The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

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Publication date – May 22, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.

Everything changes when Quentin 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 practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.

Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.

Thoughts: If I were to provide a soundbite description of this book, I would have to say that it’s like the Harry Potter and Narnia books had a literary lovechild that grew into a disenfranchised teen. And that description, while preparing people for what they can expect of the story, really doesn’t do it any justice, because The Magicians goes far beyond a simple soundbite description. It’s a book that I didn’t feel that I could review properly after the first read, and so I let it be for a while and then reread it so that I could properly organize my thoughts on this very messed-up-in-the-best-way piece of speculative fiction.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving spoilers, one way or the other. It starts with Quentin, not exactly a boy genius but enough of an academically-gifted teen to provide some dark wit and sarcasm right off the bat. An odd accident gets him transported to Brakebills, a college for magic, and if you’re rolling your eyes at this point and calling this book a blatant Harry Potter ripoff, trust me; bear with it and it’ll all get better. The book makes constant nods to the HP series, characters commenting on similarities and cracking jokes, and Grossman clearly knew what he was doing when he write this idea, because it’s done in such a way as to make the characters all the more believable. They know the same pop culture that we do. Honestly, can anyone say that if they found themselves at a school for magic, they wouldn’t be making Harry Potter references now and then?

The first half of the book is largely concerned with Quentin’s  life at Brakebill’s. The second half brings the Narnia comparisons with the world of Fillory, a kids fantasy book series that Quentin is a large fan of that has striking comparisons to Narnia (and a few other pieces of children’s literature from the early 1900s). Through the magic that they’ve learned at Brakebills, Quentin and his friends go between different planes of existence and deliberately enter the supposedly fictional world of Fillory.

The Magicians is, at its core, a great thought experiment. Not just in take 2 popular and enduring story ideas and smooshing them together, but expanding upon them to make them less kid-friendly, more adult and raw and dark. (Not that the HP series didn’t dip into darkness a time or two… dozen…) Instead of a magic school for children, we have a magic college, with students aging in range from late teens to early 20s, all of them brilliant in one form or another. This creates an environment filled with people who are used to being exceptional and who are now essentially just a face in the crowd. A very hard-working and hard-drinking crowd, admittedly, all of which came together to make interesting social connections, commentary, and the general feel of a superiority complex that ran throughout the better part of the book. Boredom with reality, until painful reality came crashing down around them.

It was the same with the half of the book that was more centred on the post-Brakebills events, the group graduating and heading into the world and living debauched directionless lives until they find their way into an alternate plane of existence. Then they enter a world that they had known previously only through children’s books, sanitized and comfortable, and they find that Fillory is dangerous and hard and brutal, its own politics going strong and death looking them all in the face. The whole book takes childish fantasies and turns them upside down, brings to light the cruel realities of how that kind of world would actually function. It rips the gloss from childhood ideals, isn’t entirely comfortable, but is nevertheless a fascinating read.

While for me this book was pure indulgence, the kind of book my teenaged self would have both loved and not appreciated, it wasn’t the kind of book to just skim through without thought. It’s impressively thought-provoking, intelligent, and full of the kind of descriptive vocabulary that I don’t often see. (Big words abound!) It also has quite a few dangling plot threads, things that happen and never really get properly addressed or resolved. Now, I’ll grant you that this is only the first novel of a series and the story does continue later, but those events left parts of the plot feeling somewhat disorganized, like the author wanted a particular event to happen but couldn’t really think of a reason for it, and then just shoehorned it in anyway.

One of those dangling plot thread is, “Why Fillory?” I understand that Fillory is a world that obsessed Quentin, but most of the others in the group were less interested in the books, having read them in childhood and then put them aside. Until, of course, they have the chance to go there and then suddenly they start mentioning all kinds of trivia about the series. Perhaps it was a case of an unreliable narrator and Quentin didn’t know they were all hiding their own obsession as much as he kept his hidden, but their decision to go felt rather forced. An entire multiverse at their disposal (“All of human literature could just be a user’s guide to the multiverse!”), and they choose to go to the one the main character has been secretly obsessed with his whole life? Nobody even mentions going to any other reality? They were all being manipulated, and that much was clear early on, but for nobody to even mention it seemed like an awful stretch of credulity.

But like many novels where my complaints are largely nitpicky, when you get right down to it, I have to confess that this was a fantastic novel, and one that I very much enjoyed reading. It gets better with each reread, I think, with the knowledge of what’s to come adding more layers of meaning to past events. If you’re looking for a smart novel that approaches familiar elements in unfamiliar ways, and if you want something that combines solid magic realism with utterly fantastical scenes, then The Magicians is definitely a book you should be reading.

Even if you won’t be able to look at your childhood the same way again.

7 comments on “The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

  1. I despised this book to the depths of hades deepest hell. I will hold back, but man, maybe I just ‘didn’t get it’ or wasn’t feeling goth enough.

    But I am glad you liked it =) Because that means you didn’t want any of your life back after reading it.

  2. As much as I loved the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter books, I’ve been warned away from Grossman’s Fillory trilogy (series?) for a slew of reasons–primarily among which is the dangling plot threads that you mentioned, as well as the shoehorned “everyone knows everything about this magical place” moments. So as much as I think I may like it, I’ve never given this book a chance…but you say that it’s good in spite of those issues, so…I’m so torn, lol.

  3. dissenfranchised teen…ok I know what you mean by concerns just being nitpicky. Sometimes I wonder if I would nit pick less if I weren’t writing a review on things. I haven’t read this one yet but I still totally plan to “someday” I do like the comparisons though.

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