fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Lev Grossman The MagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians attempts to take the unreal world of fantasy — magic, spellcasting, other worlds, fabulous beasts — and tie it much more tightly to the real world than is usually done. And (I think) the attempt as well is to tell a “realistic” novel which takes as its premise that magic exists and is being used (not quite the same thing as the first). I’d say he only partially succeeds, though he does so often enough that the book makes a worthy, if not fully satisfying, read.

The Magicians is divided into sections. Book One introduces Quentin on his way to a school interview with his best friend. Eventually, Quentin somehow ends up at Brakehill Academy for a different kind of test and interview — to enter Brakehill’s school of magic (which is like a grittier, more realistic Hogwarts). He passes and soon he is learning spells etc. with the rest of his cohort. We watch him year to year, growing more knowledgeable and powerful (though he’s far from the best), making a few friends and one girlfriend, until graduation into the real world.

Book Two is like a Bret Easton Ellis novel as Quentin and his friends wine and dine in NYC with little purpose while jealousies and sexual issues take over. Fortunately, this section is relatively brief and soon, thanks to a discovery by one of the group, the scene shifts again in Book Three to a NARNIA book, though the land here is called Fillory (set in a magical world of several older novels Quentin and his friends had read as youths). Quentin and his friends, to various degrees, buy into (or not) the various ways Fillory is as the books said it was and also the various ways they should or should not enact the usual children-whisked-away-to-a-magical-land formula: should they become kings and queens? Perform a quest? Save the land from external or internal danger? Run like hell at the first sign of real danger? Book Four — the shortest section — deals with the aftermath of their actions and decisions.

The Magicians is uneven in pacing and impact, both book to book and within sections as well. The lengthy part one, dealing with his time at Brakewell’s, feels at times both too long and too short. Too long in that there are repetitive moments and times when you wish things would speed along a bit and, contrarily, too short in that the jumps forward in time seem a bit arbitrary and skip over some events you’d like to see. I found myself wishing Lev Grossman had been more selective in what he chose to show and not show us. The magic is also a bit ethereal — we’re told lots about it, but again in random pieces — I never felt it solidly connected as a system and especially as a system in the real world. One of the strengths in this section was the characterization, of both Quentin and several of his classmates, especially his closest friends.

Book Two felt contrived to me — the drinking and drugging and sex. We’re told that some magicians take responsible positions in the world, but those lines felt a bit throwaway. For a book that tries so hard to present itself as grounded in reality, what magicians actually do in our real world never felt real or much considered. And the section felt contrived as well for what it was meant to set up — issues of jealousy and anger that would have repercussions later.

Luckily, it’s a short section and then it’s off to Fillory. Here I think Grossman does a disservice to himself as Fillory, despite its obvious homage to other fantasy lands, is really quite a vivid setting and I would have liked to have spent much more time here. And more time as well with the characters as they explored the differences and quandaries of “real world” Fillory versus fantasy worlds in fiction — we deal with these issues (or at least the characters do) and it’s all quite compelling, but given short shrift. And because the problem sections or the “should we be following what most kids do in this situation” questions are handled so quickly, the scenes can sometimes devolve into standard cookie-cutter YA fantasy scenes. Cutting some of Book One to expand Book Three — both in action and introspection — would have helped. I did like the last book but won’t go into details, though I did feel Grossman copped out a bit on the very end — though again, I’ll skip the spoiler explanation.

In the end, The Magicians suffered from inconsistent pacing, some imbalance in where we spent our time, and from presenting itself as more “real” but never really succeeding. Where it mostly succeeded was in its characterization, its coming-of-age story, and its creation of a young fantasy world (though not enough time was spent there). There were obvious nods to fantasy authors such as J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis, but sometimes it felt like an homage and other times it felt a bit derivative. The Magicians is a solid but not engrossing read — one that had great potential but never quite met it.

~Bill Capossere

fantasy book review Lev Grossman The MagiciansThe 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 for The Magicians. 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. Highly recommended.

~Stefan Raets

fantasy book review Lev Grossman The MagiciansQuentin Coldwater was just another gifted kid trying to impress a pretty girl by getting into an Ivy League school. His life changes when he finds himself writing an entry test at an academy for magicians. Soon, he and a group of undergrads are doing their best to get ahead of the competition. Sadly, by the end of his first year, Quentin and his friends are doing their best to act urbane about their power for lack of anything else to do.

At times, I found these urbane characters an irritating distraction from an otherwise enjoyable fantasy. Sadly, they take Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lord of the Rings and try to turn all of them into The Great Gatsby and Interview With The Vampire. However, perhaps that’s the point: magic seems awesome, but if it doesn’t come naturally during puberty at the same time as a threat to the universe, it’s just another lot of work we have to do while figuring out what we’re “actually” supposed to do with our life.

