By Madeline Iva
How do you destroy the genre of your own book? Lev Grossman managed this nifty little trick in his breakout novel THE MAGICIANS–a book that SFF people love to hate. Meanwhile, everyone else is raving about it. This fantasy book was clearly a huge best seller, but when checking out the reviews I noticed among the glowing accolades, a few ominous warnings: the book was derivative–HIGHLY derivative, and critics questioned the experience of reading the book, saying “What did I ultimately get out of it?” Nothing positive, I’ll tell you that.
By ‘breakout novel’, technically we’re talking about a novel that sells so well it changes an author’s life forever. Harry Potter is an excellent example of this. However, if you look at many other breakout novels, you’ll see that they often conform to a similar structure. While they have a genre framework, the story inside that frame is not really genre at all. Such is the case with THE MAGICIANS.
Often a breakout novel disappoints readers of that genre. Why? To hear Donald Maas tell it in his book HOW TO WRITE A BREAKOUT NOVEL, many breakout novels don’t fulfill the conventions that die-hard genre readers expect. Instead the author explores a literary theme, talking about WWII or about the breakdown of entitled-yet-morally-corrupt-youths, or societal reform almost as if it were as important–if not more–than solving the murder. These books also don’t end with the bad guys punished, order restored and chaos vanquished, or even with happily ever afters–which is why we read genre, isn’t it?
Here are some examples of break out novels: SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW, THE SECRET HISTORY, THE DA VINCI CODE, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. These books may start off being mysteries, thrillers, or horror novels, but they have literary themes and are written in a literary style. The genre shell is merely a spoonful of sugar that makes the literary medicine go down.
Case in point: THE MAGICIANS. When I started reading it – I loved it! I thought: This is my kinda book. Really well written, I lurv the main character and all the other characters, yes! Quentin is a tall, mopey, unhappy brilliant teen. I was all over that. He gets invited to a college where he can learn magic. Fabulous!
And then it’s Harry Potter in college–but with a lot of drinking, drugs, n sex. In fact it was a LOT like another crazy brilliant break out book that I highly recommend: THE SECRET HISTORY. Really, it’s THE SECRET HISTORY meets Harry Potter. I said to myself—Okay, I’m seeing the derivative stuff they mentioned, but it’s SO GOOD that I don’t CARE.
Even up to the middle of the book, I was like, Where is this going? Not sure and I. Don’t. Care. At page 274 I said to myself FINALLY!! Now we have a direction once again–Here we go! Wheeeeeee!
And then the author ruined it for me. How? Why? What went wrong?
First I have to ask myself: what do I get out of Fantasy? Why do I like it as a genre? I like it because it’s anti-high school irony. There is an earnestness to fantasy. Enthusiasm and triumphing over difficulties is at the core of many a fantasy novel. Also there are deeply held values of the characters often in play. Even GAME OF THRONES has these aspects–(What is GAME OF THRONES, meanwhile, but a breakout novel about a fantasy world that–aside from a few dragons–explores the bloody brutality of what it took to survive in the middle ages?)
The point is, I savor these fantasy qualities because when I’m operating in the real world I feel out of step. I feel the world is too harsh or complicated, or sophisticated. I am looking to retreat into my sensitive shell, to enjoy something simple, and sincere.
Certainly Harry Potter is sincere. Even Game of Thrones is sincere—as my Sweetie said: the bad guys are sincerely bad. And one token of their sincerity (some of them) is that when they realize they’re being bad, they change. (I’m looking at you Jamie Lannister.) This is what I want out of a fantasy book.
THE MAGICIANS is not such a book. When Quentin realizes he’s being weak–he keeps on being weak. There is no character change. There is no fundamental growth and development. It’s as if the author believes character growth and change are impossible. All there is is time. Time for one to grow older and see over the scrim of youth to the backstage area, where nothing is as wondrous and captivating as you hoped it would be.
What a jaded attitude — especially for characters who learn magic, and travel to new fantastical worlds. To embed a theme of chronic dissatisfaction in the face of such glorious adventure and then turn around and claim, it’s not really adventurous, we don’t know what we’re doing, and it’s all going to shit–it’s disgusting, really. Yes, disgusting.
Now, Donna Tartt does something similar in her book (which came out long before Grossmans, and I highly recommend it,) but there was a point to it. We know the students in THE SECRET HISTORY killed their good friend. We’re told that on page one. The book explores why and how they tried to get away with it. Relationships are destroyed. They suffer–and this makes sense to us. It’s satisfying because THEY COMMITTED MURDER.
I think Grossman is reflecting back some kind of commentary about the lives of the privileged elite – and yeah, I’m calling him that. If you went to both Harvard AND Yale, and you mention that on your freakishly successful book cover jacket, what else could you be?
So what’s he saying? His characters are living lives of fantastical proportions, but it never seems quite real to them. They are always waiting for their “real” life to start. It’s like being in a house where all the doors open onto each other. You keep going through doors, but you only end up going in circles.
Which makes the novel rather nihilistic at its core. This is the antithesis of what fantasy novels and the fantasy genre are about. Lev Grossman stabs his own novel in the heart until it’s dead and the reader is appalled.
Unless, of course, the reader doesn’t particularly care for the fantasy genre and is as jaded as Grossman. Then they might love the book.
Another crime this book commits is that it starts out a leetle derivative, and swiftly towards the last third becomes crazily derivative. The former magic students enter a world called Fillory where we have trees like Tolkien’s Ents, we had Rams like the lion in Narnia, we had bears similar to The Golden Compass. We had a school for magic, like in Harry Potter. I suspect Grossman intends to be derivative. The more derivative the book, the more meta comments the characters make. The meta elements, like the derivative elements spread through the end of the book like a virus, snuffing out a fantasy reader’s pleasure. In the end, the amoral laxity that Grossman injects into his book kills the flourishing novel he’s created.
It’s like watching someone kill a unicorn. What’s the point?
All of this is done with maximal writing skill. I hate him. AND I envy him his writing chops. They’re making the book into a series–I wonder if they’re going to change it at all to accommodate fantasy TV viewer expectations?
CAVEAT: I know someone who is ready to defend the novel to the death (and does so frequently). She is willing to take on all comers. So she must have cared by the end of the book. Or loved NOT caring.
Follow us at Lady Smut. We promise never to kill unicorns.
And come back tomorrow, folks–I’m having cover reveal for my fantasy novel WICKED APPRENTICE, including an excerpt and other fun stuff. You can already pre-order the book on Amazon.