Series: The Magicians #1
Published by Penguin Group, The Viking Press (Adult) on 11th August 2009
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. He's a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he's still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.
Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.
Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is marketed as the sort of antithesis to the Harry Potter franchise, promising a more mature and gritty approach to sorcery in the modern age.
And, in some respects, I suppose it succeeds in doing just that. Despite the many spells and fantastical scenarios, however, there’s a rather unfortunate lack of magic here.
Now, I adore Rowling’s work. Her defining tale of wizardry is like to forever be my most treasured series, and I look forward to rereading it come every year or two and discovering anew just how delightful her writing and imagination consistently proves to be. Despite its status as a “children’s series,” Harry Potter is a defining and beautiful example of how some stories can be universally endearing no matter what your age or typical taste in literature.
Grossman’s apparent determination to counter such a cultural icon, consequently, is off-putting, primarily because it feels unnecessarily mean-spirited. While I certainly see the appeal in “a Harry Potter for grown-ups” (though isn’t Harry Potter already “for” them already?), I don’t appreciate his seeming contempt for the series, especially since it is clear that a great deal of his worldbuilding stems directly from Rowling’s own ideas. Characters throughout the story directly speak of Harry Potter and consistently mock it, and it proves grating every time that it occurs. If your fiction is going to derive so much from another’s, why do you feel it necessary to lash out against it?
And though I haven’t much experience with it, I imagine that fans of The Chronicles of Narnia will encounter something similar. You’ll understand why shortly.
The problem is that, as others have stated before, Grossman seems too eager to portray his ideas as particularly clever, which lends the entire reading experience a cloying sense of pretentiousness. And when the bulk of the ideas aren’t executed particularly effectively, such a tone proves even more grating.
While flawed characters are of course important, there still exists a necessity for some degree of likeability in them. The Magicians‘ cast, while not entirely devoid of charisma, lacks the degree of appeal necessary to create any form of emotional attachment. Despite the misfortunes that they go through, one never really cares much about any of these people or their troubles, and any victories or losses that they may incur throughout the story ultimately mean little. It’s the literary equivalent of having the television tuned in to some mediocre program that you do not care for one way or another while you go about other pursuits. The occasional bits that you pay attention to are mildly interesting, but the characters playing along mean nothing to you, and are only worthwhile for the dramatics that happen around them rather than for their individual personalities.
The worst of the bunch is unfortunately our protagonist Quentin, who feels it necessary to complain at any and every given opportunity. It’s an ever-present irritant that never lets off, and so the apparent attempt at realism instead leaves him a one-dimensional well of pointless sorrow and grumbling. The supporting cast doesn’t provide much of a diversion from this, as they all tend to wallow in their individual issues as well. Every person here is unlikeable in their own way, with nothing to really balance the scales, and so there exists no genuine sense of community or love to bond them together into an enjoyable whole.
The Magicians feels more like two separate books awkwardly stitched together than a cohesive whole. The first half details the protagonist’s time at a university for magic, where he learns to hone his craft while developing some friendships. The second half abruptly shifts to his life after graduation, which comes to deal primarily with his and his group’s discovery of an alternate reality that they become tasked with saving from your traditional fantasy villain.
Essentially, it’s one part Harry Potter and another part The Chronicles of Narnia – another series that is heavily drawn from (and subtly mocked) by the author. The problem is that neither section feels properly flushed out, and so the reader is left to stumble through two rushed plots that are clumsily assembled in an attempt to create a larger arching narrative.
The initial exploration of Quentin’s rise through the university is introduced in such a way that one comes to expect a similar approach taken in Harry Potter, in which only a single year of schooling is given the focus so that the author has a chance to really dig deep and explore the trials and oddities that come with learning magic. Instead, we witness him skip through all five years of his education, and the result is more summary than detail. Rather than learning the specifics of Quentin’s assignments and his struggles with the complex system that is sorcery, the reader is given more a lengthy montage that settles on specific events only occasionally to provide nothing more than some vague notions of what magic is and how it works. We hear a bit about how difficult casting is and the various schools of power, but not much else.
I speak only for myself, of course, but the best elements of the Harry Potter series tend to be the frequent chapters that slow the story’s progress and give us a thorough look into the typical day of your average witch and wizard. These moments not only reveal the wonderful extent to which the author has carefully planned out her world and the myriad of details that are necessary to make it believable and enthralling, but also give the characters a chance to function within a more everyday setting and provide the reader with a more intimate glimpse into their psyches.
Grossman’s approach allows for neither of these things. His worldbuilding is more a façade than a proper piece of narrative architecture. Some interesting (and admittedly rather cool) ideas provide a glossy sheen to the story, but ultimately lack the substance needed to create a truly absorbing or memorable tale. The characters grow closer only because the author gives them a handful of moments to interact in ways that blatantly tell the reader that they are friends. It’s not organic, and because of how derivative the general work tends to be of other authors’, the absence of specifics gives the general affair more a feeling of bad-mannered unoriginality than clever reimagining.
This occurs in the novel’s second half as well, which is introduced so suddenly that it feels as though one is starting an entirely new book. Here, Grossman plays with another beloved series in the form of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Again, the similarities are obvious, and it is clear that the author is trying to create a darker, more contemporary vision of a well-known cultural mainstay.
And, again, it doesn’t quite work, despite the attempt’s promise. Throughout the first half of the narrative, Quentin makes mention numerous times of a much beloved series from his childhood, which chronicled the continuing adventures of a group of siblings who repeatedly stumbled into an alternate realm of talking animals and wicked sorceresses. It’s all incredibly derivative of Lewis’ work, but it’s supposed to be.
Quentin’s love for the world (Fillory) and its stories is one of the most likeable aspects of both his character and the overall storyline, as Grossman does a nice job at creating a tale-within-a-tale that seems believable in both its details and its sense of childish wonder. It does grow tiresome listening to Quentin endlessly bemoan his life and wish that his books were real so that he may escape into them, but constant lamentation is alas his defining trait.
Despite the series being referred to several times throughout the book’s first half, the reveal that Fillory is real and can be traveled to is dropped into the narrative so suddenly that the change in direction is clunky and grinds the flow of the story to a shuddering halt. Quentin and his friends’ visit to it ties into a handful of mysteries introduced earlier, but this second storyline somehow never feels properly meshed to the first, and is sped through so quickly that it comes across as a tacked-on addition. Once more, the world isn’t given much time to breathe and expand into a fully realized creation, instead so glossed over that its new rules and dangers are nothing more than mildly entertaining diversions.
Through it all, of course, is Quentin’s continuous whine, which skips from one cause to another without any real break. It’s repetitive, it’s annoying, and it makes the protagonist less a realistically rendered figure and more a pest who is itching to be smacked. Coupled with a story that isn’t altogether engaging, the result is a novel that, while easy enough to get through, doesn’t connect in any real way.
…is mostly unremarkable. It isn’t noticeably terrible, but it also does not stand out. It services the narrative just fine, and so makes it easy enough to properly picture the proceedings, but nothing more. Normally, such an approach is perfectly acceptable, but having it paired here with rather mediocre content just makes it another thing to take issue with.
Though it ends with a (fairly ridiculous) cliffhanger, The Magicians isn’t near captivating enough to make it a story worth rereading or immediately following up on. I’ll likely get around to the sequel at some point, but, for now, I have no trouble letting the story rest as is. My opinion being skewed as it is, however, I’ll be the first to admit that your mileage may vary, depending upon your history with the works that Grossman so clearly emulates in his own. If you don’t feel particularly strongly about his sources of inspiration, you may very well find here an enjoyable enough romp.
And if you do…
Read at your own risk, I suppose.