. Besides this novel, Grossman has also written a science fiction novel titled Warp, an antiquarian thriller called Codex, and the recent sequel to this book, titled The Magician King.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 16+
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