I’ve had The Magicians on my rather extensive to-read list for about a million years it seems. And every time I peruse a bookstore, it’s one of the books that always caught my attention, as if to say, “Hey, remember me? Read me!”
About a month ago Michael and I discovered 2nd & Charles over in Hagerstown. Since it’s an area of town I don’t frequently venture into I have no idea how long it’s been there, but I must say I quite like it. It’s kind of like an Amazon-style store, or what I imagine an Amazon store would be like, selling both new and used books, movies, etc. I’m usually pretty picky about buying used things because I want my things, books especially, to show my wear, but the books I bought were in exceptional condition. Plus I was able to pick up a book I’ve been wanting to read for ages for pennies on the dollar, so I’d say that’s a win.
Anyway, I bought The Magicians by Lev Grossman and have finally been able to read this book. I must say, it’s not quite what I would have expected, but I mean that in the best way. There is a lot to like about The Magicians, both in terms of its plot and its structure, so I wanted to take the time to give this book some love by writing a review.
The Premise of The Magicians
Do you remember certain books that you read as a child on which you look back fondly? Some of us might have read A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit while millennials probably see the Harry Potter books as being the beloved fantasy series of their childhoods. For Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist of The Magicians, it was the Fillory and Further series, which recounted the adventures of the assumed-to-be fictional Chatwin children in the magical realm of Fillory, described as a pseudo-Narnia with talking animals and clocks mysteriously embedded into the trees and four human children stumbling into this fantasy world to save the day and become its kings and queens. As a teenage genius on the cusp of college who’s become cynical about the real world, Quentin always wished that Fillory was real and never quite outgrew the pull that the Fillory books had for him as a child.
Early in the book as the reader is getting a picture of Quentin’s despondence toward life and his undying love for the five Fillory books of his youth, he shows up for a Princeton admissions interview to find the decrepit Princeton alumnus who was supposed to be conducting the interview having apparently, suddenly died (of natural causes) moments before Quentin’s arrival. Shortly after leaving the dead man’s home, Quentin abruptly (magically) steps off the New York City sidewalk and onto the lawn of Brakebills, a magical college for gifted teens who have shown some type of natural magical aptitude.
Much of The Magicians recounts Quentin’s matriculation at this highly selective magical college and the ensuing shenanigans expected of the college-aged and barely legal. Our protagonist, who had always isolated himself and consequently had a very narrow social experience, collects an eclectic, diverse group of friends and develops just as much an affinity for alcohol as he does for magic with much of his later years revolving around his social experience. The book speeds through Quentin’s education at Brakebills, portraying Quentin’s magical education almost like a “highlights reel” on ESPN. Upon graduation, he packs up and heads to New York City to reunite with his upperclassmen friends who had already graduated.
Returned to the real world as a learned magician, Quentin struggles to reconcile his “new life” as a Brakebills graduate and magician with the non-magic, mundane world where his magic must be kept secret from the general populace. He laments that magic, which was supposed to afford him the happiness he had never able to achieve growing up, hasn’t ended up not really making him any happier. Even his relationship with classmate Alice, who’s the nerdy and attractive girl that’s almost an analogue to Hermione in the Harry Potter series, being monotonous and bleak, offering Quentin very little happiness or joy. After a rather eventful and self-destructive night in which Quentin’s hedonism comes to a head, a former “frenemy” of his turns up at their door with the solution to Quentin’s problems: Fillory is real and they now have a way to get there.
Quentin is delighted that Fillory is real and feels like traveling to Fillory to be one of their rulers will have to do the trick and finally make him happy. However, once they finally get to Fillory, they realize that real life isn’t like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. The stories we read in our youth are highly romanticized retellings and Fillory and Further, the story of the Chatwin children’s plights in this magical world, is no different. Fillory itself might seem much like the stories, but it’s not quite what it seems and figuring out what exactly they’re meant to do in Fillory might be the hardest part. When it begins to look like Quentin and his friends had been following breadcrumbs to Fillory all along, they begin to wonder if they’re not pawns in some larger, more sinister plot.
Thoughts and Impressions
When you read the description of The Magicians, you’ll notice that it sounds a lot like the premise of the Harry Potter series: A regular human boy is lifted from the monotonous misery of his mundane life and dropped into a secret school where he learns to be a sorcerer by harnessing mysterious magical forces. And while that’s the basis for the book, Quentin Coldwater is definitely not Harry Potter, Brakebills is not Hogwarts, and Fillory is definitely not Narnia.
