Well. I read this book because Jillian recommended it to me and loaned me the book. And I am absolutely not sad I did. However, I do think the book was very problematic in some ways, although it did keep me completely engaged until the very end.
Watch out, kids…
In this book, Quentin is a pretty typical teenager of the smart, maladjusted kind. He grew up reading fantasy novels about a family of children who traveled to a magic land called Fillory – very similar to Narnia – and Quentin sort of always wished he could fall into those books and never leave. Like many fantasy fanatics, I can appreciate Quentin’s feeling of being an outsider in the real world and his desire to enter magical realms and never leave. In short, he isn’t very happy, and he’s looking forward to something new.
But then he is accepted to the magical university of Brakebills to study – you guessed it – magic. Because magic is real! And soon after, he finds that other magical realms are real, too! And you think this would make him happy. But it doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t realize how much he’s screwed up his life until it’s too late and everyone he ever cared about is dead or gone.
Honestly, for much of the time reading this book, I identified wholly with Quentin’s character. I, too, loved fantasy novels in my youth (and, admittedly, still do). I, too, wished that those magical realms were real. And while I didn’t attend an otherworldly university only for magicians, I did attend a small, liberal arts school full of entitled jerks and wonderful friends that seemed magical much of the time (even the squirrels came up to you on the quad like you were a Disney princess singing to them in the forest) and felt a bit lost when my post-undergraduate existence was not as magical as the four years previous. And Quentin’s character really did pull me into the story. His third-person limited narration coupled with the action sequences and the uncanny ability most fantasy writers have of leaving chapters at cliffhangers so you absolutely have to keep reading kept me sucked in to the very end. And, I must say, I was not disappointed with the plot or the characterization.
However, I’m a feminist, right? And I, like, can’t turn it off? So there was quite a bit about this book that was problematic. First off, I couldn’t get through an entire page without some group of people being wholly insulted. Things were being called “retarded” pretty liberally. One woman was described as butch-looking and, as soon as I sarcastically thought “oh, so she’s a lesbian,” the next sentence proclaimed it to be so. Women’s descriptions were consistently about their beautiful or ugly appearances, and always ended with a description of their breasts. Not to mention that Quentin is an entitled ass who cheats on his girlfriend and then, after she punches him in the face (FTW!), she sleeps with someone else and then he keeps referring to it as a mistake! And he gets mad at her! And referring to her as his Alice! Like she is his possession! She doesn’t say it was a mistake until much later, but that doesn’t give him the permission to define the situation. And all this is just made worse by the fact that she dies just as he’s realizing he loves her, and the only reason she was put in a situation to die in the first place was because she went with him to “take care of him” – her words given to her by this fantastically male author. Of course, like icing on the cake, let’s not forget that the sex they first have is more or less forced upon her in the first place (except then, in true fantasy-fashion, she realizes the pleasure of it and submits to it).
You could argue here that Lev Grossman was just following the well-paved road of the fantasy genre (it’s pretty common knowledge that most fantasy novels have male heroes, problematic content, “sex” that is actually rape… anything so that the hero grows and changes by the end). You could argue that, if the plot was engaging enough, none of this other stuff matters. But I disagree. Aren’t we past the tropes of the fantasy genre yet? Can’t we live in a fantasy world in which women are the heroes, or, at the very least, are equals deserving of equal credit and equal sexual prowess? (I think Suzanne Collins proved we can. And should!) At the very least, can’t I open a book without broad and offensive generalizations about groups of people and offensive, ableist language?
I can almost ignore problematic content in older fantasy books. Almost. Because those authors didn’t grow up or exist in a time when women were heroes and problematic language… well, there’s never an excuse for that. But Grossman has no excuse for any of it in my opinion. We’re in a new world now, and that means the fantasy genre has to take a new turn in order to survive. I love fantasy, ok? I’ll admit it. But the problematic content of this novel completely ruined it for me.
So, if you love fantasy and can overlook some of these feminist issues, you’ll probably really like this book. But if you can’t overlook the issues, I wouldn’t recommend picking it up. It’ll just irritate you too much.