This review will contain some mild spoilers, but I will try to keep it as non-spoilery as possible.
Magisterium starts with a sci-fi feel. It takes place in the future, there's new technology (some of which seems a lot like an iPad a couple generations down the road, but no big deal), and the protagonist, Glenn, is dreaming of leaving her home on Earth with her father to go live on a distant planet. From the synopsis, I wasn't really expecting a sci-fi vibe, and for a minute, I got really excited that we would perhaps be treated to space travel + magic in this book. That seemed like an amazing combo: everything I never knew I always wanted.
Alas, it didn't really happen.
A few chapters in, everything in Glenn's life goes topsy-turvy, and she winds up stranded with her friend Kevin in the Magisterium. What is the Magisterium, you ask? Well. Um. From what I gathered, it's this cuh-razy Wonderland-esque world that exists outside the borders of the city where Glenn was raised. As best I can tell, everyone just knows where the border is and doesn't cross it because they've been told VERY BAD THINGS exist on the other side. And it's true, very bad things do exist on the other side, but not the things they thought were there. But no worries, no one questions this by crossing the border. Ever. (And, for the record, the border isn't a fence or a wall or a force field or anything...nope, as far as I could tell, you can just step across it. But no one does).
Okay. So Glenn and Kevin are in the Magisterium, and there is MAGIC there. Lots of it. And it is weird, mostly because it is unexplained. I mean, I love magic in stories. I do. Almost all of my favorite stories include at least a smidgen of magic. But I need it to make sense. I need it to have a purpose and its own rules and laws that bind it. And the problem with the magic in the Magisterium is that it doesn't appear to have any rules, nor does it seem to have any purpose for being. There is simply "The Rift," the event that happened over a hundred years ago that created both the Magisterium and Glenn's world, Colloquium. And Colloquium seems to have developed "normally," i.e., humans continued developing technology that allowed them to advance.
But for some reason, this massive (and inexplicable) explosion created an entirely different reality in the Magisterium, where magic runs wild and can do all sorts of everything. There is a passing attempt to kinda-sorta explain The Rift and the Magisterium, but it doesn't really work.
And I don't want to ruin the plot by stating specifics, so I'll just move on.
Once Glenn and Kevin are in the Magisterium, lots of things happen. And here's another issue I had. Glenn is indisputably the protagonist, but for the vast majority of the book, all the interesting things happen to Kevin. I don't want to say what happens to him specifically, so let's just say it's pretty much everything. Glenn just kind of wanders around, confused, watching Kevin have all sorts of bizarre experiences. Which is why I spent the first 3/4 of the book asking myself, "Why isn't Kevin the main character?" It made it really hard for me to feel much of anything for Glenn, since she wasn't the one drawing my interest.
Eventually, it did become clear why Glenn was the main character and not Kevin. And that was a kind of neat (if predictable) twist. But it came too late to really make me invest in Glenn.
Characters aside, the story was hard to follow. Strangely enough, it kept striking me as something that would make a cool TV show, but not a very good novel, because I just don't think I was picturing the Magisterium and the action correctly. It was so hard to figure out what everything was supposed to look like, and I don't know about you, but I don't like to have to really concentrate and focus in order to understand a book. I'd rather just be swept away. I have a feeling that if I didn't have to work so hard on figuring out the setting and the action, I could have focused more on the characters and plot, and thus enjoyed it more. Plus, the plot was rather episodic anyway. It felt for a long time like Glenn and Kevin were just stumbling from place to place, for no apparent reason, and they kept encountering weird characters and situations as they did. I'm not sure why this was really necessary, but it added to the feeling that each little vignette would probably make a fun TV episode. There were also some inconsistencies sprinkled throughout (a character is mortally wounded in one scene, but a couple stitches later and now he's running and jumping? Hmmm...), but honestly, I was so busy trying to figure out what was happening and why it was necessary that I let the inconsistencies slide.
Eventually, when Glenn's big reveal happens and she finally starts doing things, the story picks up. I still found the magic hard to grasp and the action hard to picture, but I was a lot more interested at that point. No, the big "twist" wasn't really surprising, but it was welcome because it finally put the focus on the main character, where it belonged. But even then, I still had issues with the execution. The magic got even more convoluted. The inconsistencies grew larger. Characters would disappear for chapters at a time, then magically reappear with no explanation about where they went. And the catalyst for most of the conflict started seeming more and more ridiculous. Then the end comes, and it is...a stretch. Both literally and figuratively. It left me wrinkling my brow and asking, "Really?"
Obviously I have a lot to complain about with this book. But I also have some praises. I love - truly and deeply -- the idea of mashing up sci-fi and fantasy. The book had so much promise to explore an amazing combination of genres, and while I wish it had explored its potential further, I really applaud Jeff Hirsch for throwing the two together in the first place. Also, despite my issues connecting, I liked that Glenn and Kevin weren't your average YA protagonists. Glenn was not swept up in the usual torrent of teenage girl feelings, and Kevin was not the typical leading man.
And while the imagery may have been a bit off for me, I still enjoyed the world. I liked the concept of the dual realities, the magic battling with technology. It's an amazing idea, and I loved being able to explore it.
I don't know if I'll keep reading the Magisterium series, but if they ever make it into a TV series, I'll definitely watch.