For one thing, the book has a lot more sex, drugs, and partying than you’d find at your standard school for wizardry. Brakebills is very unique, but the separate magical reality of The Magicians that exists apart from and alongside the world in which you and I live is very also unique and has its own mythology and rules. What’s more, the magical forces in The Magicians are very unique from other fantasy books. It’s almost like a combination of stage magic, chemistry, physics, and a little alchemical mystery that’s at the core of these characters’ magical powers. They don’t wield wands, but instead spend their education learning a variety languages, from Aramaic to German, and the hand/finger movements necessary to cast their incantations, which are sourced from cultures all around the world. They learn Renaissance magic, Eastern magic, and a variety of other types as well.
The impression that I always got from Hogwarts is that while having the coaching you get in school helps you to be better practiced and be more powerful, magic seemed to be an innate skill that you had to either have or you you don’t, and while there’s an aspect of that in The Magicians—only those who are naturally adept at learning it are accepted to Brakebills—once you’ve gotten into the school one’s level of magical ability or skill is based on how well you’ve learned and how much you’ve perfected magic, which is very, very technical. In fact, before they cast an incantation, they must analyze the “Circumstances” (capitalized in the book) of the moment, which are a number of conditions that include the position of the sun/moon/planets, the time of year, the weather, etc. So not only do they have to learn individual spells, but also how they can vary according to when you cast them, which I found very interesting.
Since the magic in The Magicians is so complicated and technical, only the smartest college-bound teens are considered for admission, which was another interesting facet of the book. The Brakebills study body was made up of the best of the best, comprised of just a fraction of the absolute smartest high school seniors in the country. Quentin was in a program at his high school for gifted, high-functioning students with his two friends, both of whom were also intended to take the admissions exam, but one didn’t accept the invitation and the other didn’t make the cut.
At first I wondered why The Magicians would contain so many years of education with the Fillory adventure seemingly thrown in at the very end, all of that in a single book. The Harry Potter books are each a single school year and many other series, fantasy and other, have taken the same format, which gives the impression that that one-year-to-a-book format is the standard. However, as I read the book I became somewhat thankful that it wasn’t drawn out like that because it really helped to keep the book moving, giving you all the necessary information without the plot stalling with uneventful in-betweens that seem intended to merely add heft and page count to a book.
There were a lot of characters in the book, but Grossman was great at keeping them very distinguished from each other as everything moved along. I kind of expected Julia and James, his friends from the very beginning that he walked with on his way to the Princeton interview, to remain important characters, but since Quentin stumbles onto the Brakebills grounds pretty much immediately after the book begins, they’re all but totally left behind with James basically forgotten. Julia was also considered for Brakebills admissions but, for reasons never completely made clear, didn’t pass the admissions exam and make the cut, which is something she continues to obsess over to the point that the memory augmentation they use to make her forget the exam doesn’t work and she becomes a mess. However, it looks like Julia will be much more important in The Magician King.
The Fillory story-within-a-story was incredibly well done. Without digressing to simply tell the reader the stories in the Fillory series, we’re able to get a pretty clear picture of the major events that occurred in Fillory and Further, which become incredibly important. Everything about Quentin’s beloved Fillory and Further series is very well-thought-out with most of the details revolving around the series and especially the Chatwin children being very important later in the book. It added a layer of unique complexity when Quentin would reference the Fillory series whenever trying to solve a problem involved the real Fillory. Especially in this sense, The Magicians is impressively well-written and very smart, which makes me very optimistic about the two sequels in the trilogy.
It’s not until very near the end of the book that you’re certain who the villain is. It could be argued that there’s not one singular villain at all since there aren’t really any intermittent encounters or pre-climax battles throughout the book. Halfway through Quentin’s Brakebills career he—rather abruptly—encounters a “Beast” that’s really just a person who kept his face hidden so their identity remained secret, but who’s definitely meta-human since he’s able to kill a girl in a really dark and surprising way; then you never see the Beast or discover its significance until the very end. In fact, with the way the Brakebills staff spoke about the Beast I wasn’t even sure its appearance was important or if it would ever even be seen again.
One thing I really loved was how the rose lens through which Quentin imagined Fillory was completely lost when he actually traveled to and experienced Fillory. Despite the Fillory and Further series being for children, Quentin quickly realizes that Fillory is really quite a dangerous place. You might even say that Fillory was the villain, or perhaps an antihero of sorts. Grossman’s writing of the Fillory sequence was masterful. I feel like his being a book critic for Time magazine puts him in the unique position to be able to analyze many different types of books and learn from their mistakes. As such, Fillory is given a lot of depth even though it’s merely a place, making it almost like a character itself. The detail is incredible. Grossman strikes the perfect balance between being descriptive enough to satiate our curiosities without being so descriptive as to become boring and drawn-out, which—as my fellow writers can likely attest—isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially when you’re doing such intense world-building as Grossman does with The Magicians. The landscape is nuanced and whimsical with a whole host of river nymphs, spirits, creatures both worldly and otherworldly, and it’s all incredibly fun to read about.
