Hopefully this is not becoming a theme, but this is another book that I really wanted to love and just couldn’t. People seem to be describing this as ‘Harry Potter for adults’, and I don’t know if I agree. I suppose I took that to imply more depth than Harry Potter, but it seems it’s just labelled as such because there’s some swearing and sex.
This is a tricky book to boil down to a basic synopsis, because for the first half of the book there’s very little conflict, and then the second half of the book could essentially be a different story. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, is admitted to a secret magic college after graduating high school, and then it’s Harry Potter without Voldemort for 200 pages. It then abruptly becomes Narnia without Aslan.
Vague, I know, but it’ll have to do.
I absolutely love coming of age fantasy stories in which a youth has to master a skill, whether that be magic, swordsmanship, basic survival or anything else, and I found that portion of the novel to be somewhat unsatisfying. There just wasn’t any of the wonder that you’d associate with being in a magic college. In Harry Potter, the characters were excited to be there and in awe of what they were seeing. In this he was trying too hard to show how a magic college could be as mundane as regular college, so much so that my own university days felt more wondrous than most of this did. What made it more frustrating was the lack of conflict while he was in school. The first half of the book can essentially be described as: he’s doing quite well in school, but he has to study hard.
Almost every character in this, Quentin especially, becomes completely insufferable by the end of the novel. The whole group of them are pretentious, selfish idiots who have no idea how good they have it, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if that’s what the author was aiming for or not. I try not to judge books by how much I like the main characters, because you can tell a fascinating story with an unlikable protagonist, but in a coming of age story such as this you naturally try to identify.
I obviously can’t say what Grossman’s intentions were, but it felt like he wanted to take Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia and show how they would play out in a gritty, less fantastical, world, one with real problems like infidelity and depression and desk jobs. Too much of a focus on that comparison caused the novel to become disjointed and suffer as a whole. As a quick example, there’s a Quidditch equivalent sport at the college, but it’s so underdeveloped that there was really no point in including it. You get no real sense of the sport and it does nothing to further the plot or develop the characters. It’s there because he wants it to be like Harry Potter.
At first glance, this feels like the perfect novel for me, which is probably why I found its shortcomings so disappointing. I like the idea, and even though I’m ragging on it quite a bit here, I didn’t hate it, but I haven’t decided whether I’ll carry on with the rest of the trilogy yet. Life’s too short for books you don’t love, but maybe I’ll browse some reviews. It’s possible that my grievances may get address in the next novel.