Quentin is a brilliant, disgruntled teenager when this book opens. He’s bored and unhappy and feels like even among other smart kids in a privileged school, he doesn’t fit in. He feels like he’s just waiting for his real life to start happening. Also he secretly yearns to find a magical land from a series of books he read as a kid, a place called Fillory. I loved the fact that the Fillory books were so much a part of this storyline, and how distinctly the characters talked about them. Fillory is very much like Narnia. Except when Quentin and his friends find the real Fillory, it’s much darker, a bitter dangerous place full of unexpected things. But that comes in so much later- literally almost all the interesting action happens in the very last fifth of the book. All the rest before that- is kind of dull. Quentin suddenly discovers that magic is real when he gets invited to a hidden magical school, and starts training as a wizard. It’s a lot of rote work and memorization (very reminiscent of the school in Earthsea, but also with plenty of Hogwarts similarities). At first Quentin is delighted to be there- but he still isn’t happy. He works hard, he makes friends or not, he eventually finds a friend who becomes his girlfriend, and then casually, stupidly breaks her heart. He sees how very very dangerous magic can be. People die from mistakes. In nasty ways. He goes home for a few brief vacations which is surreal as his parents have no clue what he’s actually doing, their memories and perceptions magically altered. When he finally is done with school, he’s at loose ends- can’t find meaning to his life, messes around in a big city just wasting time. Until they find a route to Fillory, and get all excited again that this is the start of something really exciting. Except- it’s mostly not. Not an exciting adventure in a lovely magical land. No, it’s a sudden drop into a foreign place in a long civil war, where they don’t understand in the least what’s going on, and the magic they have worked so hard to learn is sneered at by much more skilled creatures. Yes, there’s magical creatures, but they’re not impressed with meddling humans!
The other reviews sum this up nicely: it’s like an adult, urban fantasy version of Harry Potter plus Narnia with bits echoing The Once and Future King (a Questing Beast) and also Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Some of these were subtle plays on the same ideas, some were nice nods- the characters referring to or admiring the other works- and others just felt like outright copying. The world-between-worlds you have to reach with a small magic object, for example. It was fun to see them worked in a different light, but also a tad annoying, how familiar. All that plus the fact that most of the characters weren’t actually likable or felt very flat- through the whole book I got very little sense of who they really were, even the ones I might have wanted to know (Alice). So I feel like I really dragged through this book, and I was actually relieved when it was over, eager to start something else instead. Not a very good sign, that. But I’ve heard the sequel is more engaging so do want to read it, just not right now.