The Fast and Furious Films, Ranked

I’ve been wanting to watch the Fast and Furious movies for a while, ever since Furious 7 came out and I saw tons of people ranking them and felt left out. And, since I’m a completist, I wasn’t going to be content just watching the ‘good ones’—people usually say that Fast Five is when the series gets good, but I was for sure going to watch them all now.

Well, today, I finally watched Furious 7 and finished the series, which is perfect timing, since The Fate of the Furious comes out this weekend. Here’s my ranking, from worst to best.

  1. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

Some people will tell you that this is the best one, for some reason. It’s not. Lucas Black’s character has to be one of the blandest, most boring, least convincing protagonists I’ve ever seen. Paul Walker is pretty bland in his movies, but he’s mostly adequate for the role he’s playing. You don’t really need to have a lot of acting chops to play the protagonist in a Fast and Furious movie, but Lucas Black somehow makes it possible to be ‘not good enough for a Fast and Furious movie.’ That’s impressive.

Also, this is probably one of the more sexist and exploitative entries. All the Japanese imagery is cliché and stereotypical. Some people claim that at least this movie is stylish, which makes it more interesting than 2 Fast 2 Furious or Fast & Furious, and I agreed for maybe a few minutes at random, but it’s really not that stylish. The action scenes are just not exciting. Maybe that’s where we disagree, Tokyo Drift fans.

  1. Fast & Furious

I thought this one would be a step above the second and third movies, since it brings back the original cast: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Johanna Brewster, and Michelle Rodriguez. Well, it was better than Tokyo Drift, but that’s not sayin’ much. This one is mostly just boring. The only really enjoyable action scene is right at the beginning, and the climax falls pretty flat.

  1. 2 Fast 2 Furious

I kinda liked this one. People say this one is super boring and unstylish, but I thought it was actually pretty entertaining. I particularly liked the trick where Brian and Roman hid their cars inside the garage, then Tej released hundreds of cars at once so the cops didn’t know which ones were them. Was that not clever? I also, of course, liked the climax, when Brian drives the car off a ledge and crashes it onto a boat. That was something straight out of the later movies!

Roman is boring compared to Dominic, so Dom is still missed here, but he’s mildly funny, so it works.

  1. The Fast and the Furious

Very solid movie! The first entry in the series is pretty simple and grounded compared to the insanity of the later movies, but it’s reliably entertaining, and Vin Diesel is instantly engaging, somehow super charismatic. Maybe I’m just saying this because I’ve gotten used to watching him, but I still think he was most effortlessly engaging in this first movie.

These movies aren’t super emotional or complex, but I really like the simple hook of Brian getting in too deep with Dom’s crew and eventually thinking of him as a legitimate friend who he looks up to and wants to help out. The final turn of the movie, when he lets Dom go instead of arresting him, just lands perfectly.

  1. Fast & Furious 6

I’m tempted to put this above Fast Five, because they were very close for me. This one has Luke Hobbs working with the team, and I love his rapport with them. Dwayne Johnson is great, obviously. I also quite liked both of the climaxes—the early, fake-out one, where they’re racing down the highway, and the real one, where they’re racing down the runway. The highway scene also features one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen in this series, defying-the-laws-of-physics-wise. It’s when Dom sees Letty about to fall between the two parallel bridges, so he crashes his car and leaps out right at the perfect moment in the perfect direction, somehow careening himself across the chasm, knocking into Letty, and hurtling them to safety. So many parts of it are absurd and impossible, which makes it great.

  1. Fast Five

This is where the series gets really good, and I think if you were watching this without realizing how big an uptick in quality it would be, you’d be shocked, and you might over-rate it. I’ve heard so many good things about this one that my expectations were pretty damn high, and while I wasn’t disappointed, it didn’t quite exceed my expectations. It also felt maybe ten minutes too long.

