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Lev Grossman – The Magicians

November 18, 2009

120. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009)

Read By: Mark Bramhall
Length: 17h 25m (416 pages)

Genre: Technically Fantasy, but may be closer to General Fiction in a fantasy setting.

Started: 21 September 2009
Finished: 06 October 2009

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? There was a lot of pre-publication buzz about how this was the best thing to hit adult fantasy since ever, and OMG it’s like grown-up Harry Potter, etc., so of course I wanted to read it.

Harry Potter goes
to college, and fights the Dread
Dark Lord of Ennui.

Summary: Quentin Coldwater is pretty much your average highly-intelligent seventeen-year-old: he plays at being aloof, cool, and indifferent to the trials of being a teenager, but there’s a secret part of him that longs for magic – the same part of him that still loves the series of children’s books set in the magical land of Fillory. One day, as he’s going to a college interview, he gets somewhat sidetracked, and winds up in the admissions exam for Brakebills, a college for the study of magic. He’s thrilled to learn that magic is real – and, what’s more, that he can perform it – but is disappointed to find that magical study is mostly memorization of arcane technical details… not at all the charming stuff of children’s stories.

As Quentin makes his way through Brakebills’ course of study, meets some adult magicians, and has to face his own adult life, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the magical world, disconnected from the people around him, and disgusted with his own naivety. However, when one of his classmates brings him the stunning news that not only is Fillory real, but that they’ve found a way to get there, Quentin thinks he’s found an answer to his problems. But escaping into a magical world isn’t much of an escape if your real troubles are internal…

Review: I think the main problem that The Magicians had was one of audiences. I may be over-generalizing, here, but people who like angsty, ennui-filled coming-of-age novels are probably not the sort who are likely to pick up a book marketed as “Harry Potter goes to Narnia.” Conversely, the people who (like me) think that tagline sounds excellent are probably going to be turned off by a book whose message seems to be that it’s silly to look for anything magical or special in this world (or any other), so you may as well kill your sense of hope, put your head down, and get on with marking time until you die.

It’s not that I don’t get Grossman’s point about the inadequacy of fantasy as the basis for a real and productive life, and how escaping into your childhood dream-world is not the same as escaping the demons inside yourself. I do. I get it. However, while I can appreciate the validity of his message, the fact remains that many of us do read fantasy as a means of (temporary) escape from quotidian troubles. And, by couching his book about the inadequacies of fantasy in an über-familiar fantasy landscape, Grossman winds up accidentally insulting the very people to whom his book is most likely to be marketed.

(I’ve used the term coming-of-age to describe this novel, and I realized that it’s not entirely appropriate. Quentin doesn’t do a whole lot of growing up over the course of the novel, ending up just as self-involved, bored, whiney, and disaffected as when the book started – maybe even more so. Although if your definition of growing up is “becoming an empty husk of a person who used to care about and believe in things but doesn’t anymore”, then I guess Quentin does come of age after all.)

I also had a problem with Grossman’s take on J. K. Rowling’s and C. S. Lewis’s fantasy worlds. The resemblance between Brakebills and Hogwarts didn’t bother me so much – partly because if magic is not an instinctive ability, magicians have to learn it somewhere; partly because Rowling wasn’t the first person to have the idea of a school for magic; and partly because apart from the obvious boarding-school tropes, Brakebills didn’t particularly resemble Hogwarts in a lot of the particulars.

On the other hand, Fillory is a barely-disguised knock-off of Narnia. Obviously, Grossman did this on purpose, to point up the ways in which the Narnia books fail as the basis for a real-life philosophy, but it just didn’t work for me. For instance, instead of reaching Narnia by wearing special rings and jumping through pools in the wood between the worlds, having your characters reach Fillory by touching a special button and jumping through fountains in the city between the worlds felt more like laziness than like parody. (Although I do have to give credit to whoever designed Early on in the book, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t missing something by not having read the Fillory novels, and I spent about five minutes browsing through that site, and being upset that I’d never come across these books as a child, before I realized that they weren’t real.)

As may be obvious by this point, my issues with this novel all have to do with its concept and marketing, rather than its execution. Grossman’s good at vivid description, good at writing believable dialogue, and good at keeping things moving along even when the only action is Quentin vs. His All-Pervasive Sense of Ennui. I just wish he’d applied it to a more enjoyable story. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Overall, I think this book would be best suited for readers who normally dislike fantasy novels, but are willing to deal with the genre’s trappings. For fantasy fans, however… those whose tastes run towards the more serious or bleak might have a better time with it than I did; but in general, I’d recommend not buying into the hype – there’s a world of difference between “fantasy for adults” and “an adult novel in fantasy clothing”, and The Magicians is quite firmly in the later category.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Bart’s Bookshelf, Bermudaonion’s Weblog, Beth Fish Reads, Books and Movies, Bookshelves of Doom, Jenny’s Books, A Novel Menagerie, OF Blog of the Fallen, Reading the Leaves, She Is Too Fond of Books, Stephanie’s Written Word, The Wertzone
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Quentin did a magic trick.

Cover Thoughts: It’s very pretty, and very striking, but color me confused as to how it relates to the book. Actually, what it brings to mind most is the Wood Between the Worlds from the Narnia book The Magician’s Nephew, which makes me even more annoyed about the blatant ripping-off of Narnia to create Fillory. Probably not what the art department was going for, huh?

