The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
This is a book that has been on my radar for a couple of years. Actually, ever since I noticed a friend reading it. I’ve known this friend for over 15 years, so I trust his opinion and he was pretty enthusiastic about The Magicians. When Penguin contacted me about possibly reading The Magicians and The Magician King, I checked back with that friend, who was just as enthusiastic and had pre-ordered the second book.  That was good enough for me, and off I went to email Penguin with a “yes, please”.
 
The Premise: Quentin Coldwater is a mopey but brilliant seventeen year old, preparing to enter some Ivy League school and already a little depressed by how predictable his prosperous life is going to be. To escape, he obsesses over a series of children’s books, Fillory and Further, about five British children who cross over to a magical world called Fillory.  Then one day, Quentin crosses over himself – but not to Fillory. Instead he is on the grounds of Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, somewhere in upstate New York. So begins Quentin’s new life – one in which magic exists.
 
Read an excerpt of The Magicians here
 
My Thoughts: Quentin is a teen-aged “ridiculously brilliant” overachiever with a melancholy air, who lives in Brooklyn with his parents. His life seems set until an incident at a college interview derails him from his expected path and sends him wandering into the grounds of a school for magic, where Quentin is one of twenty students selected for the new freshman class. Suddenly, delightfully, everything Quentin knew has been turned on its head. Magic is real, but it’s also extremely difficult to do – requiring not only talent but the right circumstances and tedious repetitive study. But obsessive Quentin, a person who enjoys practicing a thing until he has a perfect grasp of it, and who rereads his favorite series of books, Fillory and Further every chance he gets, it is the perfect fit. So too are the other students, just as smart as Quentin and just as  dissatisfied, if not more, by the world they inhabit. Magic seems like just the right thing for these kids. Quentin finds himself happy for the first time in his life, and easily leaves his parents and old friends behind to spend as much time as Brakebills as possible.
 
The first 200 pages are a sugar high of the strange and unexpected, taking us through a series of vignettes that highlight the years at Brakebills. It was a lot of fun living vicariously through Quentin’s experiences – from the exam that he passes to get into school to the semester in fourth year that involves a never-talked-about rite of passage. This went by at a happy reading clip, but there are glimpses of a dark underbelly throughout the first pages, like a disturbing death at the school and ominous comments about whether humans were ever supposed to know magic.  Then I hit the midway point of the book, which is the start of Book II – after graduation from Brakebills. The sense of wonder and amusement that Quentin had becoming acquainted with Brakebills seems sucked away by the idea of trying to find a goal in life, and Quentin returns to that aimless unhappy state again. He and his friends have it all – youth, endless money, magic, and no responsibilities, but for the most part they act like over-privileged, miserable, jackasses. I felt a cold lump of disappointment in the characters, and I wasn’t sure I could continue. And I remembered that my friend’s favorite Harry Potter was my least favorite, because of the angst (Order of the Phoenix by the way). But a new distraction appears – the existence of Fillory and the possibility of actually getting to it.  The second half of the book brings the story back up from its downward trajectory, but with the reader and Quentin both wiser about the flaws in his character and the real danger of magic.
 
Throughout the book, the writing is absorbing. Even when things were dismal, they were dismal because the story had me so involved in the characters. And the story has the habit of taking unexpected little detours along the way to telling the whole story that I was always entertained. Many of these turned out to be important later on, but a lot of it seemed like the strange detail that makes up the world of magic. And what’s also fun about it is how much of the story references other books. Since this is a story in which a unhappy boy stumbles into a world that coexists with ours, but has real magic, Harry Potter is the first place the mind goes, which probably explains the “Harry Potter with college students” one-line summary, but that’s the most obvious comparision.  I saw more allusions to the Narnia series than Harry Potter, but it seems to nod at a lot of classic children’s fantasy books. Besides Narnia, I thought I saw whiffs of Alice In Wonderland, The Once And Future King, and Peter Pan, and I’m sure, many more. But this is not really a children’s book – it takes the warm memories of childhood that those books represent and then wipes away the innocence.
 
The Magicians is marketed under “fiction” but I think it crosses genre boundaries. It could be considered contemporary or urban fantasy, but with a literary, non-escapist feel. Sometimes I felt like it could be a candidate for the Horror shelves. I wouldn’t call it young adult (although Quentin is seventeen when the story begins), or New Adult Literature (although it spans Quentin’s years at college).  The portrayal of human nature in this tale makes it feel more “adult”.
 
