The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Overall: **** (4 Stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 16+
Review written by Rosie
The best thing about this book is the characters. The worst thing about this book is the characters. This contradiction is what makes the book so good.
We are introduced to the main character, Quentin, as he tells us about everything that is bad in his life. Within the first couple of pages, Quentin has been established as the quintessential angsty, whiny teenager. He describes his search for happiness, and his general belief that happiness will never happen to him. There is nothing all that remarkable about him, except that he is really smart. He also describes his continued fascination with a series of children’s books about the magical land of Fillory (roughly analogous to Narnia,) and how this fascination has alienated him from everyone, because they think he is being incredibly childish.
Quentin is not an immediately likeable character. Once the action starts and he gets spirited away to a magical boarding school in upstate New York, where he is taught how to be a magician, he… doesn’t really change. His character develops, certainly. He becomes more interesting, he gets into scrapes, he gets a girlfriend, he even acquires a few friends - but in the end he is still the same, somewhat depressed character we met in the first chapter. None of Lev Grossman’s characters are particularly likeable. Most of them are unpleasant in one way or another. They are, however, very real. They feel like people, not characters, and for a book that deals with magic, this is very important.
The plot is pretty good. I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a Beast, and a lot of difficult magic, and some really weird magic, and a magical land. To paraphrase the person who recommended it to me, it is “a story about a bunch of kids who go to a college for magic, and descend into a pit of hedonism and depravity.” Be warned, this is not a PG rated book. It’s probably not even PG-13. It is a relatively accurate portrayal of a bunch of college kids dealing with life and each other, plus magic.
This is not Harry Potter magic, where you wave your wand and say some words and stuff happens. It’s not Diane Duane magic, where you say some words, and pay a price, and stuff happens. It’s not even Wheel of Time magic, where you have to study for years, risk going mad, and devote your life to it magic. This is magic you have to work at. The students have to learn dozens of languages, because spells are not unique to English. The have to learn complicated hand movements and positions, which seem physically impossible until you get used to them, and even then, they still hurt. They have to read mind-numbingly boring theory books. They pull all-nighters, have killer-hard tests, and drink a lot. It’s really just college, but with magic. It does not feel unrealistic. Of course, it’s more dangerous than normal college, because there is magic involved, and Grossman’s world does not allow for safe magic. Students get hurt. Occasionally, students die.
I didn’t like this book right away. The characters are just not pleasant, and it is sometimes hard to read. It’s not a comfortable book. The tone is fairly dark. The kids make a lot of really, really bad decisions, and no one comes along to bail them out. In the end though, I loved it. It’s gritty, it’s dark, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s fantastic. There is some magic that is so incredibly cool I would read the book just for those scenes. Once you meet it, the villain is completely evil, and completely satisfying. Even better, it’s not immediately obvious who the villain is. There’s a mystery embedded in the book, but it doesn’t become apparent until almost halfway through.
One of the major criticisms of The Magicians is that it rips off such famed series as Harry Potter, Narnia, and Earthsea. I contest that rather than copying these stories, Lev Grossman takes their basic premises and applies them to the real world. Brakebills Academy bears little to no resemblance to Hogwarts, and Fillory is only superficially like Narnia. The people in The Magicians definitely live in our everyday world. They are flawed, but functional.
I highly recommend this book, particularly for the fantasy afficiando. It is a breath of fresh air for those of us who have to actively stop ourselves from over-analyzing the magic in our favourite books. Grossman is a master of fantastic realism. He weaves many separate storylines together seamlessly. Pay attention to little things, because they will show up again. There are no loose ends in this story. And be prepared for heartbreak.