What Not to Give Teen Boys: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

There are books that are great for boys, and there are books that seem great for teen boys, but there is just something about them that I can't recommend.  I know that there is a feeling that we should never restrict what boys (or anyone for that matter) should read.  That's okay; if they want it and are interested in it, fine.  I will never stop them from taking it or reading it.  But I will not actively recommend something I can't stand behind for whatever reason.

Lev Grossman's novel is rightly compared to Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia and other fantasy works.  All the hallmarks are there:  Normal kid Quentin finds out he's a magician.  His favorite books, set in the world of "Fillory", are an analogue of C.S. Lewis's works.  It sounds exciting, and it should be.

But this is Literary Fantasy, so the setup and premise is misleading.  This isn't about magic, really.  It's about how bleak life can be.  It's about how true love doesn't solve everything.  It's about how have the freedom to do anything usually ends up making you do nothing, or worse, doing something destructive.  It's about being lost and aimless in life, and how having all your dreams come true means that you have no dreams left.  I'm not a fan of literary fiction; I prefer genre fiction and non-fiction.  I like to be entertained, not depressed.

So why don't I recommend it, since it has many of the same themes as a lot of literary fiction?  I always try to suggest material that has a strong plot that drives the story.  I find that boys prefer plot-driven stories over character studies.  I know I do, and I'm a boy. The problem here is that The Magicians doesn't even have a plot until the final third (a pretty good one, actually, for what it's worth). So much of the book is just an exploration of Quentin's young adulthood.  And he's a bit of a jerk, too.  I didn't find him particularly likable.

This book has been called a 'real life' Harry Potter.  I always wonder why there is such an emphasis on 'real life' in YA and literary books in general.  I never was a drug addict or an alcoholic.  I never experienced physical or emotional abuse.  I was and remain comfortably middle class.  Most kids I grew up with grew up like me.  This isn't all in this book, but it is in the broader genre of literary fiction.  This stuff isn't real life to me, so I couldn't really relate the themes and events of the story.

What would I recommend instead? Try Tom Holt or Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom for Sale.  Both feature regular Joes who find themselves in a magic world, but both are more plot-centric and certainly contain fewer mature themes.

And for the record, it's not that I don't recommend the book at all, or for guys; I am going to read the sequel, so I couldn't have hated that much.  I just don't think it is appropriate for teen guys.  It's more of an age thing.
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  1. Steven said...:

    Having now read the sequel, I can say that it was a vast improvement over this one.

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