Okay, finished the book; ready to give a few more thoughts on it. Some notes:
- Same trigger warnings as before (i.e: rape, able-ism, & thoughtless misogyny) with the addition of violent death and breathtakingly insulting levels of rich white boy privilege — and also…
- MAJOR spoilers! Though the book (& TV show) has been out for a while, so… cave lector, I suppose?
Anyway! To continue: much as I suspected, in the last 60 or so pages of the book the main character Quentin — I cannot bring myself to call him a hero — does not receive his comeuppance. Unfortunately he also learns nothing at all by the end of the book; his record for horrendous life decisions remains metaphorically untarnished.
For example, I mentioned him cheating on his girlfriend and somehow managing to mentally recast himself as the seduced victim rather than — at the very least — an equal participant. I have two issues with this: first, as depizan (one of the moderators from the excellent Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings) discussed with me: due to Quentin being such an unreliable narrator we actually have no way of knowing for sure that this sexual interlude was in fact consensual.
However, despite everyone being so incredibly drunk that one of them (Eliot) was unconscious and the other two (Quentin & Janet) clearly were judgement-impaired, I think we’re supposed to believe it was indeed consensual — due to the (perceived) lack of negative reaction from both Eliot and Janet the next day. Indeed, Quentin internally characterizes Janet’s reaction the next morning as smugness at having seduced Alice’s boyfriend — which is an amazing feat of self-righteousness on his part, but which I guess really shouldn’t surprise me considering his consistent narcissism.
Secondly, this self-righteousness of Quentin’s reaches an appalling pitch of psychological projection when he discovers the devastated Alice, some time later, spending a night with one of the other students. I personally saw this as a very natural reaction on Alice’s part; I could easily see her thinking something like this:
‘My first boyfriend ever has cheated on me and I have no one to turn to, to help me through this horrible sense of betrayal and hurt. Was it actually love I felt for him or was I just deluded by sex? Perhaps I should try sex with someone else and see how that feels. If it’s wonderful then maybe I’m better off without Quentin, but if not then maybe it is indeed Quentin who I love.’
Quentin, however, manages to recast this experimentation by Alice into a real WTF?! moment — he sees it as personal verification of what a vile, horrible person she truly is. This really boggled me, but… somehow he manages it? He is, in fact, such a disgustingly insecure, pathetic little shit that when Alice tentatively admits to him in the middle of a dangerous situation that (just like him) she’s afraid… he sneers at her. Later things start escalating into a truly life-threatening situation — so during a rest-stop he belittles her for being too timid. Her words are prophetic — she tells him she will stop being timid if he will:
“for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”
Cue make-up making-out, followed eventually by a terrible battle where Alice dies to save him and everyone else.
So let’s recap: Quentin’s courageous girlfriend — that he initially raped, then cheated on, and then villainized to soothe his guilty conscience — doesn’t just plead with him to try living a better life; she also uses so much magic in battle to protect him that she dies from it… all so he will have enough time to try to live more. And how does he repay this astonishing act of forgiveness and generosity? Upon recovery from the battle, he goes home and refuses to use magic any more — people would be better off without it! — instead retreating into smug self-righteousness in the well-paid sinecure which is provided for him: a C-level-equivalent job where all he does is play video games all day in his luxuriously appointed New York City business office.
Then, at the very end of the story, old acquaintances from his magical school days appear, telling him they need his help when they return to the alternate realm where Alice died — to become kings and queens there. It takes less than 10 lines of dialogue from them to demolish Quentin’s conviction that humans would be better off without magic — so little, in fact, that it’s pretty clear his running off and hiding like this is not much more than the petulant snit-fit of a spoiled child upon being forced to understand there actually are life-changing consequences for his (really stupid!) actions.
However, it’s also clear he hasn’t learned a thing so far — because he insults one of his old friends in order to have the last metaphorical word… and then leaves with them.
That’s it for the first book. There are two more, but frankly I can’t bring myself to bother wasting any more time with Quentin. In retrospect, he is a singularly unpleasant example of astonishingly egocentric, self-righteous, and extraordinarily privileged “poor little [white] rich boy.”
From what I’ve been told, by the end of the third book Quentin does finally buy a freaking clue and realize he’s not the charmed center of the entire multi-verse. However, while that’s a relief to hear I still don’t have any desire to read the next two books. The author did a good enough job of inverting the Chosen One trope that I ended up revolted by the main character and didn’t enjoy the book… and thus have no desire to read any more about this pathetic loser.
That being said… Sabotabby on LiveJournal made a very perceptive comment to me about Quentin: he’s a literary character in a fantasy genre — and that’s why I find him so jarring. He’s far too realistic — all his adolescent angst and petulant whining laid bare to the reader. There’s neither courage nor heroism within him, yet his environment is full of magical trials and wondrous quests. To some degree this makes me despise him less… though I still don’t want to waste any more time on him.
Funny thought, though: by my reaction to Quentin it’s clear I vehemently dislike literary characters in the fantasy genre… but equally I find I dislike the perfect (or close to it) heroic character in the fantasy genre. For example, while I adored the Narnia stories as a child, I often felt more empathy for the younger Pevensies than for Peter. He was such a perfect little prig sometimes! I always felt it very unfair that he got to be the leader when it was clear to me that both his younger siblings and many of the Animals were far more quick-witted, imaginative, strong, brave, and/or experienced than he.
Even worse (to my perspective) are the pulp stories about yet more “The Chosen One” types like John Carter of Mars or Doc Savage. They were always perfect! They always knew just the right thing to do! Talk about script immunity: their freaking environment loved them! Just once I wanted to see the girl not fall instantly in love and betray her entire people for Carter… or for one of Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five to correct his instant — and perfect! — translation of the clue given by the ancient hermeneutic scribbles on the collapsed stone wall of the lost archaeological whatsis. Where’s the sense of wonder or excitement when you know the protagonist will never really be challenged or threatened?
Thinking about those reactions made me amusedly realize: I really don’t give authors much leeway in this style of categorization! However, I’m not entirely sure I could definitively say what exactly it is that I’m looking for in a protagonist. I clearly don’t want the strict literary character type any more than the strict fantasy character type… but some reality might be nice. Having a magical world where things are straightforwardly black and white is dull; I want at least a little well-considered gray, you know? I do realize that’s rather frustratingly ambiguous of me, but for right now this is one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” sorts of situations. Maybe this is part of why I so love good urban fantasies?