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Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

And now he understood. He really got, that it wasn’t going to happen. He’d wasted so much time thinking, it’s all a dream and it should have been somebody else, and nothing lasts forever. It was time he started acting like who he was: a nineteen year old student at a secret college for real, actual magic.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a clever young man with a pedestrian life finds himself suddenly whisked away to study at a prestigious private school after he discovers a previously unknown affinity for magic. His family has no magical ability and is ignorant of the supernatural world, which leaves him plenty of time to bumble around unsupervised. Along the way he picks up a shy, mousy female sidekick who happens to be prenaturally talented among even the most talent wizards, some other guy who’s kinda always around, and adventures are had.

Wait, not yet: The clever young man (as well as many of his friends) is a lifelong fan of series of children’s fantasy novels, in which several members of one particular family keep finding themselves in an enchanted land, usually through ordinary seeming magical portals, where they fight off evil and become kings and queens. And then some thinly veiled religious symbol shows up at the end and makes them go home again.

So it does sound familiar? The Magicians makes no bones about where it finds its inspiration. Narnia and Hogwarts make a surprisingly strong couple. Grossman drops them into our world, sending Hogwarts to upstate New York and pulling his hero out of Brooklyn, while Narnia is transformed into a place called Fillory, the setting for a wildly popular series of children’s novels. I first heard about the book several years ago and only just got around to reading it. It seemed, like so many books do, as something right up my alley – I love Narnia! I like the Potter books!

The novel’s combination of fake-Narnia and fake-Hogwarts reads, if not actually love for, as genuine understanding of the source material. It’s hard to see references to the Fillory novels without smiling at the memory of the corresponding Narnia book – I think Grossman made passing reference to every novel except A Horse and His Boy. He’s not making fun of Hogwarts or Rowling or Lewis. The Magicians is essentially a giant “what if” experiment.

Unfortunately, part of that “what if” scenario seems to involve substituting a self absorbed, myopic, horndog, Quentin, for the main character. As in, “what if Potter was kind of a jerk with few redeeming qualities?” While possibly an interesting party game question, I find it difficult to connect to a protagonist when he’s pretty much an uncharismatic ass for 300 pages.

The story follows Quentin, our Potter, from his entrance test for Brakebills Academy through his schooling there – and then, unlike most fantasy novels, it follows him out again, as Quentin is spat out of his closed academic environment into the “real” world again. Neatly divided into three parts – roughly school, post graduation, adventuring – The Magicians attempts to push past the fantasy aspect of these fantasy schools, highlighting the danger, the temptations, and surprising apathy of being a professional magician.

It”s an ambitious idea that is bogged down by the weight of the main character. He’s a genius with no direction, absolutely willing to turn his back on family and friends to have the special life he feels he deserves to have. But nothing makes him happy. Not his power. Not his abilities. Not his girlfriend. In that regard, Quentin is achingly recognizable. After graduation, with all the power in the world and no money worries, Quentin and his friends move back to Brooklyn, losing themselves in late nights, club drugs, and pointlessly arty parties. They have no direction because they have nothing to strive for. I know people like that. Hell, I’ve known a lot of people like that. But I wouldn’t want to read a book about them, because they’re kind of spoiled assholes. And so are Quentin and 90% of his social circle.

I wanted to like this book – I really did. But I could never connect with Quentin and felt emotionally unconnected to the storyline. I didn’t care when Quentin graduated from Hogwarts and moved into the real world. I didn’t feel excited when he finds a way into Narnia. And I only felt really pissed off by the inevitable big bad showdown. There are really beautiful moments in the novel, ones that underline how dangerous magical worlds must really be and how easy it would be for a mage to really bollocks something up by accidentally putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Sorry about Armageddon you guys! I should have studied Greek more! In the end, I felt like I finished the book just out of obligation to the idea of finishing – which is never high praise.

So where does this ultimately fall on the “Good,” “Bad” or “Meh” scale? I’d definitely sort it into the meh category. I’m not angry I read the book. But it seems like something I had to slog through to get to the sequel, The Magician King, which frankly sounds like it has the far more interesting plot and a bit less Quentin.

If you’ve read the novels, riddle me this – what the hell does Alice see in Quentin? I can not figure it out.

By [E] Slay Belle

Slay Belle is an editor and the new writer mentor here at Persephone Magazine, where she writes about pop culture, Buffy, and her extreme love of Lifetime movies. She is also the editor of powderroom.jezebel.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @SlayBelle or email her at slay@persephonemagazine.com.

She is awfully fond of unicorns and zombies, and will usually respond to any conversational volley that includes those topics.

21 replies on “Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman”

I did like the Beast thing at school, but felt that its resolution in Fillory was disjointed and random. It may have been more realistic that the faculty rather than the students investigated what happened, but that particular narrative choice made for a kind of boring book. I also expected the Antarctica trip and the post-graduation ritual to lead somewhere. My general reaction to the book was pretty much along the lines of “Cool story, bro.”

