Word of Mouth: The Magicians

The Magicians ♦

by Lev Grossman

Pages: 432 | Publication Year: 2009

Genre: Fantasy/Literary Fantasy

Word of Mouth: Too many friends and sources to credit.

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Summary: Angst-ridden high school senior Quentin Coldwater is used to being one of the best. He’s a math prodigy bound for the Ivy League. He also harbors an obsession with a children’s book series about a magical land called Fillory, a thinly veiled version of Narnia. In the middle of his senior year, he finds himself admitted to an exclusive college for magicians in upstate New York.

Why I didn’t like it: The campaign for this book revolved around selling it as “Harry Potter for adults.”  I think it felt more like “Harry Potter for adults who didn’t like Harry Potter or see what all the fuss was about.” In execution, that means magic without any fun or joy. Lots of swearing, casual drug use, borderline alcoholism, incredible violence and, of course, sex. All of the characters seemed miserable and unhappy. They were spoiled, gifted kids without many (if any) redeeming qualities. Quentin, the lead, was tiresome and dreary. I really hated him.

The book also intentionally plays off the beloved fantasy works of Tolkien, Rowling and Lewis, but the referential story line and frequent jokes by characters about quidditch and orcs to show that the riffs were intentional felt overdone and wore thin to me. The plot also felt overly episodic. So much time is covered in the novel that I missed truly delving into any of the places or situations.

In the end, this didn’t feel like a ‘literary fantasy for adults’. It’s dark, cynical, and felt dismissive towards all the lovely things fantasy has to offer.

Why you might like it anyway: Alright, clearly it wasn’t my taste. But it’s not a terrible book. In fact, the more I read from Grossman about his intentions with the book the more I appreciate what he wanted to do with the series. (I’ll throw some quotes from ol’ Lev at the end to show what I mean.) Grossman’s more realistic take on a magic world is thought-provoking. The actual magic is difficult to learn and pretty tedious. This complexity adds a rich layer to the skill and rarity of true magicians.

The same is true of all the unlikable characters. Their complexity addresses real questions about the moral ambiguity of real life instead of the typical, clearly good vs. evil dichotomy prevalent in a lot of fantasy for young readers. No character in The Magicians is a good guy. It stretches the depths of what a fantasy novel can be, and what stories it can tell, when even the anti-heroes are so anti hero that there’s no one left to cheer for or anything to really hope for.

How does magic work in an ambiguous, realistic world full of disillusioned young adults? Grossman’s realism made me question the escapism appeal of  fantasy and science fiction; the entire work is on many levels a conversation with fans of the genre. The referential nature of the book could also be fun for readers (lovers of the constant eighties references in Ready Player One come to mind). In the end, if you don’t mind having all the things people often love about fantasy challenged and distorted, this book could be an interesting and thoughtful read.

My Verdict: I didn’t like it, but I respect it.

Quentin is incredibly nerdy, but he just happens to be nerdy. Not everyone he meets at Brakebills is as far-gone as he is…Now. I love Harry Potter. I love it. But I didn’t feel like he was necessarily my hero, particularly. Because he’s not a reader. I don’t think he’s read a novel in his life. One of the layers I want to add-on to that basic narrative was what if someone entered that world, having read the fictional version of it and then being forced to compare it to real life, and then finding the fiction so much more compelling.

The first 35 years of my life if you could hop through that credenza and it’s Narnia, but you could never come back, I’d do it in a second. Though you would have to re-train, become a farmer or something. It’s hard to know what the Narnia economy is based on. Narnia would be the one I would go to then. But not anymore…But I don’t know if art would be necessary. There is no fiction in Narnia. There are no novels in Narnia. I think it’s a world so complete, why would you ever want to escape into something else? Imagine a world where you didn’t want to read anymore. How great would that be? And you didn’t need books. Because everything was so full and real. Your life would be sort of that interesting.”

-Lev Grossman (Read the full interview here)

2 Comment

  1. AJ Blythe says: Reply

    Stopping by from QOTKU blog 🙂

    1. jessmlamb says: Reply

      AJ, thanks for checking out my blog! I loved the QOTKU getting to know each other days. There are so many great blogger-readers on her site!

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