Critiquing The Magicians: Build-Up and Pay-Off

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Criticizing a book when you are as of yet unpublished seems to smack of tempting fate. But I wouldn’t be the critical reader I like to think I am if I shied away from a controversial opinion. So for the next two posts, I am going to flagellate review Lev Grossman’s book The Magicians and where I think it fails. This week, we’re going to discuss the concept of Build-Up and Pay-Off.

In any story in any medium, Build-Up and Pay-Off are going to play a part. Build-Up is the setting of any particular plot, the stakes involved, adding drama, foreshadowing, etc. Pay-Off is the reward we get for sitting through the Build-Up. In a romantic plot, for instance, the Build-Up would be the unresolved sexual tension, the flirting, the miscommunication, and all those other goodies, while the Pay-Off is the moment where the couple finally hooks up.

Build-Up and Pay-Off have a very delicate balance. If too much Build-Up is used, the readers or viewers will become tired and impatient, and the Pay-Off will not strike the punch it needs too. Contrarily, if there’s not enough Build-Up, the Pay-Off will seem to come out of nowhere and seem confusing or unwarranted. If you don’t make people care about the couple or feel their chemistry, for instance, they won’t care when they finally hook up.

Where does this tie into The Magicians? Well, The Magicians has to be one of the worst cases of failed Build-Up and Pay-Off I’ve ever seen in a book. It exists almost entirely in the realm of Build-Up with little to no Pay-Off. I’m going to make a lot of comparison’s to Harry Potter since the book itself tries to do so as well and I took that as a challenge.

The Magicians begins with heavy-grade mopey-pants Quentin Coldwater getting inducted into the magical college Breakbills and exploring his first year as a magician. For all of five pages. He’s immediately promoted to a second-year for being extra special, which he also blazes through. His third year also goes by in the blink of an eye. It’s only at his fourth year that things begin to slow down.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, takes each book as its own school year. It takes time to introduce and flesh out Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as well as the wider wizarding world. The Magicians seems to have little interesting in exploring the different types of magic, other than to point out that no really, guys, magic here is much more complicated than in Harry Potter. They introduce concepts of conditions that affect magic, but they hardly seem to matter in the story at large. They introduce a magical sport that’s totally better than Quidditch, but it has absolutely no relevance to the plot. And in the end, none of the two-thirds of the book spent at the school really amounts to anything. Nothing of Quentin’s magical learning seems to matter, given that he is useless in the last third of the book while all his friends carry the load. This is quite a contrast to Harry Potter, where the spells and magic learned continues to build throughout the series and pays off many times and in some surprising ways. Polyjuice Potion introduced in book 2 shows up brilliantly in books 4 and 7. Harry’s signature spell learned in book 2 reveals him among a bunch of look-alikes in book 7. The list goes on.

That leads into the next part. It also seems to have little interest in exploring the relationships of characters. Quentin is shoved into friendships with a clique of equally obnoxious elitists and become best of buds – incompatible personalities not-withstanding. None of the characters ever develop or have personal subplots. There is some build-up with the background of Quentin’s girlfriend Alice, and the payoff is surprisingly karmic. Their relationship, however, is as steamy and engaging as a stagnant puddle. The only other relationship with any payoff is with his former crush, Julia. The crush and her total antipathy for it is only brought up in the first chapter. About halfway through the story, she reappears from nowhere as a hedge witch who didn’t make it into the school. This isn’t touched upon at all until the end of the book, where she shows up out of nowhere with the rest of Quentin’s friends. How did she attach herself to the rest of this group? No idea. The book never bothers to tell you.

One of the biggest problems is the lack of a clearly defined antagonist. From the get-go, we know that Voldemort is the central antagonist in Harry Potter, even when he doesn’t show up until the end of Sorcerer’s Stone. This is not the case in the Magician’s. The book has no antagonist until the very end. There is a moment fairly early in which a being from another world, The Beast as it is dubbed, appears in Quentin’s classroom and terrifies the students, but it leaves and is never brought up again. After this chapter, I thought we were finally getting to the main plot, but that wasn’t the case at all. Yes, the Beast reappears at the end of the story as the antagonist and – in a surprise twist – the long-missing Martin Chatwick referenced several times throughout the book, a thinly-veiled comparison to Narnia’s Pevensie children. But Chatwick has no personal connection to any of the characters, so this doesn’t really strike home. You could, perhaps, view him as a mirror to Quentin, who has always longed to escape reality into the realms of magic, but the book hardly touches on this.

That brings me to the biggest problem, which is with the development of Quentin’s character. There is a lot of Build-Up to the revelation that Quentin is such an insufferable sulker because no matter where he goes or how much magic he explores, he will never be satisfied with himself. This could be a powerful payoff, but Quentin himself never comes to the realization. It has be pushed into his face by his girlfriend Alice. After the climax, when he’s left with all his dreams dashed, he returns to earth to live out a normal life. At this point, I thought he might have learned his lesson. However, he immediately gains a smug sense of superiority that he has “gotten” it, and that living in the real world and eschewing magic is the real sign of maturity, despite the fact that he only gets his office job that requires no actual work by having his magic college acquire it for him. And in the end, when his friends all come crashing into his office not ten pages after his supposed epiphany to invite him back to the magical world of Fillory, he immediately dumps his new resolution and goes back with them.

The Magicians seems to paradoxically want to rush through the story while spending time on things with no relevance. I get the impression that Lev Grossman is a pantser, because there’s the very definite sense that things were made up as they went along. Subplots and foreshadowing are interjected haphazardly and off-handledly, as though the author only just realized they needed to be mentioned somewhere. I feel certain that the entire two-thirds of the book with Quentin at magic school was just Build-Up for the quest to Fillory at the end without any Pay-Off of its own. And despite the Build-Up to Quentin’s realization that he needs to find happiness in himself, the book doesn’t seem to believe in his own message. Quentin never does find happiness and self-actualization, and immediately discards his attempts to build a new life at the end of the book to go right back to the magical world he’d sworn off. At the start of the next book (in the teaser at the end of the first one), Quentin is now a King of Fillory, and yet he’s still looking for some adventure or quest to satisfy himself. This is worse than no character development. It’s character regression.

The magic formula of Build-Up and Pay-Off is a tricky one, but one that can be mastered with careful planning. It’s important to analyze each component of a story and how it ties into the next part. Like with The Magicians, missing this component can completely undermine a story.

Next time, we’ll be discussing the second failing of The Magicians – a less substantial fault, but one creeping into a lot of media in the last several years. It begs the question – what makes something Mature?

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3 thoughts on “Critiquing The Magicians: Build-Up and Pay-Off

  1. I agree with your crit, but I think, for this book, the payoff let down was *very* purposeful. Grossman wanted to curb stomp the magic and wonder out of portal fantasy by turning it into a jaded tale of ivy league post-grads. He did that, but it’s certainly not for everyone or even for me when I want a beautiful, uplifting ending.

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    1. I have to disagree. While his subversion was quite obvious, it loses any real meaning when only a page after Quentin comes to the supposed epiphany, he immediately discards it to go back to Fillory. So even in that sense, the payoff for a subversion falls utterly flat.

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