That said, so many things about this movie are amazing. Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs instantly becomes the best character in the series. The heist plot is super fun in an Ocean’s Eleven, assembling-a-team way, and the humor is pretty good. And this has some of those deliriously fun action scenes that you come here for, like the opening train heist, and most notably, the climax. A couple of cars dragging a giant vault is just a recipe for success; from the very beginning of that scene, I realized how fun it was about to be to watch them absolutely demolish everything with that vault, and I had a big grin on my face the whole time.

  1. Furious 7

I think most people like Fast Five the most and agree that Justin Lin’s directing of action sequences is a tad better than James Wan’s, but I really liked Wan’s work here. The trick he does where he flips the camera when a character flips is great. Also, this movie is just so over-the-top and great. The whole scene where Dom drives their across a chasm between two skyscrapers, then does it again, is so deliriously fun, as is the scene when the cars go sky-diving, and much of the climax is like that, too.

Plus there’s the ending tribute to Paul Walker/Brian, which is legitimately emotional. I almost teared up seeing all those flashbacks to earlier movies.

Can’t wait to watch Fate!

What I’m Hoping for in the Last Two Episodes of Girls

Well, there are only two episodes left of Girls, guys. I have a lot of thoughts about this season, so I thought I’d just go through some of the different characters and plot lines and share my thoughts about what I’m hoping for in the last two episodes.

Should all four girls share any more scenes together? If you’ve seen the previews for next episode, you’ll know that this one’s already settled: there will be at least one more scene (but probably most of an episode) with all four girls hanging out again.

One of the biggest accomplishments of the show—one of the things I’ve always admired most—is how brutally realistic it is about friendships, how you can feel so close with a group of friends at one age and then life can take you all in different directions until you don’t feel close with them anymore. “Beach House” in Season 3 illustrated this beautifully, and part of me thinks the show doesn’t need to revisit them all as a unit anymore. That said, it’d be nice to see them together at least one more time, if only to recreate the magic feeling that the show used to inspire when all of them bounced off each other. (I’m thinking of the aforementioned “Beach House” and “Wedding Day.”)

Should we get more scenes of Shoshanna? This one is pretty much an unqualified yes, because Shoshanna is probably the most likable of the four girls at this point, and we’ve gotten so little of her this season. That said, a lot of my friends have been deeply bothered by the lack of Shosh this season, and I don’t care quite as much as they do. Shosh has already undergone a lot of character development over the course of the series, and her time in Japan last season seemed to bring her character arc to an appropriate close, in some ways. As fun as it is to watch her onscreen, I don’t mind her reduced screen-time that much. She’s grown a lot, and I’m content to imagine her working on herself and living life happily when she’s not onscreen.

Should any of the characters be paired off romantically at the end? I think it’d be kind of refreshing if all four of the girls were single at the end of the show, just because it’d be different from most shows, where all the characters are conveniently paired off by the end. Hannah and Adam have definitely run their course, and last episode gave us some (heartbreaking) closure on that front. Marnie is done with both Desi and Ray. Part of me still wants Ray and Shoshanna to get back together, but I think Alex Karpovsky said that’s not going to happen. Besides, Ray had a lovely meet-cute with Abby last episode, so I wouldn’t mind seeing them together. Especially because there’s been so much main-cast-incest in this show that it’d be nice to end with a realistic ending of the characters actually meeting new people (or staying single).

Jessa is still with Adam, presumably, but I wouldn’t mind them breaking up, especially because they seem manic and unhealthy together, and Adam was pretty quick to drop her and go back to Hannah last episode. Surprisingly, though, if I had to root for any couple to be together, I’d probably pick them. It’d be cool to see Jessa actually caring about a monogamous relationship for once.

Can—and should—Marnie and Jessa be redeemed? The most realistic thing, I think, would be if most of the characters in this show achieved a modicum of maturity by the end, but maybe one didn’t. The obvious candidate for that is either Marnie or Jessa, who have both experienced huge character regressions over the course of the show.

I think Marnie is still somewhat redeemable, but I’m not sure about Jessa—if there’s anyone in this show I’d like to just watch suffer and fail and end up alone, it’d be her. That said, I did feel an iota of sympathy for her last episode, so I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing her end the show a little more mature and a little happier.

