This book gets three stars solely because it started out so strong. I was telling people that i loved it and i thought i would surely end up giving it five stars for the first third or so of the story. The writing was delightfully descriptive and the story was dense but not dull, which i think is perfect, and the system of magic was really interesting and intricate and challenging and fun. The Beast was such a creepy cool thing that happened early on. And i loved all the references both direct and indirect to the other huge fantasy stories: Narnia, Harry Potter, The Once and Future King, Lord of the Rings, even Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars. It’s a fantasy book for fantasy nerds who have read it all, and bits of it are quite funny. But large chunks of it are not amusing at all.
This is certainly a different kind of fantasy story. It was billed to me as an adult Harry Potter with sex and alcohol and such, but it’s more like… The Chronicles of Narnia meets St. Elmo’s Fire. Or the kids in Traffic or Garden State, or some other drugged-up privileged modern white kid movie that i haven’t watched because who would want to watch that crap? It’s a bunch of worthless scumbag young american adults doing magic for no real reason and getting endlessly intoxicated. These are supposed to be the smartest of the smartest kids, and they just do a series of increasingly idiot things because they’re bored and have been given large sums of money that they’ll never have to actually earn. And the smartest of the smartest of the smartest, supposedly, is Quentin, the main character of the story, who is also the uncontested king of the douchebags.
(Warning: it gets mildly spoiler-y here.) I never felt any sympathy for Quentin, and by the middle of the book i flat-out hated him. He’s a worthless, cowardly, self-centered, powerless, utterly disappointing failure. He’s no magician; he never becomes the hero of the story. And the worst part is that he never really redeems himself for the dumb things he does along the way. He just moves beyond his starry-eyed self-pity into a defeated numbness. I’m not convinced that he ever even truly took responsibility for his own actions, or that he intends to atone for them in book two. At the very least, he could’ve had some existential epiphany and become a much better person. But, nope.
I think the point of this book is to be a philosophical exercise rather than a good story. Grossman could have written a good story, but that would’ve been too easy. He had to write something strange and uncomfortable instead. I was kind of baffled by the parts of it that actually resembled a plot, especially the main conflict at the end. I don’t understand why that had to happen at all. The whole message of the book seems to be this: chasing happiness is pointless because no matter where you go, you’ll never catch it—but anything is better than working a nine-to-five and leading a normal life. I expected that last bit to be proved wrong at some point, but it definitely wasn’t (so, fuck you, Grossman). But the most telling part of the book, to me, is what isn’t in it: none of the characters find happiness. They’re so sure they know where not to find it, but they don’t really have a clue how to attain it, even at the end.
There’s a lot here to ponder, so i think this book was worth reading. But, damn. I don’t think i’ll be reading the rest of the series, because i just can’t stand these characters.