Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined.
The Magicians is one of the most reviewed fantasy novels of the last few years. The majority of my friends who enjoy reading fantasy have picked up this book at one point or another. SyFy even made a successful TV show adaptation of The Magicians and its companion novels (Season 1 streaming now on Netflix). The author, Lev Grossman, is a well known writer and book reviewer for Time Magazine. It also does not hurt that the book was hyped and promoted as “Harry Potter with college age students”. So for such a widely read and reviewed book, why are the opinions of The Magicians so extreme? If you spend enough time reading through different reviews of the book, people will either love it or hate it. As for myself, I did not hate it, but I could not bring myself to finish it (which is unusual).
Basic plot summary: (it is kind of like Harry Potter with college age students). Quentin Coldwater is a bright teenager trying to test into an ivy league college. But instead of enrolling in a school like Brown or Princeton, Quentin finds himself enrolling in Brakebills, a secret magic college hidden away in upstate New York. Quentin is a fairly miserable character: he is constantly dissatisfied with the world, he is both insecure and full of himself at the same time, and he mopes all the damn time. The secondary characters are not much better; there is so much teenage angst throughout this whole book that at times it is utterly exhausting.
Quentin’s character and the book’s style of writing struck me as a stylistic mixture of Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise, and Rory Gilmore without the companionship of a loving home from Gilmore Girls. The book was easy to read and several moments I found myself enjoying the language and the technical aspects of the writing. However, the characters grated on my nerves. I can only stand to read so much about a mopey adolescent male and both Catcher in the Rye and This Side of Paradise have the benefit of being almost half the length of The Magicians; Catcher in the Rye is 277 pages long, This Side of Paradise is 288 pages, and The Magicians is almost twice that length at 402 pages.
To make matters worse, it is not just Quentin who I found to be unbearable. Grossman’s entire cast of characters lacked any redeeming qualities. There are not many examples here of people using their magical skills for good, or even just being thankful for their extraordinary gifts. There is a lot of boredom, disinterest, and cynicism. The most talented ones have the blasé attitude of a gifted person who looks down on those who manage to muster some excitement about magic – it is rife with pretentious attitudes. There are cliques and power circles, and people stuck on the outside. And yes, as on almost any college campus, there is a good amount of booze and casual sex. This is not a novel to read if you are looking for likeable characters.
However, if you can look past the grating and obnoxiously mopey characters, there are wonderful things to find and explore in The Magicians.
**Spoiler Alert** Major Plot Spoilers Ahead
Despite his friends’ teasing, Quentin never outgrew his love for a (fictional) series of five young adult fantasy novels set in Fillory, which is basically a copy of Narnia. Later on in The Magicians, we learn that Fillory is actually not fictional at all; it is a real place, Quentin and company visit it, and it turns out to be very different from the magical realm they expected. In some ways, Fillory is just as flawed as the real world is. Some of the seemingly infallible characters from the Fillory books turn out to be obnoxious blowhards. What’s more, the “monster” who kills a student during a Brakebills lecture turns out to be one of the Chatwin children who visited Filllory in the books.
Lev Grossman, through the shattered illusion of this book’s version of Narnia, has a conversation with fantasy readers about what it is like to be a fan of stories that involve magic and alternative realities. Grossman explores escapism; he explores what it means to fall in love with a fantasy when you know that it is a dream, a book, a wish, a movie, and then wishing you could forget what you discover when someone lifts the curtain and they show you the reality behind the fantasy. Quentin must come to terms with the fact that a fantasy that becomes real is not as easy to live with as one that remains safely in the realm of fiction.
Spoiler Free from Here to the End
For the first half of this book, The Magicians follows the tropes of the fantasy genre, creating a world that echoes a copy of Harry Potter, Narnia, or The Never Ending Story. Then, Grossman pulls out the rug from under you and he begins playing with the basic assumptions people have about the fantasy genre. This is not a love letter to the fantasy genre; it is not a celebration of a new magical world. The Magicians is a dark novel that explores the ugly underside of fantasy. The Magicians is the perfect antithesis of an escapist novel: it pulls the curtain up, reveals that magic is real, and then makes it clear that young, gifted people often do not have it in them to use it wisely or even appreciate it.
At the end of the day, I did not enjoy this book. I have no desire to waste my time on a book that I do not love, and neither should you. That being said, if you are in the mood for a cynical novel that challenges fantasy escapism, then give The Magicians a shot. It is well written and interesting, even if the characters are a pill.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Title: The Magicians (The Magicians #1)
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Attempted to read… over the course of a lazy weekend while… enjoying a cup of tea.
Purchase your copy here.
Author: Lev Grossman
I was born in 1969 and grew up in Lexington, MA. My parents were both English professors, so naturally I read a lot. I read a lot in college too, and read even more in graduate school. Then I moved to New York City and started writing full time.
My first novel, Warp, came out in 1997. My second, Codex, was published in 2004 and became an international bestseller. The Magicians was published in 2009 and was a New York Times bestseller and one of the New Yorker‘s best books of the year. The sequel, The Magician King, came out in 2011 and was a Times bestseller too. The third and (almost certainly) last Magicians book, The Magician’s Land, was published in 2014 and debuted at #1 on the bestseller list.
The Magicians books have now been published in twenty-five countries and have gotten praise from among others George R.R. Martin, John Green, Audrey Niffenegger, Erin Morgenstern, Joe Hill, William Gibson, Kelly Link, Gregory Maguire, and Junot Diaz. A Syfy series based on the trilogy is currently shooting its second season.
I also write a lot of journalism. I’ve been the book critic at Time magazine since 2002—the New York Times described me as “among this country’s smartest and reliable critics.” I’ve written more than 20 cover stories for Time, and my essays and criticism have also been in the Believer, the Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Salon, Slate, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, the Week, Lingua Franca and many other places. I’ve won several awards for journalism, including a Deadline award in 2006. I make regular appearances on campuses, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford, and as a commentator on NPR.
I live in Brooklyn with my wife, two daughters and one son, in a creaky old house.