The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater is a genius on his way to an assured Ivy League education, but he’s depressed with the way that his life is going. He distracts himself from his misery by dreaming of Fillory, a land that exists in a popular series of children’s novels that he adored as a child and still reads often, wishing that he could add a bit of fantasy to his humdrum life. Well, he’s about to get his wish. On his way from a Yale interview, Quentin stumbles into a magically hidden part of upstate New York, and he is immediately taken off to the school on the grounds for a rigorous examination. Upon passing he learns that the school is a magical college named Brakebills where he will spend the next four years of his life learning magic, making friends, enemies, and lovers, and trying to figure out what exactly he wants to do with his life.

Fast forward to Quentin’s graduation. He’s successfully passed his years at Brakebills, and is invited to move in with friends in New York City. Soon after, an old classmate shows up unannounced and surprises them with a fantastic secret: Fillory is real, and they’re all going.

The Magicians really is two separate stories, the first being Quentin’s journey to learn magic at Brakebills College, and the second story being after Quentin finishes Brakebills and his subsequent journey into Fillory with his friends. They are two completely different novels, but I was glad that they were released as a single volume.

Unabashedly real
There were times while reading when I had to put The Magicians down and absorb what had just happened in the novel. In particular, there was a scene where, after transforming themselves into foxes as part of a lesson, the students screw like, well… foxes. Normally this is something that I would find unneeded, as I’m sure you’re thinking upon reading this, but these scenes added an element to the story that’s not normally seen in modern fantasy, and I felt that it was refreshing. There were also some scenes that I felt were needlessly bloody, such as an entire page describing a man getting his hands chewed off, as well as some scenes that I felt could have used a bit more in the way of back story and explanation. Overall, though, I was pleased with how well they were woven together with an almost magical quality that left me dazed.

Characters that you want to smack
The characters in this novel are extraordinarily fleshed out. They all have their own story and are presented in a way that makes them believable. However, I want to smack the lot of them. They’re thrust into this world of magic and wonder that most people spend most of their time dreaming about, and they take it for granted, not giving it a second thought. There’s no moment where they simply relish in their limitless possibilities; instead, they quickly lapse straight into a deep depression due to their lack of individuality and the rigorous coursework that is presented to them. They’re all, without a single exception, complete douchebags and I want to smack them all upside the head and tell them to open their eyes and see the fact that they’re freaking magicians. I’m not complaining too much, however, because the way that they were presented made them real characters instead of typical fantasy tropes, but I still think that a little bit of joy before boarding the depression train would have done the novel good.

A new take on Narnia – er… Fillory
Did you ever wonder what the Narnia books would have been like if, instead of preteen boys and girls venturing to save an endangered magical land, the land was visited by 23-year-old self-absorbed magicians looking for a fun time? No? Well, I can’t say I did either, but the prospect is certainly engaging, isn’t it? And that’s what this book does, taking you through emotional twists and turns of adolescence – kicking you in the face, and then kissing it better, only to punch you right in the balls with the next page.

When it became apparent that Fillory is basically Narnia with a new name, I was wary and a little disappointed – but it turns out that while Fillory does share similarities with Narnia, there is a lot of fantastic original material as well – most of which are complete spoilers, so I won’t mention them in this review. There are some very obvious references to Harry Potter and a few other well-known fantasy tropes, but Grossman seems to insert these intentionally and exploits them to the max, which actually made for a pretty enjoyable read.

Why should you read this book?
I really cannot recommend this book enough as both an urban and epic fantasy, the first half being urban and the second being a mix of the two. Normally I wouldn’t think that this would work very well, but in this case it’s pulled off excellently. The Magicians is full of magical wit and wonder.

About James Starke

James Starke
James is 21 years old and has been described as many things in life – pop music lover, book nerd, movie geek, cookie nommer, bookshelf filler, tortured writer, tech dork, television watcher, webcomic addict, fierce supermodel, crazy cat lady, musical fanatic, a loyal Hufflepuff, GLEEk to the Nth degree, pizza eater, future librarian, a horrible procrastinator, Poké-freak, eyeglass wearer, a lover of the arts, and a zombie unicorn that sparkles in the night (well, actually that might’ve just been once). He prefers to describe himself as “a man of odd enthusiasms.”

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  1. In my opinion this is one of those books that every fan of the genre should read. It’s not that I love it, per se, but as a commentary on the genre it is fascinating. If only I could get over my personal loathing for Quentin. It isn’t that he isn’t realistic. The problem may just be that I don’t like real people! Looking at it as two books, the first book is Harry Potter, the second is Narnia, and each is turned on its head.

  2. The Magicians is terrible lit critic wankery that demonstrated that the author had a bad breakup mid-novel, resulting in the jarring break that you refer to as “the second novel.” Characters were inconsistent, plot points came and went unremarked upon, all so they author could take a very long piss on authors who came before without adding anything to the genre.

    Quite simply, Grossman’s book was the worst novel I’ve read in 3 years.

  3. Oddly, I want to read it MORE because the characters are annoying…something tells me that I’ll enjoy a novel that’s full of hipster kvetching about how THEY were there BEFORE magic got all cool…

  4. Ahh! I have so much to say about this book, but I don’t have the time right now … remind me to come back to this!!!

    • OKAY. I’ll try to articulate my thoughts here… Still a little pressed for time, though. I’ll probably end up writing a blog on this baby.

      Anyway, I really liked this book. I agree that the characters can be super infuriating — especially when their problems could be so easily resolved if they’d just grow up … — but I found them infuriating in a believable, real-life way. I met so many people like Quentin while I was in university. I didn’t like most of them, but I’ve MET them. They’re all real!

      I think The Magicians is just a big slap in the face to all typical fantasy novels (in a good way). Part of the reason I think most of us love fantasy so much is because we really love, adore, worship the worlds these novels are based in. We love them so much that we’d like to visit them. And The Magicians shows us — truthfully, I think — that the fantasy worlds we know and love in fiction just aren’t possible in real life, with real 21st century people. The problem isn’t today’s Earth; the problem is the people. And we just can’t have what we think we want (fantasy worlds, fantasy life, fantasy plot).

      I totally agree with that and I think it’s a great shakedown back to reality. Not a happy shakedown or even a welcome one for most people, and The Magicians doesn’t hold back any punches, but I still think it’s such a fantastic book. I really agree with Luke: “this is one of those books that every fan of the genre should read.” Absolutely!

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