Put another way: what’s the point of fantasy if it doesn’t offer us the chance to escape the mundane?

So readers looking for an innocent high fantasy in which quests are taken on and completed after gaining a sense of self-awareness, defeating evil, and saving the princess should probably skip The Magicians. This story refuses to attempt those things innocently.

Quite appropriately, hardly a page in The Magicians goes by without Grossman’s characters alluding to popular fantasies and then mocking what makes them “fantasies.” However, don’t mistake the characters for the author. While his characters are busy nurturing their cynical worldview in a traditionally optimistic genre, Grossman orchestrates a surprisingly “by the numbers” fantasy in which we move from training to testing to questing.

Not only is there a school for magicians, there’s also a talking bear, battle mages, and a Wonderland. I particularly enjoyed when the characters discovered that battle magic in Dungeons & Dragons has — through sheer coincidence — the fundamentals of offensive spell casting down. Another high point is the test in which Grossman’s students race from South America to the South Pole with nothing but their spells and a bag of mutton fat. Later we follow one character in his search for the “questing beast.” The questing beast is smug rather than noble, but it will grant three wishes if caught. So although Grossman’s allusions at first feel clever but mocking, they eventually build up to an impressive climax. And I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the falling action of a novel more than I did in The Magicians.

With The Magicians, Grossman’s achievement is that he manages to satisfy all of our expectations of a high fantasy while offering a bandage of irony for the self-esteem of adult readers that are too insecure to admit that they enjoy Harry Potter novels.

~Ryan Skardal

fantasy book review Lev Grossman The MagiciansI think I get the point Lev Grossman is trying to make in The Magicians. It’s best summed up by this quote, which is part of a lecture given to the protagonist, Quentin, by one of his companions:

Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it; there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.

The Magicians is the story of Quentin, a gifted high school student who learns he has the potential to become a magician. He enrolls at Brakebills, a magical academy, and studies there for five years. That’s Book I. (The novel is divided into four parts.) Book II deals with the jaded, booze-soaked lives of Quentin and his friends after graduation. In Book III, Quentin and company travel to the high-fantasy land of Fillory, and book IV covers the wrapping up of loose ends in Fillory and Quentin’s return to the “real” world.

Grossman satirizes the HARRY POTTER series in Book I, and the NARNIA series in Book III. Sometimes, he touches on real issues that are often left unexplained in fantasy novels, such as the question of what wizards do when they’re finished with their schooling. It always did seem like there were more wizards than there were wizard jobs! But more often than not, the way Grossman deals with his source material is to suck the wonder out of it. Brakebills is painfully dull. Fillory can be downright nasty. This feeds into Grossman’s message. Magical worlds, it seems, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and you wouldn’t really want to go there.

Unfortunately, Grossman’s message falls flat with me, for two reasons. One is that I intrinsically reject the idea that reading fantasy leads to becoming like Quentin, who is forever discontent and constantly looking for something better than what he has. Lots of people read fantasy without losing touch with reality. And while we may daydream about traveling to Hogwarts or Narnia, we don’t reject real life for not resembling these fictional realms.

The second problem is Quentin himself. He’s self-centered, arrogant, cowardly, and overall not a pleasant person with whom to spend 400 pages. He reminded me of some guys I went to college with: rich, white, male, brilliant, but convinced their lives sucked because no supermodels had deigned to go out with them. In his never-ending quest for the next big thing, Quentin ruins everything in his life that’s worth having. This is clearly supposed to tie in with Grossman’s moral, but instead it just turns me off the character. It makes me think that this would be a very different story if told through the eyes of one of the secondary characters. Some of them do truly heroic things, raising the question of whether fantasy can make its readers better rather than worse. I wonder how many people have been inspired to greater courage by the tales of their heroes.

It’s even possible that this is the real point of The Magicians, but the focus on Quentin seems to imply otherwise. Quentin’s yearning for fantasy lands is written as part and parcel of, and a metaphor for, his overall dissatisfaction with everything around him and his desire to escape reality.

I did like the plot involving the Chatwin siblings and the mystery of their eventual fates, and I must say that Grossman’s writing is good, style-wise. However, The Magicians left me flat overall. Between the “disenchantment” of the fantasy realms and my lack of sympathy for Quentin, I just found it hard to care.

~Kelly Lasiter

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanQuentin Coldwater is a moody and depressed seventeen-year-old on his way to an interview with a Princeton alumnus, hoping that his real life will begin when he finally starts college. These days, as a high schooler, he spends most of his time living in Fillory, a magical land that is the subject of five novels published in England in the 1930s. Fillory is altogether much more interesting than the Brooklyn he actually lives in, even if he is “ridiculously brilliant” and bound for a splendid college career.

