Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: The Magicians

The Magicians
By Lev Grossman
Viking 2009
402 pages
From my to-be-read shelf

The Magicians

Quentin Coldwater should be a happy kid. But he is waiting for something big to happen, something that will make his rather ordinary life extraordinary. So as he waits to finish high school and go to Princeton, he learns magic tricks and rereads his favorite childhood books that take him to the magic land of Fillory. When he travels through a portal to Brakebills, a college for the study of magic, he thinks that life is finally about to get good. But magic doesn't solve every problem and sometimes, it creates new ones.

Many people claim that this book is a darker, more grown-up Harry Potter. But for me, they just happen to be two books that involve young magicians. I think the difference is that Harry Potter is about a fight between good and evil. The lines are clearly delineated (well, maybe not for you, Snape) and you know that good must prevail regardless of the cost. In The Magicians, everything is grey. Normal people and magical people have faults and make mistakes and don't know who they are supposed to be or what will make them content with their lives. The contrast is really strong between the ambiguity of Quentin's life and the way he perceives the characters in Fillory to be good or bad.

While this book may seem to be specifically for and about college-aged readers, I think there is something very universal in Quentin's expectations and experiences. Each one of us believe that we would be happy if - if we got a promotion, lost 20 pounds, got married, or got our book published. All magic aside, this is Quentin's realization that the things he thought would make him happy - magic, love, Fillory itself - are not enough to make him content with his life.

"Here he was, a freshly licensed and bonded and accredited magician. He had learned to cast spells, seen the Beast and lived, flown to Antarctica on his own two wings, and returned naked by the sheer force of his magical will. He had an iron demon in his back. Who would ever have thought he could do and have and be all those things and still feel nothing at all? What was he missing? Or was it him? If he wasn't happy even here, even now, did the flaw lie in him? As soon as he seized happiness it dispersed and reappeared somewhere else. Like Fillory, like everything good, it never lasted. What a terrible thing to know."

Mr. Grossman is obviously paying a thinly veiled and very loving homage to the land of Narnia and its creator, C.S. Lewis. Fillory is a magical land inhabited by magical creatures which is often rescued by a group of siblings who are summoned when there is trouble and sent back home when peace reigns again. As someone who loves those books, I really enjoyed this and can imagine myself going back through the book again to discover more of the allusions to Narnia.

I found this book to drag and be uneven in some places, but ultimately I thought it was an excellent look at the way the things we think will save us can actually damage us instead. I appreciated the way that magic did not fix all problems - magic is hard to learn, hard to practice, and creates its own special class of problems. And yet we are still captivated by magic. C.S Lewis was, Lev Grossman is, and we are as we continue to read books and watch movies where the characters can do things we can only imagine. I will definitely be picking up the second book to find out what happens to Quentin and Fillory. 


  1. This is the first review of this book I've read that has made me want to read it. We do all do that "I only I had .... I would be happy" thing, the way it's addressed in this book sounds interesting. I like the sound of everything not being black and white, good vs evil too, sounds a lot more realistic.

    1. I read a lot of reviews where people wrote that they couldn't believe someone so young would be so disillusioned. But I get it, even as someone in my twenties - the promise that going to the right college will get you the right job and you will marry the right person and be happy.
      But we all come to realize, sooner or later, that it doesn't work that way.

  2. I absolutely loved THE MAGICIANS when I read it almost two years ago. It's got a whole boarding school vibe (which is my literary crack) plus the Harry Potter and Narnia-type bits and a lot of grit.

    I know a lot of people liked THE MAGICIAN KING, but I didn't think it was as strong as the first book. I'm hoping that the third book, which Grossman is writing right now, brings it all to a satisfying conclusion.

    1. You have just made me so happy. I had no idea there was going to be a third book! I must go read the sequel right now, so I can determine if I agree with you. :)

  3. "ultimately I thought it was an excellent look at the way the things we think will save us can actually damage us instead"

    --Yes! I agree entirely! Great review ;-)