The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Together these three novels were my top reads of the year. They were filled with magic and wonder, but there was a depth to them that I really needed. I have always loved children's and young adult fantasy, but I was often uninterested in reading adult fantasy. I think it's because I assumed that if I was going to read an "adult" novel, then it had better be an important one. I think I'm over that assumption now.
The Night Circus is actually the most light-hearted of these books. As children, Celia and Marco were pledged without their consent into a competition to prove what method of teaching magic works best. The competition will take place in the Cirque des Reves, with Marco working on the circus from a distance, while Celia performs her magic openly by pretending to be a regular magician. Unfortunately, neither of the magicians are prepared for the fact that they might fall for their competitor, nor are they ready for the fact that they are not the only people that they must worry about; they need to think of everyone involved in the circus. Morgenstern does not attempt to explain the magic they perform, which adds another element of mystery to the story, and the circus (a black and white marvel) seems so amazing that I wish I could go. I did think that a editor might have tightened a few sections, but otherwise I adored it.
The Magicians is really interesting because it draws on the children's fantasy tradition. In his senior year of high school, Quentin is still obsessed with children's books about Fillory. Fillory resembles Narnia with its talking animals, need for humans to save it from trouble, and the god figure(s) who exist in this magical world in animal form (also the fact that the children who visit get unceremoniously kicked out, often for good). Quentin's obsession with Fillory, and with the need to experience real magic is making him rather antisocial, until one day he suddenly finds himself walking through a door, and arriving on the lawn of Brakehills, a real school for magicians. Magic is apparently real, and although Brakehills relies a lot on Harry Potter and Hogwarts for its essence, there is something unusual about this school, and this book. Magic apparently involves a huge amount of hard work and sacrifice, and that amount of effort makes life in a magical world almost banal. If you have to really, really study, and there isn't a quest every year, like in Harry Potter, then maybe magic isn't anymore wonderful than everything else in life. There's a dark undertow in this book, as Quentin finds out that even a magician has to strive to make his life have meaning. There are nihilist moments as Quentin and his friends leave the school and find out how little they need to do. Of course, there are adventures, and there's even a trip to Fillory, but the world is never as simple as you can hope it is.
I loved The Magicians so much, that I actually bought the sequel in hard cover. I'm still a student, so this means something. I've since lent these books around to anyone who'll borrow them. The Magican King begins a bit after where The Magicians ended off, so I'll talk about it after the jump, for anyone who doesn't want any SPOILERS at all.
Quentin and his friends are now kings and queens of Fillory, with the perfect life that royalty would have in a magical kingdom. However, Quentin is still dealing with the horrible price that was paid as well as a feeling of inertia in his perfect life. He's hopeful that if he has a quest, he'll feel better. So when a chance to get on a ship and sail to a far off island ( looking for the taxes the island probably owes) appears, Quentin jumps in and pushes things further than it needs to be by spending ages on getting a storybook perfect ship. Of course, his tax expedition leads to a real quest that will affect all of Fillory - and possibly all worlds. In this book we also get to hear Julia's story, and we learn how those who don't get into Brakehills learn about magic. Like The Magicians, there are some really dark moments, even though the Narnia allusions remind the reader of the more light-hearted Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Quentin grows up a lot more, and I thought the plot felt tighter than in The Magicians, which occasionally meandered around.