Alan's Reviews > The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
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's review
Jan 24, 2010

really liked it
Recommended to Alan by: F&SF, if I remember correctly
Recommended for: Anyone still a little jealous of the Pevenseys or that Potter kid
Read in January, 2010 , read count: 1

Despite a few tiny flaws—minuscule, really (among them: an unreasonable animus against Oregon; an occasionally overly-colloquial vernacular; and a really rather rushed denouement), Lev Grossman's The Magicians is a marvelous book, a hard-bitten and compulsively-readable deconstruction of fantasy tropes that takes a sophisticated and systematic look at what becoming a magician at a school for such types might really be like.

Quentin Coldwater of Brooklyn, New York, is a perfect candidate for such fantasy—fearsomely bright but also terribly awkward, playing a perpetual second fiddle to the debonair James and to Julia, James' girlfriend and Quentin's unattainable love object. They're all acquainted with Fillory, the magical realm created in a series of books by Christopher Plover, where children go through a magical grandfather clock and get to participate in years of adventures while only seconds tick by on Earth.

That's a familiar place, of course—Narnia with a new coat of paint—and if that were all Quentin encounters when the magic finally comes calling, then The Magicians would be nothing more than another derivative wish-fulfillment fantasy, the sort of thing for which the suffix "-esque" was invented.

But no, Quentin doesn't get called away from his high school friends just to pal around with magic sheep and slay dragons in Fillory. Instead, he finds himself at Brakebills, a gigantic and ancient magical boarding school in a pastoral setting, where select students learn the rigors of magical praxis from a cavalcade of amusingly dotty professors in various Disciplines, while the folks back home have their minds clouded for them (benevolently, oh so benevolently) so they don't wonder at the bizarre return address on their children's occasional postcards.

It's a familiar place too, of course—one of the characters even wonders aloud where the broomsticks are for their wizardly game of "welters"—and if that were all Quentin encounters, this would be nothing more than another cynical attempt to ride on the coattails of success.

Of course, there's much more to the story than that. I don't think I want to tell you exactly what Quentin learns, at the academy and after. For one thing, it does take him altogether too long to learn what he does, especially about Alice, the girl he meets at Brakebills. For another, when Quentin does go adventuring, it's altogether less cozy than the average Extruded Fantasy Product. Quentin does not often get what he wants, and when he does... well, let's just say that you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but...

In fact, the central theme of this book, I think, is that if you carry your unhappiness with you, not even the most marvelous of fantasy realms can lift you out of it—you have to do that yourself. To what extent Quentin Coldwater succeeds... well, that's the point, isn't it?

When I got to the end of this book I wanted to start it up again, and I probably will reread it at some point. That doesn't happen for me all that often anymore. This one's a good, good read.
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