Still, though, I think the one main flaw with this season lies in its insistence on making Marnie and Jessa regress again and again, after last season let them be human and learn from their mistakes. Marnie, after four and a half seasons of immaturity and selfishness, spent a night with her ex-boyfriend, decisively ended her marriage to the cartoonishly awful Desi, and got back with Ray, someone who seemed to actually care about her. It was the perfect place to get rid of Desi and let Marnie be a likable person for once, but this season she’s been almost unrelentingly entitled and selfish, treating Ray like garbage and repeatedly going back to Desi. The pawn shop owner last episode finally seemed to yank her out of her cycle, but it’s too little, too late. Maybe if these next two episodes continue the upward trend, though, I’ll walk away from the show with an optimistic feeling about how Marnie’s arc has gone. Or, if they’re going to make her regress again, at least do it in a satisfying way, and show that it’s not a character inconsistency. I’m okay with showing weak-willed characters who repeatedly fail to become better people, but too often in this show, Marnie and Jessa’s characterizations have just seemed inconsistent.

As for Jessa…Season 4 was her low point. She kept doing things that were so selfish and evil that they bordered on sadistic and sociopathic, like pushing Adam and Mimi Rose together just so she could be with Ace. It was just too much. Season 5 turned that around and gave Jessa an actual reason why she was being a horrible person—sure, she was being a bad friend to Hannah by dating Adam, but at least she seemed to genuinely like him—but Season 6 has returned her to that borderline-sociopathic state. I’m not sure there’s an ending for Jessa that will completely redeem her or make up for the stuff she’s done.

Should Hannah have a baby? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as this season has progressed. When I learned that Hannah was pregnant, I had a lot of reservations about it. Even if Hannah is much more mature this season, and even if I believe that she’ll be a good mother, I’m kind of just sick of seeing final-season pregnancy plots. I’ve never envisioned pregnancy as the ultimate sign of maturity for Hannah; so much of the show is focused on her relationships and her writing that it seems odd to just give her a baby and use that as a sign of maturity.

And yet this season has pulled off this plot pretty damn well so far, particularly with the various characters’ surprising-yet-fitting reactions to Hannah’s news (Elijah getting pissed, Marnie reacting with shock until slowly saying, “I’m into it,” etc.). There’ve been some really emotional scenes this season based around Hannah’s pregnancy, like the gutting phone conversation between her and Paul-Louis and the argument with Elijah. I’m at the point this season where I’m willing to just wait, see where the plot goes, and trust Lena Dunham. I’ve had many moments of doubt this season, but she’s proven me wrong, so I have faith.

And really, that goes for almost everything this year. Whatever happens, I trust the show to make it good, and make it feel right. Girls isn’t a perfect show, but it’s that lack of perfection that makes it feel so real.

Book Review – The Magician King

I definitely liked this a lot, but not quite as much as the first book. So many people seem to prefer the second book, but it was a step down for me.

Maybe it’s because it’s kind of a more straightforward, traditional fantasy book. We’re in Fillory (seemingly) for good now in the main narrative, and there’s a quest along the lines of the Narnia books. By the way, let’s take a moment to recognize just how much this book borrows from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There’s the typical similarities to Narnia: talking animals, magic, young Earth visitors becoming kings and queens, etc. But there’s so much more I didn’t even remember until I reread the Voyage synopsis online. In both books, there’s a long journey via ship to explore outer islands, with an apparent end of the world as the final destination. There’s even the same number of MacGuffins—in The Magician King there are seven golden keys, and in Voyage they’re searching for seven lost Lords. Jeez!

I actually don’t have a problem with how liberally The Magician King cribs from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The book is different enough in theme and tone that it doesn’t feel like you’re reading the same thing; it’s subversive in a similar way to how the first book subverted our idea of magical schools like Hogwarts. That said, I don’t think The Magician King makes quite as concerted an effort to undermine those fantasy tropes as The Magicians did. It certainly does eventually, at the end (which we’ll get to), but a lot of the book is devoted to the very straightforward idea of hunting down magical MacGuffins to save a magical world.