Overall: This is a tough one. I’ve been telling everyone my personal reaction, which was: blown away by the beginning, dismayed by the middle, and a mixture of those two by the end, but I think The Magicians is a book where I’d find it hard to call who is going to like it and who won’t. I think most people will find this book really well-written and unique, and if you are a reader who enjoyed books where a child protagonist discovered real magic when you were growing up, you’ll appreciate all the allusions The Magicians makes to those stories. But! Along with the sense of wonder and amusement, there is also a very dark undertow, and this is not a comforting read.
 
P.S. Since Brakebills is mentioned as being on the Hudson, somewhere in the Poughkeepsie-West Point area (an area I know), I’ve been obsessing over its exact (theoretical) location this past week.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
bogormen – 4/5
Fantasy Cafe – 8/10
Stefan Raets for Tor.com – positive
fashion_piranha – 3.5 out of 5 stars
temporaryworlds – 3 stars (out of 5)
 
Interesting Links:
A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians by Lev Grossman
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13 thoughts on “The Magicians by Lev Grossman

  1. So, I definitely sree with your overall assesment. This book was a rollercoaster. I read an interview with Lev Grossman where he kind of explained Quinton’s ups and downs, but even having some insight into why he wrote the character tha way it still felt kind of redundant.

    I think my overall impression was that this book didn’t ever get to a peak. Everything felt like there was so much left unsaid. He seriously picked it up in the end which I liked, but it was so episodic.

    Of course The Magician King is sitting on my night stand eight now. Looking forward to your review of that.

    • I felt like Quentin had some growing up to do, but I didn’t expect him to do something do unlikeable. In the end, I felt like I connected more to Alice than I did with him. Do you know if that Lev Grossman interview is online anywhere? I’d be interested in reading it!

      Oh, “rollercoaster” is the perfect word for it! Too true. And I noticed that it felt a little episodic, like it was a series of vignettes strung together, particularly in the first half of the book, but they ended up informing on the second half so I decided it must be a deliberate technique. I can’t tell….

      🙂 That’s where my copy is too. I’ll be reading it soon. (Thanks for stopping by the blog).

  2. I’ve always been interested in reading this but I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the ‘literary’ feel of it. But I’ve seen positive reviews and I am intrigued by the darker aspects of the story.

    Thanks for the great review!

    • You’re welcome. I think this is a polarizing story, so I’d be interested to see what you think of it. The dark aspects can hit pretty hard. I really disliked Quentin at one point.

  3. Fantastic review, Janicu! I think this is a great description of the book. It is very polarizing – a lot of people seemed to think it was too much like other fantasy books because of the Narnia or Harry Potter comparisons or that the characters were too unlikable. I can definitely understand that view, but when I read it myself I felt that was really the point – grounding it in the familiar for fantasy fans could understand the position Quentin and his friends were in and showing how more privileged, miserable, jackasses might react to it instead of the more heroic types you often see in those stories (hehe, love your description of them). I found it interesting, but I can see how some people couldn’t get past their dislike for some of the characters because they did fit that mold really well.

    • Heh, well they were. Miserable jackasses! Hurrmph. They got better once they had a purpose, but before then, I wanted to slap someone!

      Yeah, I had a bit of a hard time when suddenly Quentin became very unlikeable. Before then I was OK with his general unhappiness because.. well it happens. I think the fact that he regrets what he did and has that bad feeling and goes through the consequences of what he did – it made me feel better. But I also now have that “once bitten, twice shy” feeling about the story. Things can take a turn for the worst at any moment and there’s no guarantee things will end well. I think the uncertainty can be a problem when a reader just wants to escape. This is not escapist! At any rate, I like to see characters changing, and I’m very interested in seeing how the characters evolve in the next book. I feel like Quentin has learned something about his own attitude creating unhappiness and I want to see what comes out of this lesson – is he going to revert, or be a better person? I want to know this.

        • 🙂 I know, I’m just having fun saying “miserable jackasses” today. It has a certain ring to it.

          Yup, I saw that. I thought it was very interesting and detailed. I would have never guessed any except the Tolkien one, and that is very obvious because the book SAYS it’s a Tolkien reference. But now that I know, I think my favorite allusion is the goose/THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING one. I *loved* when Wart is turned into a bird, I can’t believe I didn’t connect the two.

  4. This was an impulse buy for me a few months ago because it was on sale at the book store I work at ($7.99 CAN for the hardcover), and I’m very intrigued to read it now after reading your review!

  5. Interesting. I remember reading some reviews accusing the character of being very whiny. HP5 was my least favorite as well. I am quite hesitant in picking up this book. Perhaps one day …

    • I think even the people who liked this book agree that Quentin has trouble being happy. It’s definitely on how you take that – either it’s super irritating or it’s a character flaw that’s interesting. At least someone agrees with me on HP5…

  6. Pingback: Book Review: The Magicians | Absurdly Nerdly

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