Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.
Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.
Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.
Every now and then you’ll see a meme float around: describe a book in one sentence. I’ve never been a huge fan of it, and I think this book is a good example of why. On the one hand, it’s easy to summarize: “Depressed Quentin Coldwater matriculates early to attend Hogwarts University and then discovers Narnia.” It’s accurate enough: Breakbills is Hogwarts, if magic was taught to older children and was more rigourous. Fillory is Narnia, less much of the Christian mythology and Quentin is depressed. The thing is, this book is less about magic and more about how elusive happiness can be. There is plenty of magic and there is a fair amount of adventure (the last section of the book in Fillory proper gets pretty dark), but it’s really a story about how Quentin is never happy because he never lets himself be happy because he thinks the grass will always be greener elsewhere. There’s actually a rather sharp edge of melancholy to this tale and even though he has all the elements he needs to be happy, he only realizes that when he’s practically lost everything.
I can see why this is divisive: though the ending is optimistic, it is not happy and some find Quentin’s relentless negativity (especially after graduation) to be a bit much. And I can absolutely understand that. On the other hand…I kind of like it that he went there. There are people like Quentin in this world and when you’ve had a rough life and read it can be easy to think “If only I could run away to [insert land of choice here] I would be happy” like he does and it’s nice to see a book reflect that once in a while. And I like that Grossman isn’t actually advocating for that kind of thinking.
This book may not to be to your liking, but I still think it worth a look because it almost feels like a contemporary novel of a young adult searching for himself with the trappings of fantasy in it, and you don’t find too much fantasy like that today.
Verdict: Borrow It – the bleak outlook may be a turn off for some, but it’s still worth a look.
Available: Now. The final book in the triology, The Magician’s Land, comes out this August.