But the interview never takes place. Instead, Quentin is handed an envelope that seems to contain the transcript of a sixth Fillory novel. When the wind snatches a note attached to it from his hands, he chases after it and find himself on the grounds of Brakebills College in upstate New York. He is invited to take an entrance exam to this extraordinary institution of learning, which teaches only one thing: magic. In Quentin’s world, magic is real and a very difficult discipline that only the very gifted can master, and then only if they have a special gift for it, much the way another student might be gifted in math or science. Quentin passes the exam before he even knows exactly what is going on, but feels he has come home when he learns that magic exists and he can learn it. He is soon studying harder and longer than he ever has before.

Most of The Magicians recounts Quentin’s college experience. Magic is completely different from anything he read about in the Fillory books; it seems mostly to be very, very hard and to demand such devotion and concentration that there is little time for anything else. Still, the students manage to eat very well and – like college students everywhere, it seems – to drink to excess with rather frightening regularity. Liaisons form among different groups of students, mostly according to their Disciplines, that is, the area of magic in which they are especially gifted. Couples form, sex happens. Through it all, Quentin remains surprisingly unhappy, still waiting for life to reach out and take him by the lapels and tell him what it wants from him. Teenagers may often be depressed, but Quentin seems to make depression into an art form.

Nor does this depression end upon graduation. As in many a coming-of-age-novel, Quentin merely becomes a depressed young adult, living with a handful of other Brakebills graduates in New York, living high on the hog (the school gives them a stipend of sorts) and doing essentially nothing. What, precisely, is the work of a magician in this world? What is the reward for all those years of study, save the study itself? One won’t figure it out by reading Quentin’s story; Quentin certainly never seems to.

One day, however, one of Quentin’s former schoolmates shows up with a magic button that will take him — and his buddies — to other worlds. And one of those worlds is Fillory.

Grossman’s compelling book is fantasy written as a mainstream novel, with none of the joy and wonder found in the usual light fantasy; the seriousness of purpose found in much high fantasy; or the action and derring-do found in contemporary urban fantasy. It is fantasy as character study, with magic seemingly just an overlooked field of study for a very smart teenager. Odd as this may seem, it was the ordinariness of magic that made this book so compelling to me. The idea that magic is simply another discipline, like English or history or biology, was very appealing to me, and I wanted very much to be in this world — a world where my braininess could make me a magician. On the other hand, it sure doesn’t seem like magicians are generally very happy people, a conclusion based not only on Quentin’s unremitting unhappiness, but on the apparent way in which grown magicians lead their lives — lives apparently devoid of purpose or meaning.

I wish that Grossman had worked out more of the consequences of this conclusion. I wanted to see more of what grown magicians did with their lives in this world, whether they meddled in the affairs of those without magic, without their knowledge; whether any of them used their gift to make the world better; whether there were those who sought to rule the world. We get none of that, and truthfully, despite my interest, I have to wonder if that isn’t for the better. This book might well have become merely another fantasy on the shelf if those kinds of questions were answered, instead of Grossman making magic seem so ordinary. At its bottom, this book is about how one man uses — or misuses, or abuses, or essentially rejects —his amazing gifts.

This book isn’t Harry Potter redone; far from it. Brakebills is not Hogwarts: there is no kindly headmaster, there is no Voldemort, and magic is not divided into black and white. To the contrary, it is as inert a tool as is a hammer, and people come in all shades of good and bad. And there is nothing particularly magical about the college itself. Staircases do not move, portraits do not speak to students, and there is no dining hall where food magically appears. It is a college like any other, except that the discipline being taught is magic.

In short, The Magicians is not a book for children, but a thoroughly adult fantasy that treats magic seriously. I would no more give this novel to my precocious ten-year-old nephew than I would offer him, say, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Though Grossman refers to many fantasy books and movies throughout his novel, this book is something different from what has come before, a merging of fantasy tropes with mainstream themes; a post-modern fantasy, if you will.

The Magicians is a true original. Of how many books can that be said these days?

~Terry Weyna

The Magicians — (2009-2011) Publisher: Quentin Coldwater’s life is changed forever by an apparently chance encounter: when he turns up for his entrance interview to Princeton he finds his interviewer dead — but a strange envelope bearing Quentin’s name leads him down a very different path to any he’d ever imagined. The envelope, and the mysterious manuscript it contains, leads to a secret world of obsession and privilege, a world of freedom and power and, for a while, it’s a world that seems to answer all Quentin’s desires. But the idyll cannot last — and when it’s finally shattered, Quentin is drawn into something darker and far more dangerous than anything he could ever have expected…

fantasy book review Lev Grossman The Magicians fantasy book review Lev Grossman The Magicians 2. The Magician King fantasy and science fiction book reviews


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  • Stefan Raets

    STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping.

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  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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