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Fantasy Friday – The Magicians


The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Review by Bowden P. (Trey)


The Magicians is frequently pitched as “Harry Potter with college age kids, alcohol and sex.” And like so many elevator pitches, its accurate on the surface, but not once you actually settle down and read it. I also think that because of this pitch it inspires such strong feelings to either love it or hate it. What’s it about? Its about Quentin Coldwater, a kid from Brooklyn who’s been the smartest in his class for years, likely the most miserable as well, and his going to a magical college called Brakebills for five years.  And, yes it does involve self discovery, alcohol and magic. Outside of the surface similarities to a college age Harry Potter, it quickly diverges.

Quentin is a brilliant, if miserable, Brooklynite given the opportunity to take an entrance exam for a magical college for Brakebills when his interviewer for a scholarship dies. The exam is grueling, long and pretty fantastical in and of itself with animated drawings, created languages and on and on. Needless to say, Quentin gets in. Unlike Harry, magic does not make him happy – in fact it seems to make him more miserable. He keeps expecting something bad to happen and take it all away from him, or to be found out as a fraud and on and on.

Magic is also very different. No faux Latin incantations here. Magic is demanding – it requires incredible hand and finger motions, mastering various dead languages and knowing hundreds or thousands of various modifications depending on an equal number of variable circumstances that fill volumes. Sometimes its easier to just drive a nail using a hammer instead of using a spell. Getting all of these on a gut level is a demanding process of memorization and an exercise no one tells others about. Its also dangerous. One miscast spell in a lecture results in the summoning of The Beast, which stands off the combined efforts of the Brakebills faculty and eats one of the students.

Quentin’s time at Brakebills is interesting, but not the totality of the of the story. To me, the story only begins to get moving once the he graduates and moves to New York City with his friends. There an old acquaintance from school seeks them out with an opportunity to travel to Fillory, a imaginary land that has all but obsessed Quentin from childhood.

Now, while its been described as Harry Potter goes to college, The Magicians isn’t. Its a deconstruction of two series: Harry Potter (the obvious) and the Narnia books (Fillory). It takes them apart and doesn’t use anesthetic in the process. Fans of the two series will not be pleased in many cases. Its also meta-fictionally aware – the characters know about Harry and Narnia and all the rest and act accordingly. So, if you love those two series, beware.

Quentin is almost an anti-Harry. Magic doesn’t free him, but complicates his life immensely. He’s also more than a bit annoying – smug and miserable at the same time, frequently able to choose the worst thing to do. I’d be lying to say I don’t recognize him in the mirror some days.

Brakebills seems a bit like Hogwarts at first, drawing from a similar background, but more impersonal. The faculty seldom intrude on the students’ lives  and when they do, they’re more like forces of nature.

Quentin’s fellow students are a pretty cold lot as well. They’re the best and brightest the U.S. has to offer, all chucked together with relatively little supervision and growing power. Its not Lord of the Flies, but it is the situation at Brakebills. The only ones with screen time are Quentin, Elliott, Penny, Alice and Janet, and they’re all pieces of work that I wouldn’t befriend.

Unlike most other modern and urban fantasies, Lev Grossman asks one big question that others are afraid to ask – what do magicians do? And the answer seems to be, not a lot. Some try to improve the world with public and government service, but it seems a lot are at loose ends with all that power and esoteric knowledge. Its not a pretty picture.

Was the book worth it? Yest. I enjoyed it and may even read the sequel, The Magician Kings.

Likes: Brakebills; How to get to Fillory; Causality and all its problems; The mechanics of magic; What do magicians do when they graduate; The complexity of the situation in Fillory; Occasionally Quentin; The shout outs in the novel; Characters meta-fictional awareness.

Dislikes: Most of the characters; The fact that no matter what they did, they always screwed it up; The shout outs in the novel (because when you’re reduced to looking for Easter eggs, well…); Characters meta-fictional awareness.

Suggested for: Fans of Narnia and Harry Potter that can take the two series taking a hit; Fans of coming of age stories that aren’t always pretty and fans of the occasional parody.

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4 Responses to “Fantasy Friday – The Magicians”

  1. Hunter S. (Hunter1) says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been hearing about this book and really appreciate your views.

  2. PBSNellie says:

    Great review. I read this book and it was pretty much the way you described it. I didn’t know there was a sequel, I will have to check it out.

  3. Jennifer says:

    This is a nice review, but it’s incredibly spoiler-laden for anyone who hasn’t read the book.

  4. Michael (MikeBpale) says:

    I don’t find this review very spoiler laden at all. (by the first chapter I knew they were going to Filory at some point. So that’s hardly a spoiler) I found the book sort of dull. I liked the construction of the book, hated the characters quite a lot and really thought it had a great premise. It just never went there for me. If Quentin was just slightly less of an asshat, I might have been able to get behind him.

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