2.5 star, adult

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians #1

A thrilling and original coming-of-age novel for adults about a young man practicing magic in the real world.

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he’s still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin’s fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

At once psychologically piercing and magnificently absorbing, The Magicians boldly moves into uncharted literary territory, imagining magic as practiced by real people, with their capricious desires and volatile emotions. Lev Grossman creates an utterly original world in which good and evil aren’t black and white, love and sex aren’t simple or innocent, and power comes at a terrible price.

So close, yet so far. I would say that this story is a strong combination of The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. This was highly recommended to me by a friend, and while I can see why they enjoyed it, I just wish I enjoyed it more too. While the aforementioned series have more of a hopeful tone and a feel for adventure, The Magicians is much more of an “adult” and “realistic” version of those two worlds, where magic really doesn’t solve your problems, and where the world is much more sinister than just a villain like Lord Voldemort.

The Magicians revolves around our main character, Quentin, who is the classic brilliant but troubled student. He goes through 5 years of training at Hogwarts Brakebills to train as a magician before being thrust back into the adult “normal” world. Eventually he also discovers that his childhood books about crossing into Narnia Fillory are also real. I would say the first half of the book is like going through all of Hogwarts, and the second part is akin to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

I wanted to like this, but I think the biggest factor for me was that I hated Quentin. I just couldn’t get over what a terrible person he was. Incredibly selfish and hedonistic, he often leads the people around him to destruction, all the while whining about it. It supposedly stems from a bit of an inferiority complex and some clinically undiagnosed depression? But I honestly could not empathize at all with him. I guess that would be the biggest gripe for me, sure he was brilliant at learning and knew he was. But the kind of person he was…I just couldn’t stand for it, and therefore never rooted for him at all.

The story and the kind of overall message of the book wasn’t too bad. Kind of revolves around the loss of innocence and perhaps the harsh realities of real life. I found this to be the most redeeming part. Magic and magical places all seem so rosy and peachy but this novel really gives as a glimpse into just how dark things could be. Not that this is a totally new concept, but I found it to be done well here at least.

Another thing I had a bit of a problem with was the pacing and kind of the overarching storyline. It seemed like a little bit too much content was just stuffed into this one novel. The first part of the book was basically 5 years of being at school condensed. It just felt like to me that there wasn’t quite enough time for the world building (after all, each Harry Potter book was only 1 year at school). It’s fine if the school part wasn’t meant to be emphasized as much and was just kind of a background story, but to me the pacing made me feel like each year would take more time, so I felt a bit disappointed in how overall the plot was structured.

The climax was also quite weak. Maybe I’m just used to reading mystery novels and thrillers where there is that steady build towards the climax and then a satisfying showdown/confrontation followed by the denouement. The Magicians had many little ups and downs and little conflicts and resolutions, some important, some inconsequential. Maybe it’s just a personal opinion, but this kind of style doesn’t appeal to me much. It was hard for me to assign value to things that were happening and so it made me care less about it as I was reading.

At the very least, one more redeeming element was that I didn’t have too much trouble reading through it, I did want to know what happened – I was just a bit disappointed at what did.

Reading this novel reminds me why it’s so important for me to like and root for the main character – it’s just so hard to read otherwise. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be reading the sequel books, but if anyone has read them, let me know what you thought of them!

Overall Recommendations

The easiest way to describe The Magicians is as such: Quentin goes to Hogwarts then goes to Narnia. The first part of this book follows Quentin, the tortured genius, as he goes to a school for the magical arts. This is followed by discovering that the fairytale land of Fillory is real, and his goals to get there in search of true happiness. A coming-of-age novel at its heart, I think if you relate to the tortured genius trope, you may enjoy reading about Quentin’s dark adventures through the magical world. Other than that, there are probably more standard magical fantasies that I would pick over this one.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman”

    1. Thanks Kaya! Yeah, it just didn’t work for me, but it was such a favourite of my friend. But we’re allowed to have different tastes so that’s okay! 🙂

      Let me know what you think if you end up reading it yourself too!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Katie ❤ I tried my best to like it since my friend did, but I quickly found myself struggling! But I suppose that's the whole point when people have different tastes, right?

      Liked by 2 people

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