Quentin Coldwater is 17 years old, intelligent, into magic tricks, into
the books about Fillory and the Chatwins who went there, and he is on the fast
track to the Ivy Leagues when he is distracted and ends up at Breakbills.
Breakbills is a magical school in Upstate New York. He decides to forego
Princeton and instead sets his sights on learning magic and becoming a
magician. The first half is basically a campus novel where Quentin and his
friends learn magic and all of that. The second half is about them living in
New York in debauchery, and then discovering that maybe Fillory wasn’t made up
Since this is a book about a magical school I’ll just say this right
away, it is not like Harry Potter, at all. It’s about kids who are college age
who engage in drinking, drugs, sex and who are all hyper intelligent, hyper
ambitious and incredibly privileged. They also aren’t working towards this long
character arch of fighting Voldemort. So it’s not Harry Potter.
A lot of people seem to dislike this because of Quentin, which I
understand. Quentin Coldwater is not a particularly nice person. He is
incredibly smart, and he sort of wallows in self-pity. He has a crush on his
friend’s girlfriend and he feels like she has somehow snubbed him, even though
he hasn’t actually told her how he feels. He is on the brink of depression. He
seems to constantly look for the place where his life will be good, the place
where he’ll be happy, instead of realizing how great his life is. I don’t mind
Quentin, I like unlikeable characters, and apart from Alice, pretty much
everyone in this book is a prat. I liked being annoyed by Quentin.
My favorite character is Eliot though. He is a year older than Quentin
and he introduces Quentin to the school. He is sort of a dandy, for instance he
refuses to wear his uniform shirts, and wears his own fancy ass shirts. He
makes good food, and drinks fine wines. He is also incredibly unlikeable, he’s
basically bored of life and tries to drink himself to death.
The two main female characters are also great. Alice is at least a bit
likeable, Janet on the other hand is awful. But Lev Grossman writes incredible
characters. They’re full of layers and they have interesting backstories and
reasons for what they do. While Janet seems to be really spiteful and cruel,
and while she only seems to use her looks to manipulate people she’s full of
depth and life. So it doesn’t grate on me. Also, all the people are awful, so
it makes sense for Janet to also be awful.
So I loved the characters, except Penny. And Penny is also what made me
dislike the plot, or the story. I felt like the pacing and story telling was a
bit off. Penny is a peer of Quentin’s. They take the entrance exam at the same
time. Penny is a punk, and according to Quentin, for a punk he is a real drag.
And he seems to be. He seems to take everything personally. He basically gets
into a fight with Quentin for absolutely no reason, and then afterwards he
makes this massive discovery, and decides he must tell Quentin, which just
drove me insane. It feels like Penny was only there to work as something to
drive the plot forward. And it wasn’t done particularly well. While the other
characters were fleshed out and incredible Penny was so one-dimensional and
hyperbolic and weird.
I thought the whole Fillory thing was interesting. It’s basically
Narnia, but redone, and he plopped a bunch of privileged and hyper smart rich
kids in it. And Fillory, while being described as sweet and childish in the
Fillory books, is much darker than Narnia. There’s a lot of murder and in this
book a surprising amount of dismemberment. It has the same ponds as the
Magician’s Nephew, which is how Narnia is found, and it has the same way of
getting to this other world as in The Magician’s Nephew. It was an interesting
way of using Fillory, and it was an interesting look at it.
While I did like Quentin, and Eliot, and Alice I feel like the book has
some flaws and some things that really irritated me. So I liked it, but I was a
bit meh. I sort of want to read the other two, just to see what happens, but
I’m not incredibly invested.