On the outside, that lends The Magician King a sense of focus that The Magicians didn’t have. So much of The Magicians is focused on Quentin’s general coming of age, without having one distinct, driving purpose beyond Quentin’s abstract search for happiness. Once you reach the end of the sequel, though, you can look back and boil it down to two main arcs.

It seems much more focused on the outside, but I think I preferred the first book’s loose narrative style, especially because its focus on Quentin still made it feel purposeful. It’s kind of like the first book was focused on a character level but loose on a narrative level, and the second book is the opposite. In fact, I’m not even that convinced that this book is a huge leap forward in narrative focus; after all, that early arc I just mentioned doesn’t end up tying together that tightly with the later arc, more just moving around characters and doling out exposition so that everyone is where they need to be for the last stretch.

It seems like I’ve just said a lot of negative stuff about this book, but all that said, there’s a lot to admire here in terms of how Lev Grossman expands the mythology. Even though the first book was loose, it still felt extremely self-contained and brilliantly structured, and that continues here. On the outside, some of the world expansion here feels a little too ambitious. Then again, it was a pretty big jump to introduce the Neitherlands and the multiverse in the first place in the first book, so maybe the next jump Grossman makes isn’t huge. Besides, even if you’re not into the more outsize fantastical elements, there’s still the fascinating inclusion of the concept of safe houses and hedge witches, a part of this world we only heard about in passing in the first book.

I also like the way Grossman utilizes his minor characters—he finds credible ways to bring back characters from the first book for nice cameos, while still managing to expand the world to fit compelling new characters like Bingle, Benedict, Poppy, Asmodeus, etc. Janet is really the only main character underserved by this installment, and I know she’ll be featured in the next book, so I didn’t even mind that.

The main change here is that we have kind of a second protagonist this time around: Julia. To be honest, I don’t like Julia that much—she’s very self-righteous and entitled in similar ways to Quentin in the first book, but it seems like there’s an element of optimism Quentin had that she’s missing. Well, maybe ‘optimism’ is the wrong word, but at least he had a strong sense of humor. There are a few jokes Julia makes, but they’re almost always in the same snotty tone. I think your mileage may vary with this: some people absolutely loathe Quentin, but I really like him.

Anyways, I don’t love Julia, yet I somehow really liked her narrative. It’s always really interesting to see what one character was up to while something else was happening, and given that we know Julia is depressed and practically inhuman in the present day, we have a built-in curiosity about what has happened to her. Sure enough, the ending of her story is heartbreaking, and shocking in its brutality and hopelessness. I also like that the climax of the book is kind of positioned in the flashback narrative instead of the present narrative. It’s neat how Grossman is able to end the present narrative in a slightly anticlimactic way because he can relocate the climax to the past.

In the end, though, I’m mostly here for Quentin’s journey, for his struggle to learn how to be happy. And while this book isn’t as focused at telling that story as the first book, there’s lots of interesting stuff going on. There are multiple hints of growth as Quentin seems to learn to appreciate where he is. But whenever Quentin starts to accept his position and enjoy where he’s at, something else seems to come along and tempt him, and suddenly he’s convinced again that there’s a greater quest out there that will finally give his life meaning.

Some people hate Quentin and will hate watching him struggle to grow, but I find each of his regressions just as fascinating as a new external antagonist. And though the climax of Quentin’s present-day narrative isn’t as impactful as the climax of the first book, the actual final scene of the book is pretty great.

In The Magician King, just like in The Magicians, there are serious consequences for your actions, and serious sacrifices that you must make to be a hero. Quentin thinks he can be the hero of the story and live happily ever after, but that’s not how it works. That’s what makes this series exceptional: it dares to challenge its characters, and to suggest that the magic we all wish we had could come with horrifically painful side effects. There’s no chosen one; everyone is the hero of their own story. If you take up the mantle of ‘hero,’ you better be ready to deal with the sacrifices that come with that.

