The Magicians by Lev Grossman is one of the most frequently reviewed fantasy novels of the last few years, which isn’t surprising because the author is a well known writer (and book reviewer) for TIME Magazine, and the book was very effectively hyped as “Harry Potter with college age students.” The end result of all of this is that lots of people who don’t regularly read fantasy have picked up this novel, and many of them had their expectations severely challenged.
So, is The Magicians also worth the time for true-blooded, die-hard fantasy fans? In a word: yes.
You probably already know the basic plot summary. If not, “Harry Potter with college age students” is actually a fairly accurate way to sum up the plot at its most basic level. Quentin is a very bright teenager trying to test into a good college, but instead finds himself enrolling in Brakebills, a secret magic college hidden away in upstate New York. Like many teenagers, Quentin is 1) constantly dissatisfied with the world around him, 2) insecure and a bit full of himself at the same time, and 3) quite mopey. A good chunk of the story revolves around Quentin getting used to life as a brilliant and newly independent young man in a college full of other equally brilliant magic users, but there’s actually a larger plot that’s at first hardly noticeable but gradually becomes more apparent as the novel progresses.
This larger plot is the main reason why The Magicians is an interesting read for fantasy fans, because it involves a clever meta-fictional twist. Quentin never outgrew his love for a (fictional) series of five young adult fantasy novels set in Fillory, which has some strong echoes of Narnia. Quentin’s friends mercilessly tease him about still liking these children’s books, but he still finds comfort in re-reading them. In a hint of the future, one of the main things that draw Quentin towards the Brakebills magical college is a glimpse of an (thus far) unknown sixth novel in the Fillory series.
So what we have here is a young fantasy fan who suddenly finds himself confronted with the existence of very real magic, a reader of escapist books who becomes aware that the fiction he used as an escape is not entirely fictional. While the Harry Potter comparison is obvious, it’s also appropriate to compare The Magicians to a more adult version of The Neverending Story — the original novel by Michael Ende, not the horrid film adaptation that ends more or less exactly where the book starts to get interesting. Just like Bastian Balthazar Bux, Quentin must come to terms with the fact that a fantasy that becomes real may not be quite as easy to live with as one that remains safely in the realm of fiction.
Lev Grossman is doing more than just telling a story here. Indirectly, he’s having a conversation with fantasy readers about what it’s like to be a fan of stories that involve magic and alternate realities. Some characters make fun of Quentin for still liking the books he loved as a child; others take them just as seriously — or even more so — than he does. The meta-fictional aspect of the novel becomes much more important towards the end of the story, but it’s hard to go into too much detail without spoiling the most surprising twists. However, rest assured, there are a few more layers to this novel than just the by now almost commonplace premise, “a young person attends a magical school.”
It’s interesting to compare The Magicians with Jo Walton’s excellent Among Others, another recent fantasy novel that’s at the same time a good story and a conversation with genre fans. Among Others is an appreciative, even loving, approach to fantasy, whereas The Magicians has a much darker, almost satiric edge. Among Others’ main character, Mori, is aware that magic is real and is, at the same time, a big fan of SF and fantasy, but in her world there’s a clear separation between fiction and reality. In The Magicians, Quentin learns that magic is real, and comes to learn that what he thought of as fiction is based in reality, but that there are clear differences between the two. Mori’s story is a hopeful one, whereas Quentin gradually loses every illusion he had.
Aside from Quentin, the other characters in The Magicians have their own reactions to the fact that magic is real, and approach the study and practice of it in a number of ways, from full-on obsession to vague disinterest. Many reviewers have complained about how negative the main characters are, and it’s true: there aren’t many examples here of people using their skills for good, or even just being thankful for their extraordinary gifts. There’s a lot of boredom, disinterest, cynicism. The most talented ones have the blasé attitude of a gifted person who looks down on those who manage to muster some excitement. There are cliques and power circles, and people stuck on the outside. And yes, as on almost any college campus, there’s a good amount of booze and casual sex. This is not a novel to read if you’re looking for faultless, likable characters, and that includes our hero Quentin, who is simply too myopic to see how lucky he is. In the middle of the novel, he sums this up very effectively by thinking “I got my heart’s desire [...] and there my troubles began,” but even earlier, well before he finds out about magic and Brakebills, we find out what Quentin’s general attitude is:
I should be happy, Quentin thought. I’m young and alive and healthy. I have good friends. I have two reasonably intact parents — viz., Dad, an editor of medical textbooks, and Mom, a commercial illustrator with ambitions, thwarted, of being a painter. I am a solid member of the middle-middle class. My GPA is a number higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.
But walking along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, in his black overcoat and his gray interview suit, Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.
To offset the general mopiness of the spoiled brats who populate The Magicians, there’s also a good amount of humor to be found. Lev Grossman, well aware that he’s echoing Harry Potter here and there, gives Brakebills its own magical competitive sport a la quidditch, but most of the students consider it more of an annoyance, ironically muttering “let me get my broom” or showing up drunk for the games. One of the more “frat boy”-like characters at one point exclaims “let’s get some unicorns up in this piece.” The scene set at the house of Alice’s parents is too hilarious to spoil for you here (but, typical for this novel, at the same time shows a glimpse of the bitter afterlife Brakebills graduates can look forward to). And finally, the description of one faux-Colonial McMansion shows that Grossman has mastered the rare art of writing about architecture in an entertaining way:
The Chesterton house was yellow with green shutters and sat on an acre so aggressively landscaped that it looked like a virtual representation of itself. Though it was trimmed and detailed in a vaguely Colonial style, it was so enormous — bulging in all directions with extra gables and roofs — that it looked like it had been inflated rather than constructed. Huge cement air-conditioning bunkers hummed outside night and day. It was even more unreal than the real world usually was.
Still, despite the brief flashes of humor, The Magicians is essentially a dark novel. Go through the list of characters and you’ll find that almost all of them have their dreams and expectations shattered at some point — the ones that actually have the ability and energy to dream, that is. The Magicians is the perfect antithesis of an escapist novel: it pulls the curtain up, reveals that magic is real, and then makes it clear that even young, gifted people often don’t have it in them to use it wisely or even appreciate it. That it does this by actually using some of the most beloved young adult fantasy fiction as a starting point makes the experience of reading it even more disconcerting. It’s no wonder that this novel got some very extreme reviews from fantasy fans.
I approached The Magicians expecting a gimmicky “adult Harry Potter” story, and was very pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s a novel about teenagers in a magical college, but it also has some very complex characters, genuinely surprising twists, and a level of depth I didn’t expect in the least. That The Magicians manages to remain highly accessible and readable while delivering all of this is simply amazing. The various levels of cynicism in this novel may be hard to cope with for readers expecting a more traditionally escapist fantasy, but if you don’t mind having your expectations challenged, The Magicians delivers a very rewarding reading experience that will remain with you for a long time to come.
Further reading: This review is basically an edited version of a spoiler-filled article I wrote for Tor.com that was meant as a warm-up for this novel’s sequel, The Magician King. The review contains the same ideas and wording as that original article, but none of the spoilers. If you’ve already read The Magicians and are interested in reading the article, I’d love your feedback, but be warned: it was meant as a commentary, not a review, and as such it contains huge spoilers for the first book. Its title is The Magicians: Not an Escapist Fantasy.