Book Chatter: The Magicians

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One of the greatest things about the Harry Potter books is that the protagonist grows up.

We can see it happening right in front of us. One minute he’s just glad to see a feast; the next minute, he’s blushing every time he sees Cho Chang.

But by the end of the books … was I the only one who felt the last chapter was a little too easy?

Maybe this is just my jaded adult self talking … but (SPOILERS) Harry ends up with Ginny, Hermione ends up with Ron, they all have beautiful kids and good jobs, they’re all hale and hearty. They’ve definitely earned their rest after everything they went through as teenagers, but if we read the books as war narratives, then it’s tough to read about a war in excruciating detail and then the narrative ends on the last day of the war. Real wars don’t end that neatly. There are repairs to make, criminals to deal with, counseling to go through, bureaucracies to restructure. When a narrative ignores that process, it can cheapen the whole conflict by making it seem like not such a big deal after all.

"War? No, no --- they're the latest in fuel-efficient transport."

“Sure, the armour is a nice bonus, but our real reason for driving these guys is their innovations in fuel efficiency.”

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a story for people who want a bit more of that gritty realism. In addition, Grossman dances on the genre of wizard-school fiction without seeming at all like a Rowling copycat — on the contrary, he seems to take great glee in creating a world that’s almost the precise opposite of the golden aura seen in the early Harry Potter books. The main wizard in The Magicians is Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant high school student from New York City, who is on his way to a Princeton interview when he is stalled by a sudden death and an unexpected note — and then derailed entirely by an impossible trip to a bizarre place called Brakebills, which is, as the professors explain it to him during the day-long entrance exam, a college for magic.

So there’s a clear break between the Harry Potter series and The Magicians: since Grossman has set his story in a university, his characters can be grittier — and they are, complete with plenty of alcohol and trysts. At the beginning of Quentin’s term, there’s precious little of the warmth and camaraderie we see in Hogwarts; Brakebills draws its students from the smartest kids in America, and what do you get when you cram a hundred geniuses together and give them a new skill to master? Competition — fierce, cutthroat competition, of a variety we don’t really glimpse at Hogwarts, not even during a Gryffindor–Slytherin Quidditch match. And if you want to know the difference between Harry and Quentin in a few sentences, here it is, in a quote from Quentin’s introduction to Brakebills:

“Suppose it really was a school for magic. Was it any good? What if he’d stumbled into some third-tier magic college by accident? He had to think practically. He didn’t want to be committing himself to some community college of sorcery when he could have Magic Harvard or whatever.”

The rest of us: "Oh my gosh, Quentin, it's magic. Just GO."

The rest of us: “Oh my gosh, Quentin, it’s magic. Just GO.”

So Quentin matriculates at Brakebills and begins his studies, eventually gathering a small band of friends around himself. They all study for five years, graduate, … and then what? At this point, my appreciation for Grossman reached a new height: he understood exactly what it was like to feel caught in suspended animation after graduating, and he portrayed it to a T. Then Quentin and his friends finally decide on a course of action: they’re going to try to find a mythical land they’ve all longed to visit, and getting there and back is going to take the most daring, strength, and skill they can conjure up.

The Magicians is the first book in (I believe) a trilogy, but even just as a standalone book, it works pretty well. There’s imagination, detail, believable emotions, lyricism, and continually compelling reasons to keep reading. I recommend it for all sorts — HP fans, non-HP fans, literary fiction enthusiasts, hard-core fantasy readers, and casual readers. Much like Hogwarts or Brakebills, there really is something in The Magicians for everyone.

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Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; tank from WikiImages and megaphone from mickeyroo on Pixabay.

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Book Chatter: The Secret of Platform 13

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As with any popular book or series, quite a bit of the conversation about the Harry Potter series centers on whether J.K. Rowling “stole” from other people’s work.

As an amateur writer, I find this a somewhat troubling topic. It seems to me that there are only so many types of plots and characters and resolutions out there — Christopher Booker wrote an entire book on what he identified as the seven plots that humanity has recycled since year 1. If you enjoy a story, you’ll focus on the reasons why it’s different from its thematic relatives: “Yeah, it’s a quest story with two intrepid red-headed protagonists as well, but this antagonist is motivated by nostalgia, not greed.” If you dislike a story, you’ll focus on the ways it’s identical to other stories you’ve read: “Sure, it’s not set in zombified nineteenth-century France, but it’s still the same old story of girl-meets-boy.”

Or girl-meets-bench. We're openminded here.

Or girl-meets-bench. We’re openminded here.

So if there’s nothing new under the literary sun, why do writers bother anymore? Hasn’t everything important already been written?

I don’t think so. The magic of a story is how the writer chooses to combine and highlight already-familiar ingredients. Every writer has a unique voice, and even very similar elements can take on a whole new sheen under the care of a different writer. An extreme example would be the story of Cinderella, told in Europe first by Perrault, then embellished by countless authors, including Donna Jo Napoli’s haunting adaptation of the Chinese version, Bound; Gail Carson Levine’s beloved flight of whimsy, Ella Enchanted; and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s topsy-turvy version, Just Ella. They all have the same combination of elements, but each writer has taken that set story and turned it into something beautiful and new.

Yes, even more beautiful than this guy. It's hard to believe, I know.

Yes, even more beautiful than this guy. It’s hard to believe, I know.

So when people say that J.K. Rowling borrowed this plot development from over here and that character flaw from over there, my somewhat callous reaction is “Well … of course.” Several millennia into our history, we’ve hashed out a good collection of literary elements. There’s no shame in using and reusing them as the story demands. I’m not talking about plagiarism, lifting plots and passages from other works. I’m talking about the rawer elements, the clockwork that makes a story tick.

Many people have identified a lot of Harry Potter–type elements in today’s Book Chatter selection, Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13, which was published a few years before the first Harry Potter book. There’s a magical doorway at King’s Cross, and a skinny, nice boy who’s been pressed into service as a servant, and a fat, spoiled, thoroughly unlikable boy who usurps his place at every turn. The literary resemblance to the Harry Potter books is close enough that a reporter once asked Ibbotson what she thought about it. Ibbotson replied that she’d like to “shake [Rowling] by the hand. I think we all borrow from each other as writers.”

Sometimes more literally than other times.

Sometimes literally.

So while The Secret of Platform 13 is a great read for those looking for something like Harry Potter,  it’s also an excellent story in and of itself.  It’s the story of a delightful island, handily called the Island, that’s connected to modern-day London by a portal called the Gump. The Gump opens only every nine years for nine days at a time, so when the three nurses of the beloved baby prince decide to take him through for a quick visit, it’s a national tragedy when the baby is stolen by a woman desperate for a child of her own.

Nine years later, the king and queen select a committee to go through the Gump and rescue the young prince. There’s Hans, a one-eyed giant inclined to wear lederhosen; Gurkie, a fey with a penchant for large and striking hats; Cor, a very old wizard; and Odge, an eight-year-old hag who would dearly love to be able to strike people bald. It’s a largely ceremonial team, selected for what is supposed to be a very easy mission … but when they show up in London and discover that the prince is now a spoiled brat and heavily guarded to boot, they begin to realize that nine days might not be quite long enough for the task at hand.

Beautiful crafted, witty, and light, The Secret of Platform 13 will delight readers young and old alike. And if you enjoy Ibbotson’s style, consider some of her other works, like A Company of Swans.

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What’s your favourite fantasy book or series?

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Photo credit: Woman on bench from cocoparisienne, Sarcorampus bird by tpsdave, and pound notes from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.