Book Review – Here


I don’t even know how to begin with this book, so I’ll start by copying the description on the inside cover, to give you an idea of what it is if you’re reading this review: “the story of a corner of a room and of the events that have occurred in that space over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.” So it’s basically as if someone plopped down a camera in one specific spot billions of years ago, and that camera took pictures of the same space for billions of years, past present day, thousands of years into the future. Here gives you a random assortment of those pictures (drawn, of course—this is a comic, I suppose, or maybe a graphic novel, though it’s all semantics) in non-chronological order. There’s no story, really.

And there are no main characters. Dialogue is very sparse, and most of the time we’re dropped into the middle of a conversation that we have no context for. We don’t get to know any characters, and because of the extremely disjointed, non-narrative nature of the story, it’s hard to even know who people are in relation to one another. If you mapped every panel out chronologically, studied the characters’ appearances, and made some inferences, you could probably get a good idea how many different people have lived in the house, and when they moved, and when they moved furniture around, but it’s difficult.

It’s easy to see what kind of fun can be had from a book like this one. It makes you wonder what your own house looked like decades before you moved there. It makes you wonder what it’ll look like after you move out. It makes you imagine your house being built in the first place, and it makes you imagine a time when your house won’t exist anymore—because it’ll be ravaged by something, whether it’s a flood, a fire, a renovation, or just the gradual passage of time. Eventually, humans won’t be here anymore, and your house won’t be, either.

So that’s a pretty strong conceit to begin with, but it could get a little old. It’s possible that you could figure out the format of the book and get the essential themes in the first quarter or so, and your eyes could start to glaze over as you realize it’s pretty much the same thing for the rest of the book.

I think there are a few things that saved this book from redundancy for me. First, there are sprinkles of narrative throughout, sort of little micro-stories embedded in the book. There’s the old couple in 1986 telling the story of how they met. There’s a futuristic hologram woman in 2213 teaching a group of students (or tourists?) about when humans used to rely on primitive technology like wristwatches, wallets, and keys. There’s a man in 2005 taking care of his father. There’s the house itself being built in 1907. There’s the man painting a woman during a picnic in 1870. These mini-narratives keep it from feeling too repetitive.

But even though it’s easy to get stuck in the rhythm of just flying through the book, briefly glancing at each page, getting the gist, and moving on, stopping and really absorbing it pays off. There are so many unspeakably beautiful things contained in here. There are stretches where the disjointed panels get more and more crowded on each page, all from different time periods, and it feels like time is speeding up, like there’s a symphony going on around you and it’s crescendoing and beginning to deafen you. There are so many moments throughout the book where I felt overwhelmed, like I was coming to some sort of epiphany, where I felt all the walls of spacetime closing in around me. It makes you feel insignificant, like one impermanent blip in the greater scheme of things, but it’s also weirdly life-affirming somehow, in ways I can’t explain.

It makes you feel a lot of things. You feel curious; you want to get to know these characters, even though you never will. There are moments when you see the Earth as it was before humans, millions or billions of years ago, and you feel profoundly isolated, profoundly alone. Same goes for some of the panels set in the future. There are moments that are, intentionally or not, horrifying. The book feels like it was written by God, by an omnipotent figure who’s capturing these images throughout the history of the Earth, and it feels like you’ve accidentally stumbled into his office and seen his work. It’s a deeply disconcerting feeling—it almost feels like a horror movie, in a weird, indescribable way.

I remember a quote from Drew McWeeny’s review of The Witch: “Eggers manages to create a sense of mood and dread that is so suffocating at times that it feels like we’re watching something genuinely transgressive, something we should not be seeing.” Most people might not have that same reaction to Here, but occasionally I felt that way: disturbed, like I was being shown something beyond humans, something that I wasn’t equipped to process either intellectually or emotionally. It reminded me a little of watching Under the Skin, or the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And it’s strange, because this is a story with no characters, no consistent thing worth getting emotionally invested in—you could say ‘the space is a character,’ but that doesn’t describe it quite well, either, because it’s not sentient or anthropomorphized, and it changes forms so drastically. There’s nothing specifically emotional in the book, really; some might say that it’s a thought-provoking intellectual exercise, but a primarily clinical one. You’re not going to cry because a character dies, or because you’re really rooting for a romantic pairing. And yet there are moments reading this book where I found myself shivering, and there are moments when I thought I was going to tear up.

