In my other life, I'm something of a Harry Potter fanatic. I know far too much about Harry Potter and that fandom than I'm comfortable admitting. So I picked up what has been labeled the adult "Harry Potter" with a little curiosity. Initially, I thought, well, I have to admit I'm a Harry Potter nut because it will color my review to a ridiculous degree. But having read this book and thought long and hard about it, there are very few similarities, and the similarities that I do see are actually the weaknesses in both books/series.
First of all, there is a fair amount of lip service to a myriad of childhood fantasy books. Pick your poison. Chronicles of Narnia. Yep. Harry Potter. Yep. Hints of Tolkien. Other reviewers who are more into the fantasy realm that I am have listed a number of books that the author slyly acknowledges throughout the novel. The one book I have not seen mentioned is "The Phantom Tollbooth," which I think actually has much more relevance in some ways than any of these books. This is a book about a quest that only the protagonist can realize. Indeed, the inside flap of my copy has a map of the magical land, Fillory, which is so similar to the map in my beat-up paper copy of "The Phantom Tollbooth" that I half expected the protagonist to be named "Milo."
The good. We come out swinging here. Mr. Grossman is by far a much better writer than J. K. Rowling (JKR). He doesn't use excessive world-building to mask an inability or weakness in characterization. To be fair to JKR, not writing for children frees Mr. Grossman up quite a lot, and his book reads true; young men and woman talk like this. I have a kids roughly the same age as these kids, and like my kids they are rude, somewhat irreverent, definitely crude, and yet vulnerable with each other. Plus, setting this novel in a magical college allows him further grit. We have copious amounts of underage sex, drinking, and drug-taking at Brakesbill (the magician college), which pretty much describes my college career. He does not have the albatross that JKR carried around with her for the last five books, which is, who in the hell was her audience? By the end, I don't even think she knew, and it meant that she swung back and forth between both her children's audience and her adult audience, which weakened the series to a near-fatal degree. Mr. Grossman's setting is mature, biting, and all too believable. All the kids that populate this novel have an edge (with the exception of one, and I did have issues with that because that's the one character who becomes the martyr--how convenient).
Basically this is a coming of age novel. Where as Harry Potter had to come to terms with some madman who longed for immortality and thought Harry was the ticket to life-ever lasting, Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist of the Grossman book, is a sullen malcontent, whose magical abilities don't seem to free him from malaise so much as add to it. He loves magic and yet it does not liberate him. Much like Harry Potter, who is strangely untouched by the evil done to him and others, Quentin is untouched by pretty much everything around him. I don't need to like my protagonists and I must admit that Quentin is a compelling narrator, but I'm not sure by the end of the book that I understood what made him tick. He's seemingly asbestos, then he's not, then he is, and at the last are we to assume he's not again?
The magic in this book is appropriately dark and forbidding. And unlike the Harry Potter books where there is a clear line between "good" magic and "bad" magic, here it's a shifting line. As the story progresses in Grossman's book, the choice to use what spells turns out to be a matter of survival than anything else. The brief nod to Quidditch (welters in this book) is pointless. I would have taken it out. Quidditch in Harry Potter played several critical roles (perhaps the most critical was to fake out the reader into thinking that the novels were moving forward), and I think the minor plot points introduced could have been salted in elsewhere.
Where we have Adult Harry Potter Meets the Phantom Tollbooth is Quentin's obsession with the magical world Fillory, the setting of a childrens' book series that ended abruptly with literally no ending. Hark! The magical world in these books is real! No surprises there. I predicted that it would figure prominently in the story no later than twenty pages into this novel. Yet, it's a still a fascinating world (although there were some plot points at the end that left me scratching my head. No one else has commented on these gaffs, but I found myself asking, "Wait a minute. Why was this person killed if this person..." And "Why is **** is a prisoner, if the **** allows the very **** keeping the **** prisoner into the room?")
The one issue that I do have with the Grossman book is a compelling disdain for adults. The parents in this book are completely dismissible and in some cases odious. In fact, the children who go to Brakebills might as well be orphans. While that makes for convenient plot contrivances, it tends to maroon the characters and the choices that they make in many cases don't have consequences emotionally. Don't go home for Christmas. No problem. They won't even know I'm gone. And, of course, as is similar in the Harry Potter books, the adults don't exactly mentor. They use these kids unmercifully to fight the battles they cannot fight (or are too afraid to fight). This absence of adults might have made the book easier to plot, concentrating all evolving drama between the students themselves, but by the end (when all is revealed) it comes off as a plot contrivance, in my opinion. One that bled some of the tension out of the story because these kids aren't making a choice between one world or the other. Perhaps that was the point--Quentin in the end had no choice--but it left me a little irritated.
The ending of this book is appropriately ambiguous, mainly because the protagonist still remains somewhat aloof from the reader. I would say that for me that there was never a sense that Quentin ever wakes up. That the charges leveled against him by his girlfriend, Alice, remain true. He will never, ever, be happy. That does not change by the end of the book, and I wonder as a reader what I'm supposed to derive from this. That by the end of the book, as was the case in the beginning, Quentin seems passive of his own destiny. Someone is putting choices in front of this young man that he can either reject or not, but as a reader I would have thought that his experience would have, at the very least, liberated him from his passivity. In the end, this seems less a coming of age novel so much as an enduring question mark of who this young man is.