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Book Review: The Magicians

June 15, 2012

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
Plume 2009, read on Kindle

Holden Caulfield goes to Hogwarts. As written by a John Irving impersonator.

That about sums this book up.

Quentin grows up in Brooklyn, and is miserable because he grew up reading about the magical land of Fillory, and wishes there were more magic in his world. Then, he discovers there’s a magical wizards’ college called Fillory, and he gets to attend this school. He is still miserable. He finds friends there. And is miserable at them. He gets to learn highly disciplined, intensely theoretical sorts of magic. And is still miserable.

After graduating, he and his friends mope around New York, drinking a lot, being mean to one another, and you guessed it, Quentin is miserable, complaining and sulking, lashing out at his friends and then whining about feeling betrayed when his friends return the favor. Maybe realizing the dream of getting to go to Fillory, the land he read about in books, will lift Quentin’s bad-tempered ennui?

Not so much.

It was supremely frustrating to read this book, watching Quentin be the opposite of a more typical noble (or at least earnest, if confused) fantasy hero. I saw him surrounded by beautifully written magical theories and plans of study, and had my hopes for him lifted by a few brief flashes of his getting to do immersive magic, like being turned into a goose. (A surprisingly well written interlude, for how strange it was.) But then Quentin would disappoint me. And disappoint his friends.

As an exercise in working against fantasy types and expectations, it was interesting. Given fantasy worlds and opportunities, wouldn’t necessarily transform a sarcastic and ennui-plagued bunch of characters from petty and jealous to noble and expected fantasy heroes. Having access to magic and wondrous settings, getting to live in a fantasy novel, doesn’t get Quentin and his friends to rise to the occasion and become fantasy heroes. The mohawk-wearing Penny is the only one who seems to embrace fantastic opportunities, and he’s a peripheral, and underexplored character.

There’s a strong nod to Narnia and Harry Potter, even as something Quentin and his friends joke about within the story. I think I remember early reviews calling The Magicians “Harry Potter for grownups.” Having read this book, I disagree. Vehemently. It’s a facile, surface comparison. The essential attitudes of Harry Potter, of hopefulness and clear-cut battles against starkly drawn enemies are missing here. The Magicians takes a painfully bleak view of relationships, possibilities, fantasy and magic, and friendships.

I read this for my YA Genre class, and during our discussion, the idea of literary fiction came up. Morally ambiguous, petty characters,  exploring selfishness and morally gray stances. This book glorifies a lot of the things I really dislike about typical literary fiction, and is missing much of the earnestness I really enjoy about fantasy novels. Some passages are well-written, I admit, and the exploration of magical theory was fascinating, not to mention beautifully described, but I’d like to trade in most of the central characters for their less angst-ridden counterparts.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ChillmanCometh permalink
    June 20, 2012 12:50 pm

    I enjoyed this novel, though not as thoroughly as I had hoped, and I think this is due to two major issues: the first is the characters, many of whom are thin and vaguely realized and become nothing more than placeholders to propel the story forward (e.g. Penny); the second is that almost none of the potential that Lev Grossman establishes in the first half of the novel comes to fruition. The challenge of being amongst peers (peers that happen to be some of the most brilliant young minds in the world mind you) isn’t as cut throat as it should have been, or it wasn’t a significant point that it came so easily to Quentin. Professor Mayakovsky’s explanation of how a truly powerful magician can simply will something to be. The idea of the disciplines having some sort of meaning is thrown into Grossman’s novel of great ideas, only to be lost deep within and to e taken out only when it is convenient to the story. “Don’t you want to find out what your discipline is?”, I did, 200 pages ago.

    There are parts of this novel which exude qualities of a modern fantasy masterpiece that are tampered down by massive bouts of narcissism, apathy, and disdain. I’d love to see a more skilled author create something using the rules of this universe really highlight the agony, painstaking dedication, but ultimately the fire that fuels the will of someone to become a powerful magician. That is novel I wish this was, and would have loved, but instead I only enjoyed due to the misexecution of bold ideas.


  1. Book Review: “The Magicians” « The Cheap Reader

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