There’s too much I want to say here, and I could keep writing thousands of words and still not describe every thought-provoking image I encountered here, every connection I drew, every deeper thought I had. All I can say now is that you should read it.

Book Review – The Martian

This was great.

I’ll begin by saying the main strength of the book is probably its sentiment balance. On one hand, it’s sensational and sentimental; as the climax approaches, the whole world is watching Mark on TV, so the ending is destined to be either heartbreaking or enormously crowd-pleasing. On the other hand, none of Mark’s log entries are particularly sappy. We don’t get any musing about the meaning of life. We don’t get any sections where Mark is seriously distraught or on the verge of suicide. He’s calm, methodical, and good-humored, which makes it fun to spend time with him.

It really proves that (in my opinion) when it comes to getting your reader to root for a character, building a personality for the character is more important than simply creating a backstory for them. We learn next to nothing about Mark’s family or friends back on Earth; the book is fairly minimalist, and we don’t even get physical descriptions of anyone. It’s a corrective to stories like Gravity or The Shallows that, while good, resort to unnecessary tragic backstories to get us to like the character. We don’t need that! They just need to be believable people!

For the first half of the book, I preferred the sections focused on Mark Watney alone on Mars. I don’t think dialogue is Andy Weir’s strongest suit, and some of the conversations back on Earth between the supporting characters – Venkat, Teddy, Mindy, Annie, etc. – were a little predictable. I didn’t think the humor came across as well in those sections; Mark was by far the funniest character, and sometimes when other characters tried to be snarky, it didn’t land as well for me. There’s something particularly funny about Mark’s brand of sarcasm, something about the way he’s primarily just joking around with himself, and with an imaginary reader. Hearing Mitch and Teddy exchange Sorkin-esque, half-inspirational, half-snarky dialogue wasn’t as amusing for me. Besides, the Mars sections don’t feel quite as isolated and dangerous when the NASA perspective is introduced; part of me longed for a Gravity– or All is Lost-esque story limited to one guy alone trying to survive in a foreign environment.

As the book went on, though, it became clear that those sections back on Earth were very necessary, both to build the stakes – wow, everyone on Earth is watching, and if anyone screws up, this will be a colossal waste of time, money, and human life – and to offer a break from the dense scientific material of Mark’s survival tactics. Weir is careful to keep the book fairly accessible, and based on the audience reaction, he certainly succeeded at appealing to the public. But at times it did become slightly difficult to visualize everything that was happening, and that made some chapters from Mark’s perspective a little slower. I wouldn’t classify the book as a ‘slog’ at all; that’s too far. But there were a couple times when I was ready for a break from the science.

That said, most of the science worked great. I have no idea if anything in this book is accurate – I imagine it’s at least partly based in truth based on Weir’s background and the way he made sure to meticulously acknowledge potential plot holes at every turn – but the point is that it’s convincing enough that you completely believe everything in the story could really happen. There’s something that’s just so fun about watching Mark try to finagle his way out of certain issues; there’s something irresistible to me about survival stories focused on a character who takes a breath, concentrates really hard, and figures out an ingenious way to get out of a seemingly unsolvable problem. There’s enough complex science in the story that you can’t really guess what the solution is going to be, but it’s based enough in fact and makes enough sense that the solutions never really feel like deus ex machina.

All in all, just a fun hard sci-fi thriller that manages to avoid cliches by staying focused and minimalist, and not resorting to cheesy sentiment until it’s absolutely necessary.

Book Review – The Magicians

Based on the first book of the Magicians trilogy alone, it’s unclear as to what exactly the arc of the story will be – is this series about its main character, Quentin, struggling to find happiness? Is it about whether magic can be good or if it’s only an expression of unhappiness?