I do want to be at least a little critical for a second, particularly about our narrator. Despite Quentin being the hero, I’m not sure I’m really that taken with him as a character. I mentioned before that Quentin is no Harry Potter, and that’s worth reiterating again here. If anything, he’s a Holden Caulfield who’s given the power to change his “phony” life, but who still can’t (or perhaps more accurately, won’t) be satisfied. He can be somewhat likable in his own way, but he’s just excessively mopey and has no real right or reason to be so disillusioned and disenchanted with the world considering his young age and lack of life experience, especially at the very beginning of the book. Sometimes Eeyore-like mopiness can be somewhat endearing, but Quentin’s unhappiness isn’t very unendearing and almost gets annoying at times. He didn’t have a rough upbringing despite he’s parents having the tendency to overlook him sometimes because they were incredibly in love with each other, so it’s not like his being so pessimistic and downtrodden is warranted. As a student of psychology, I’d recommend that Quentin go on some serious antidepressants to selectively reuptake his serotonin inhibitors.
Quentin can also be pretty self-sabotaging, especially when it comes to his relationship with Alice; sure, even the inexperienced can be terrible at relationships, but Quentin seems to be too jaded for his minimal romantic experience. This doesn’t make Quentin unlikable, but sometimes I was more interested in some of the other characters, in particular Julia and Eliot, and even found myself occasionally wishing I could follow them instead, or at least switch back and forth to their perspectives.
While in school, Quentin meets his girlfriend’s parents, both of whom are professional magicians, and realizes that it’s sadly common for most magicians to live unfulfilling, hedonistic lifestyles because magic, which gives them the ability to bend reality to their will, means they can just give themselves what they want without those things having much meaning. It’s compared to being a child forever where your life revolves around wish fulfillment; as a magician, you essentially remain a child forever, able to snap your fingers and make things happen instead of growing up and having to work for your accomplishments. Quentin learns this firsthand when he graduates from Brakebills, spending much of his time devoted to New York City nightlife and hedonistic partying rather than finding fulfillment outside of magic.
In many reviews, The Magicians and its subsequent sequels are crudely referred to as a Harry Potter series for adults, and while it’s easy and somewhat superficial to make that comparison, the universe constructed in The Magicians is very different from J.K. Rowling’s beloved series. While The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter transport children to fantastical worlds where magic and the magical rescue them from the hardships of the real world, in The Magicians we see what happens when it’s adults, or almost-adults as is the case, who are dropped into a magical world, given the tools to make their wildest dreams come true, and left to wonder if life made so easy can have much meaning.
Grossman, who is himself a book reviewer for Time magazine, makes fantasy smart by putting adults and sub-adults into these settings and letting them question their surroundings in adult ways. The characters are skeptical of things that seem easy, they fear dark forests and don’t simply strut through dark doorways into certain danger. They ponder the psychology of a talking bear, talking beavers, and an anthropomorphic, walking-talking birch trees. When they transform into animals, the characters’ own thinking changes, becoming more in line with the natural thinking ability of whatever animal they have become at that time, which makes reading about these experiences much richer.
The effect of reading The Magicians is quite interesting because not only is it a magical fantasy for adults, but it has an element of psychological profundity to it. While series like Harry Potter, Narnia, and Tolkein’s books lay the groundwork of separate magical worlds, The Magicians is self-aware, naming and looking to these other series as they stumble around their own new settings, hoping that the conditions and circumstances of those worlds will apply to and somehow protect them. We learn, though, that even the magical world written for children is a dark, scary place where people can become heroes or the casualties of someone else’s story.
Perhaps most interestingly, The Magicians is designed like a hard-hitting fairytale for adults and is almost like a disillusioned, dystopian fantasy in which the magical world is tainted and sapped of its charms by the harshness of reality. It appeals to our inner child who remembers reading about magic and fantasy worlds, but who is competing with our adult mind and its belief that using the imagination is childish and irresponsible and we need more substance than that. As such, Grossman gives us a world of magic that isn’t the answer to the characters’ problems. They may be magicians, but they’re still human and subject to many of the mistakes, weaknesses, and fears that we all make and have. In The Magicians, magic doesn’t always save the day and isn’t always the solution to the problem.
I’m very anxious to see how this series continues to play out. The end was definitely setting up for The Magician King, sequel to The Magicians, which I’m hoping will compound the darkness of Quentin’s childhood fantasy world.
**Catch the television adaptation of The Magicians, now airing Monday nights on SyFy!**