Scott's Reviews > The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
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's review
Feb 04, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: 2010, adult-books, fantasy, first-half-of-2010, older-teens, realistic, strange, suspense
Read in February, 2010

It's been a few days since I finished this book, and promptly moved on to Beautiful Creatures. This one I picked up for a respite between volumes of the bulky, but super-mega-awesome, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. And The Magicians may suffer from the completeness of the latter and the quick, lovey, mystery-packed former. That may infer that I didn't like it, I liked it quite a bit. However, I think my view of it may suffer by being read around the same time as two similar but better books (and I've only read 1/3 of Jonathan Strange, so my feelings about that could change too.)

So, here's what I like about The Magicians and why I'm glad the Alex committee picked it. There are a few problems I had with it, but I will leave those on the cutting room floor.

Quentin Coldwater is smart, lonely, and obsessed with the fantasy world of Fillory (think Narnia). He's preparing for his final year of high school and the upcoming rigors of an Ivy League education (fingers crossed.) He pines over his best friend's girlfriend and does close-up magic tricks to busy himself in-between getting straight A's and beyond. That is until he discovers the magic and wonder he's always escaped into is actually real. He's been invited to start classes at Brakebill's, a very elite school for magicians (think Hogwart's College.) But he soon finds magic isn't the awesome, ideal, fantastic art he's believed it to be. It's difficult and painful, and he has to study hard just to do the basic spells. The Magicians pays great respect to the fantasy that's come before it, very clearly tipping it's hat to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, but it adds the cold-harsh reality of college, becoming an adult, and how our dreams and dream worlds may not be all they are cracked up to be.

(ok. I got a little wordy yesterday when I was writing that synopsis. So I quit and came back to the review today.)

So . . . while thinking about what I liked about the book last night, that's after I wrote the synopsis for this review, I realized it takes the darkness of the last 4 Harry Potter books to the next level. This book is considerably more dangerous than any of the boy wizard's adventures, but this isn't technically the story of a boy wizard and his friends. That's not to say The Deathly Hallows wasn't dangerous, Grossman just ups the ante in The Magicians. Magic in this universe is literally painful, and everything has to go just right, or it plain won't work. In the Potter series if a spell goes slightly amiss then hilarity ensues. In The Magicians if a spell is done wrong, well a magical beast is unleashed that may or may not eat the students.

Also, the characters here aren't automatically granted what they want. They have to work and struggle to become magicians, and I think that makes their journey in the end more heroic, more satisfying. Of course, some may argue that Quentin is a tool, and he is. But I connected with his loneliness. And he does work his tail off for everything he gets. He's not just some magical person who has always had the gift and will, without a doubt, defeat the enemy in the end. That's never a certainty. Not the way it is in the other books. That makes for more of a thrill when it comes to the end. We think we know the outcome, we want the "hero" to prevail, but it isn't a guarantee.

I like that. I like that it challenges readers in a different way. It wants them to believe in wonder, but not to take it for granted. It wants us to remember the world is dangerous, so why wouldn't other worlds be dangerous as well?

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