Quentin Coldwater could stub his toe on a block of gold and still complain about how much it hurt. Faced with the nerd jackpot of having his childhood dreams fufilled at a magical college, he struggles with finding contentment. We follow Quentin and his friends as he has a very adult realization over the course of several years about the nature of happiness. It would be a little too easy to describe this as Harry Potter for adults, but I got the same thrill down my spine reading about magic in this book as I did reading YA books in school.
Grossman has brought magic education thouroughly into the 21st century where legitimately genius students cope with rigorous academics by consuming a lot of drugs and alcohol, sleeping with each other and gossiping about who is sleeping with each other. We speed through 5 years at Brakebills College in the half of the book, which astonished my Harry Potter-esque expectations. After that we're left with Quentin and friends dealing with the unhappy reality of being adult magicians. Quentin goes after capital-F Fun and ends up even more capital-U Unhappy. As a magician, he has power to alter the physical world in almost anyway imaginable, but he can't keep his relationships from stagnating and himself away from drowning in alcohol.
Since Quentin (and assuming his friends) can't be happy after fufilling fantasy #1, when fantasy #2 arrives he jumps in to a Narnia themed world called Fillory full of talking animals where humans come to rule as kings and queens. The same lesson we learned before about the grass not really being all that green on the other side only ramps up in intensity as Quentin & Co. find the reality of Fillory sets in. We meet a character who got what they wished for only to have the idea twist up inside of him and strangle the humanity. The largest emotional hits of the story come in this climactic section as Quentin has to deal with authentic suffering and loss and see how he comes back together on the other side.
Some of the strongest points are the book come when we ride the line between the magical rigors and the blurry instict that flows around powerful magic. We learn about transformations, manipulations, cojurations and catch glimpses of the deep magic that's bound by the Higher Laws. The way that Grossman writes about magic is compelling and doesn't leave as many little loopholes as other books where energy can be conjured effortlessly. But by the second half of the book though, magic has taken a backseat to the characters and magic becomes a synonym of power and the ability to manifest things to make yourself happy. There's some very un-magical lessons about love, excess, jealousy and longing.
I've seen criticism of this book saying that it's "sad for sad's sake". While I certainly agree that it's not a chipper experience and that Quentin has some very childish tendencies that grate against me, I'll be purchasing the next books to see his continued growth and hopefully his happiness.