Formula for fantasy novel: take a number of famous book plots, a handful of tried-and-true tropes, toss in some quasi-philosophical clapdoodle about magic, dump it all into a blender, set on low speed, chop and dice for 30 seconds, and ta-da! There you have it, YA book about genius teens in a school for magic.
The book opens with angst-ridden Holden Caulfield, oops, I mean Quentin Coldwater, teen genius who is already jaded by life. Oh, please. Gimme a break. He, along with two friends, are on their way to a private interview with someone for entrance to a prestigious university. On arrival at the guy’s house, they find him dead. Other than the angst, not a bad beginning.
One of the paramedics who come to the scene gives Quentin a notebook, and when he is walking home, a piece of paper flies out of the book and he hares off after it into a vacant lot which becomes more and more wild, until he finds himself in the grounds of a large mansion, and the weather has gone from his NYC winter to summer. It turns out that this place is Hogwarts, oops I mean Brakebills, a secret school for magic, complete with British style prefects, eccentric professors and everything. They even encounter an evil monster from another dimension one time in a classroom.
This Harry Potter wannabe plotline has Quentin turning into a fabulous magician, but not much of a human being. He acquires friends and a love life. After being turned into geese for a flight to a branch office of the school in Antarctica, (yeah, I know, but stay with me, it gets worse, or maybe better), the students study their little feathers off and at one point are turned into foxes and play in the snow and have sex. [I know what the problem is — I am too old to take this stuff seriously]. Then after a trudge to the South Pole naked, using only his spells for survival, he is instantly transported back to Brakebills proper in upper New York State.
The gang graduates, and using magic money, they move to Manhattan where they embark on their F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned lifestyle of ennui and alcoholism. Fitzgerald did it so much better.
One of their bunch who has moved up to Maine shows up with a magic button which can take them to another ….. dimension? Place? Universe?
A main thread throughout all of this is a children’s 5 book fantasy series written in the ’20s (I think) which they had all read and devoured as children. It is about a family who get transported to the fantasy land of Fillory, where they have adventures and go on quests. Well, this button, talked about in the last book of the series, and which is in the book hidden by one of the sisters, has apparently been found so the gang all hold hands and go blithely off to this other dimension, which, coincidentally enough turns out to be, gosh, Fillory, but a Fillory centuries after the time of the children’s visits there. It is filled with all kinds of fantasy creatures, which we meet when the gang finds — in the middle of an evil wood — a pub. In the pub are the strangest collection of beings, all reminiscent of that bar in the first Star Wars movie.
However, they don’t go directly there, first they arrive at a transition point, a vacant deserted city, where all of the buildings are impregnable but seem to be libraries. I remember a similarity to some such scene in Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. Doesn’t this author have any original ideas?
In Fillory, they quest along trying to find the head honcho, Ember, and his tomb. They find it with the help of a couple of marshal arts mercenaries, and the tomb becomes a labyrinth. Indiana Whoosis, anyone?
After some truly horrendous bloody battles, the descriptions of which, along with the sex, probably takes this out of the YA category and puts it in the New Adult category, Quentin wakes up in the care of a group of monkish satyrs, you know – the half horse, half human creatures? – where he has been unconscious for six months. One of the centaurs told him that they all considered humans to be inferior beings, with none of the sylvan values. OK, now we are in the Country of the Houyhnhnms, courtesy of Jonathan Swift. Will this thing never end?
He recovers eventually and after chasing after the Questing Beast (get it? questing after the Questing Beast? Could we BE any more heavy-handed with the symbolism here?), he gets three wishes. His first several are ungrantable, but the beast agrees he can have one more, and Quentin asks to be transported home. He ends up back at the school.
He then eschews magic, works in a tall building in Manhattan, when one day, suddenly, his glass wall shatters. Gasp. I had a 9/11 flashback, but no, it was his friends showing up and they cajole him into accompanying them back to Fillory for more adventures. The book ends with him stepping through the broken glass and off into thin air and flying. Mary Poppins lives.
What a stupid book.
There is a sequel. It is, in fact, a trilogy. The next volume is The Magician King. Am I going to read it? Hell, yeah.