I’m definitely in the minority, because I loved The Magicians (and The Magician King). The fact that Quentin was such an insufferable twat sometimes is what endeared me to the story. I don’t have to like my protagonists, as long as I get them. And I definitely get him. I think the “Harry Potter for adults” hype really hurt how this book was received by a lot of people. It’s more like “Harry Potter, but in the real world, and with occasionally shitty people being bored even though they can do fucking MAGIC.” And I really enjoyed it.

I’ll hand in my Literature Nerd card now.

I refuse to accept your card.

I spent most of the book feeling on the fence about Quentin — but he made a very definitive comment about Janet after a certain incident in the book that completely turned me against him. And then I got to that thing that happens at the end and I couldn’t figure out why that person would do that thing for him because he didn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities.

Here’s a question since you finished the second book. Does the proliferation of females whose names begin with J have a meaning? Because it really stood out to me.

I’m not sure if it has a meaning as much as maybe a somewhat subtle commentary, like “Quentin” starts with the MOST SPECIAL LETTER EVER, and he’s really the most ordinary, banal, somewhat irritating guy. Then you have all of these women whose names start with J, which is a really common letter, and they’re fairly common names, and they’re the interesting and special ones who do the remarkable things.

I may, of course, be reading too much into that, but I do have an English degree and am therefore programmed to analyze the most minor literary details, whether they really have any meaning or not.

Ugh, yes, this is what bugged me about it! I don’t have the same angst as a self-absorbed, over-privileged, poorly-socialized guy from Brooklyn, and I don’t really give a shit about watching him navel-gaze and whine. He just remained such a complaining blank throughout both books–he can never actually act unless stuff happens to him. So totally lacking in independent drive and motivation.

Both my fella and I hated Quentin, and we actually had the same conversation–“what the hell is Alice doing with him?” No good answers. I wondered for a while if maybe Quentin was based on the author, and he didn’t know how insufferable teenage him was? I would have much rather have read about things from the perspective of Penny, or even Janet. At least Janet would have had hilariously mean things to say about everyone.

I liked The Magician King a lot more. Julia is a way more interesting and compelling character than Quentin, and I even think Quentin gets a bit more grown up. I have more to say on TMK and some things I didn’t like about it, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

 

Man.  When you were describing it I was like – “um…yeah!  I would like to read this book.”  And then came the revelation that the protagonist is kind of a jerk.  Nevermind.

I read A Discovery of Witches on Monday night (all night – mad book hangover on Tuesday) and enjoyed it.  I couldn’t put it down, even though I got a couple Twilight whispers when I was ~60% through the book*.  I am not a Twilight fan in any way, shape, or form, so I felt a little duped.  But it ended ok, and the story was enough to keep me waiting for the sequel.

*maybe I should’ve gotten those hints earlier…it is a book about a witch and a vampire…

I read The Magicians over a year ago, and I’ve almost completely forgotten everything about it. I can’t tell you what Alice sees in Quentin because I don’t remember either of them. I think if you’d asked me a week after I’d read it, I would have said  the same thing. There was just nothing about the characters or the plot that got any foothold in my brain. I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel.

I enjoyed the first book OK, mostly for the ideas of it. Real magic in a recognizable contemporary setting? That’s going straight to my library hold list. The second book bored me senseless. Or at least, half of it did. The author had one fascinating character, and one entitled asshole, and for some reason split the story between their viewpoints. Guess which one I skimmed? I didn’t even bother finishing it. I think the TV adaptation could be interesting, if they fix the problem of having a protagonist no one wants to be around for long. I like complicated characters, I like anti-heroes, I like prickly. I don’t like people who have everything, including the ability to fly and reign over a magical land, and are bored and dissatisfied.

As far as modern magic, I far preferred “Petty Magic,” by Camille DeAngelis. Matralineal witches, FTW.

The brief glimpses of the interesting character did keep propelling me through The Magician — I just kinda hoped to see her again. I know I didn’t have high praise for this book, but I already put the next one on my hold cue.

And thanks for the suggestion! I’ll look up Petty Magic too.

For me, also, this book fell into the “meh” category.  I read it, all of it, but I never got lost in the story.

And to be perfectly honest, I really didn’t *like* Quentin that much and even though it’s only been a few months since I read the book, I can’t even remember the other character’s names.

It was okay.  It was a different take on the ‘boy wizard goes to school’ thing.  I’m even sort of shrugging my shoulders as I type this.  I heard there’s another follow-up book but frankly, that world just didn’t hook me in enough to make me want to go back.

 

The book got so much praise when it came out I was surprised by how ‘meh’ I felt about it. The writing wasn’t bad. The concept is great. Its just… there’s something about it I just didn’t care for. Maybe I’m just over reading books about the heroic journey of unheroic (usually male) magicians.

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