The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Oct 31, 2012

I don't generally like reading negative reviews and I like writing them even less. But sometimes a book affects you so powerfully in all of the worst ways, you have to say something. This is how I feel about Lev Grossman's The Magicians.

I'm a fan of classic fantasy by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, which are obvious influences on Grossman. (The magical land of Fillory is clearly influenced by Narnia.) I'm also a fan of "hidden magical world" stories (the most well-known example being J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, which is referenced a number of times in The Magicians.) So I expected to love The Magicians, especially since I had seen it get glowing reviews by people I have a lot of respect for. As it is, I couldn't make it all the way through the book without wanting to throw it against the wall. 

The basic story is this: high school senior Quentin Coldwater is mysteriously pulled away from his interview for Princeton and finds himself instead applying to get into Brakebills Academy, a secret school for wizards in upstate New York. Quentin has spent his life in love with a series of children's books about a magical land called Fillory, so he's bewildered yet excited to find himself away from home, studying real magic. It's a pretty traditional set-up for a story, but Grossman starts the story with some distinguishing touches of his own, especially the references to the Fillory stories, which have a real sense of mystery and wonder.

As it turns out, life at Brakebills is anything but mysterious or wonderful. In The Magicians, the study of magic is boring, repetitive and relentlessly academic. Quentin's fellow students all seem bored and apathetic to magic, spending most of their time drinking, gossiping about their fellow students and professors, and sniping with each other. There are some nice sequences about the mystery and wonder of magic, but these are short and broken up by long bits about bored, bitter, unlikeable characters engaging in petty, mundane behavior.

Quentin's years at Brakebills pass quickly in the novel, with months and semesters glossed over, and before too long, Quentin and his friends have graduated. They go out into the real world to be practicing magicians--which in this case involves living in an apartment in Manhattan, doing the same kind of apathetic drinking, gossiping, arguing, and half-hearted sex they did in school. It was at this point that I realized I hated all of the characters in The Magicians, I hated the ennui and lack of wonder, and I was completely uninterested in what happened with the story. I skimmed ahead to see if the book improved but didn't find anything that drew me in and compelled me, just more of the same that had turned me off in the first place.

The Magicians is a very "adult" fantasy--not in terms of sex or swearing (although there's plenty of both in the novel), but in its cynical, unsentimental approach to magic and the fantastic. There are obviously readers who will enjoy this, but not me. I read fantasy to increase my sense of wonder, to let my imagination run wild, to remind me to see the real world as mysterious and wonderful. The Magicians instead shows the world, both the magical and the mundane, the fantastic and the ordinary, as dull, dirty, uninspiring, and overwhelmingly complicated. I wanted to like The Magicians, but Grossman's fantasy left me as bored and apathetic to his magic as his characters.

Written by Josh N.

I love superheroes, Doctor Who, and old movies.