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Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’

August 8, 2010

After seeing the large display in the store, talking with the salesperson, and reading the praise, I really, really wanted to like The Magicians. Sadly, it didn’t happen. From the back cover:

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams may have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hoe of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined…

The Magicians has often been likened to an adult or R-rated Harry Potter. While most reviewers seem to think this is a good thing, I felt like The Magicians took bits and pieces from Harry Potter and Narnia, mixed them together, and added in a bunch of sex, drugs, drinking and swearing. I expected a fresh adult fantasy, but nothing felt new. You have the kid with extraordinary but untapped powers, secret school for magicians (ps, wizards are so much cooler) invisible to the normal mortal’s eye, the strange recruitment and initiation. You also have Quentin’s beloved series of childhood books in which five English children discover another world called Fillory. The siblings make multiple visits to Fillory, which is ruled by animal-gods, and the “children of Earth” become kings and queens of the land. At least the book gives a nod to Harry Potter and Narnia several times.

Quentin is an extremely intelligent outsider who takes up a hobby of mastering magician’s tricks (lame). As a young adult, he remains obsessed with the Fillory books of his childhood (okay, can’t judge here)… to the point that he almost believes the stories are real and that he will one day stumble upon the entrance to Fillory (now I’m judging). Quentin is so unsatisfied with his life–he’s so much smarter than everyone else, his true love is dating his best friend, and he has a poor (and unexplained) relationship with his parents–that he just can’t believe that this is it. There must be something else, something he’s missing, some other world. Quentin is an original voice. But I don’t empathize with or understand him.

Aside from anticipating a surprise that never came, a couple other things bugged me. There were at least a handful of times where sections in a chapter or smaller story lines ended abruptly and left me really confused. Sometimes I read too quickly, or am distracted, and lose the train of thought. In this case, it wasn’t my fault. A few parts just seemed to be missing adequate transitions and ends were left loose. Many reviewers also describe the book as gripping, a page-turner, one you can’t put down and that you race home to read. This was not the case for me.

The Magicians also uses a lot of contemporary slang and references, ones that I “get” because the characters are my age and my peers are using this same language. I love this in a realistic novel, but not so much in a fantasy. Maybe it’s just personal preference. Harry Potter uses contemporary slang — how can any book not do so, at least a little? — but it’s so prevalent in The Magicians that it practically feels outdated already.

The parts of The Magicians that deal with the characters’ philosophical questions on magical power and their relationships and complex emotions for each other are the most interesting. I would have liked the book better if Grossman had cut out the entire Fillory part and just focused on the magical school and the graduated magicians trying to find meaning and purpose in the “real” world. I seem to be the only reader out there not heaping praise upon The Magicians, but it just didn’t do it for me. Have you read it? What did you think?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 1:41 pm

    I haven’t read this one and after your review I’m not sure that it warrants being placed on my TBR shelf after this review either. Loose ends and poor transitions bother me greatly in a book. This isn’t to say that I need everything all wrapped up in a pretty bow, but that it needs to be apparent the author left things open ended with an explicit purpose in mind.

    • August 10, 2010 11:27 pm

      I definitely agree, and in this case I’m seriously wondering why neither Grossman nor his editors tightened/wrapped/explained things a bit more in some places. There were no *huge* problems, but enough to pull me out of the reading-zone, which really bugs me. As I said, all the other reviews I’ve ready highly praise the book, but I’ve done my fair share of reading and I don’t think I’m off the mark.

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