32 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2009 8:08 am

    Your review is fantastic and expressed perfectly what I wasn’t able to articulate.

  2. November 18, 2009 9:04 am

    I like what you said about Fillory. I did like the fact that they were Narnia books without being really Narnia, but there were times (like the buttons, and the in-between place) that the resemblance was way too close. I thought it worked better when the Fillory books differed from Narnia – I still identified with Quentin’s desire to get to Fillory, but didn’t feel like the author was stealing from C.S. Lewis.

    • November 18, 2009 9:18 am

      Jenny – I agree. There’s a fine line between homage and copying, and Grossman tipped over that line more often than I cared for. I did particularly like the Chatwin (or however it’s spelled – that’s the problem with audiobooks) children and their various personalities/adventures… they managed to be reminiscent of the Pevensies without being direct copies.

  3. November 18, 2009 9:24 am

    Thanks for the honest review. Many a time, a book fails to live up to the hype created around it, and it disappoints me, because I really would have looked forward to reading the book. This seems like one such book for you.

    • November 20, 2009 9:16 am

      Hazra – It’s true. There have definitely been many books that have lived up to their hype, but sadly, not this one.

  4. November 18, 2009 11:17 am

    I so completely agree with everything you said. Come to think of it, I usually do, and you usually say it better in your reviews than I do.

  5. booksandmoviescarriek permalink
    November 19, 2009 12:51 am

    Wonderful review – you put my feelings about this book into words. I really hated the Fillory section of the book – couldn’t wait for it to be over.

    • November 20, 2009 9:19 am

      Carrie – The end of the Fillory part – when we actually find out what was going on – was interesting, and was probably my second-favorite part. The whole “adventure” part in Fillory just felt so mean-spirited, though.

  6. November 19, 2009 11:19 pm

    Nice review, The Fillory section was ok, this review gives right insight of the book but still look forward to read the magicians book.

    • November 23, 2009 10:02 am

      Michael – I hope you have a better time with it than I did!

  7. November 20, 2009 1:50 am

    Great review!
    The more I hear about this one, the more convinced I am that this book isn’t for me.

    • November 20, 2009 9:23 am

      Kay – I can’t seem to pin down who this book *is* actually for. From what I’ve seen, non-fantasy-fans think there are too many fantasy references, and fantasy fans aren’t too thrilled about the book’s message and the way Grossman treats his source material.

  8. November 20, 2009 10:30 am

    That is an excellent review. I have read a book like this recently. It had too many similarities to another popular read and it was a bit disappointing as I was really looking forward to a fresh perspective.

    • November 23, 2009 10:05 am

      Bookjourney – I feel like The Magicians had a relatively new perspective, but it wasn’t handled in a way I particularly cared for.

  9. November 20, 2009 2:30 pm

    Excellent review. Really great insight on to some of what the author was trying to achieve, that I hadn’t thought of.

    The book really is a missed opportunity, it seems though. :(

    • November 23, 2009 10:06 am

      Bart – I agree about the missed opportunity. There were a lot of cool pieces – the entrance exam, the trip to Antarctica, the real story behind Fillory – but they just weren’t put together in a way that I could enjoy.

  10. November 21, 2009 7:48 pm

    The people at indiebound recommend this book. Then you say it’s bad. Whose Right?

  11. November 22, 2009 12:22 am

    Great review. You address how it compares to the tag line that people are saying about. Sounds like it’s not for me.

    • November 23, 2009 10:09 am

      Amber – That tag line is getting a lot of play, and I don’t think it’s particularly accurate.

  12. November 23, 2009 8:34 pm

    a book whose message seems to be that it’s silly to look for anything magical or special in this world (or any other), so you may as well kill your sense of hope, put your head down, and get on with marking time until you die.

    Man, I think all the interest I had in this book just died. I’ve got it in my library queue, but now I’m not sure I want to read it anymore. I hate books with this message.

  13. November 24, 2009 12:30 pm

    Memory – Yeah, sorry about that. Others might not have taken it as negatively as I did, and there’s a small section at the end that tries to point things in a more positive direction, but for me, at least, that brief glimpse of hope felt totally at odds with the rest of the book.

  14. November 26, 2009 11:30 am

    I completely agree with everything you said, and you totally nailed why I didn’t like the book in a way I couldn’t articulate. I love fantasy, and while obviously you can’t live in a fantasy world, that’s part of the point. So you’re 100% right that this is targeted at the wrong audience, and I didn’t really want the commentary that the author gave, even if it was well-written and clever.

    • November 27, 2009 12:22 pm

      Megan – Except for the fact that most of the non-fantasy fans I’ve heard from didn’t much seem to care for it either. Strange.

  15. November 27, 2009 7:02 am

    Perfect review. I just read the book this week and felt the same way.

    • November 27, 2009 12:28 pm

      Ana – I’ve added your link… good catch about Quentin basically being Holden Caulfied. I didn’t pick up on that (it’s been at least a decade since I’ve read Catcher in the Rye), but you’re absolutely right, and that explains a lot about why I found him so intolerable.


  1. Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
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  3. Here There Be Books (formerly Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog) | Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  4. Gail Carriger – Etiquette & Espionage | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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