I think one of the biggest strengths of this first book, though, is that it doesn’t just feel like one small piece of a greater whole; it’s fairly self-contained. All the major bits of foreshadowing pay off by the end, and everything is so perfectly structured. As an example, the story of Emily Greenstreet we hear early on serves three purposes: it gives us important exposition about two major characters’ pasts, it establishes the concept of the niffin, and it directly foreshadows a connection Quentin is able to make near the end of the book. The book is so ruthlessly, efficiently structured, with so many mysteries introduced and resolved, that I’m impressed Grossman was even brave enough to take a stab at writing two more books. But we’ll get to those when we get to those.

It’s beyond redundant to compare these books to the Harry Potter or Narnia books, but it’s also impossible not to, because they’re very aware that those books exist, and they make efforts to both channel the influences and subvert them. There are layers of fantasy to the multiverse of The Magicians – first there’s the ‘real world’ fantasy of Brakebills, which obviously echoes Hogwarts from Harry Potter, and deeper in, there’s the even more fantastical parallel universe of Fillory, which obviously echoes Narnia. This is a series where the protagonist longs to be like the protagonists of those books, children whose mundane lives are miraculously upended by the exciting new worlds they discover. It’s clear from the first chapter that this book is going to comment on that desire, not simply fulfill it and tell another story in the same vein.

Grossman is intent on subverting that sense of whimsy that series like Harry Potter and Narnia provide, which would lead you to think this world isn’t fun at all. But that’s not quite true, either; Grossman pulls off an admirable balancing act where he’s able to conjure just enough wonder and magic that readers are entertained and want to know more about the world, but at the same time undercut that wonder with many suggestions that it’s not quite right. Seeing Quentin drinking and playing Quidditch-esque games with his friends at Brakebills is fun, and you recognize the familiar college-y aspects, but it’s clear that not everything is unambiguously whimsical and carefree. The presence of alcohol alone indicates that this isn’t the same as Harry Potter and Narnia, and eventually you kind of think, Wow, these characters get drunk a lot, don’t they?

And while the Harry Potter books mostly ignore the fact that these teachers are probably violating child endangerment laws with stuff like the Triwizard Tournament, these books are much more upfront about how borderline-abusive the staff is. A trip the students take to Antarctica is mostly depressing. There’s darkness in Harry Potter, of course, but most of the sadness in those books is caused by something concrete and exciting: tragic backstories, filled with lost loves and painful deaths. The characters of The Magicians are certainly mostly unhappy, but aside from Alice’s grief over a painful loss, most of the unhappiness is caused by something else, some nebulous, great ennui. It’s greatest with Quentin, but it’s there with his friends, too. Since I haven’t read the later books yet, I can’t tell exactly where this is going to go – is all this a metaphor for mental illness and depression, or is it simply an expression of the occasional sense of unmotivated sadness we all have, the sense that there has to be something more?

I love that the book actually uses magic to ponder the question of happiness and its attainability. Other books about magic don’t really explore why it exists in the context of the story, and what philosophical and ethical questions it poses. There are tidbits of that in Harry Potter, essentially the same light vs. dark concept as the Force in Star Wars, but The Magicians seems intent on really exploring that philosophical territory. At one point in the story, Dean Fogg raises the fascinating possibility that magic is a necessity to these people because they can’t bear to see the world as it is without it.

This stuff I’ve been writing about is almost entirely abstract, and it’s a testament to Grossman’s writing that he’s able to ground it in a fascinating concrete world. Because aside from all of these questions, there are drunk talking bears, a romantic subplot that kicks off when two 20-year-olds turn into arctic foxes and have sex in fox form, memory spells a la “Obliviate” from Harry Potter, godly rams buried deep underground, evil ferrets getting their throats stomped in, and a creepy monster antagonist in the form of a small British man with a branch perpetually obscuring his face. The co-opting of the fantasy genre for genre subversion and psychological probing is what’s most interesting about this book, but that couldn’t exist without indulging in the fun elements of fantasy itself. Lev Grossman successfully has it both ways, and I can’t wait to see how that continues in the next book.