As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

December 21, 2011

THE MAGICIANS, by Lev Grossman, 2009

Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He's a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he's still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless. (Goodreads) 

Reviewed by Laura Madsen, writer, veterinarian and mom

I read a review of THE MAGICIANS that suggested it would appeal to Harry Potter fans after they’ve graduated high school. Well, I had already graduated college by the time I read—and fell in love with—Harry Potter, but that was enough of a recommendation for me.

Awesome story. Rather dark, with some bad words and naughty escapades, but a great read for a fantasy addict like me. If you like darker, edgier fantasy like George R.R. Martin you should read it. (In fact, George R.R. Martin wrote a cover blurb: “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.”) Plus, there are happily geeky references to D&D, Star Wars and Star Trek; J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. (Huh. Never occurred to me that all those famous fantasy authors go by their initials; maybe I’d have better luck getting my fantasy novel published if I went by L.L.M. Madsen?)

Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant 17-year-old but he feels like “his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy.” He escapes reality by reading and dreaming of Fillory, a Narnia-esque fantasy locale from a children’s book series. But then he is inexplicably recruited into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a weird, exclusive, magical university in upstate New York. The college is a huge mansion with hedge maze and manicured lawns, hidden by ancient spells from the prying eyes of regular people. The magical faculty is “largely dependent on Victorian-era technology. It wasn’t an affectation, or not entirely; electronics, Quentin was told, behaved unpredictably in the presence of sorcery.”

Grossman’s magic system is intriguing. “You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin.” The spells require painstaking practice, precise hand movements, and knowledge of some obscure languages like Aramaic and Old High Dutch.

At Brakebills, Quentin’s friends are brilliant but cripplingly shy Alice; flamboyantly eccentric Eliot; loud, fashionable Janet; and chronically underestimated Josh. Another classmate is a tattooed, mohawked guy with the inexplicable name of Penny, whom Josh describes as “a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking time bomb.”

During his years at Brakebills, Quentin learns to do some amazing magic. Pretty much anything you can imagine is possible, provided you have the brains and balls and perseverance to try it. But after graduation, Quentin and his friends descend into aimless, self-loathing, drug- and alcohol-fueled debauchery.

One night, Penny shows up with a magic item he’s bought from a black-market dealer. It’s real, and it allows a person to transport to the Neitherlands (“Neither here nor there”), a realm from the Fillory novels which connects to every other realm and dimension—including Fillory.

Quentin and his friends take the plunge and jump into Fillory, where they find that things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they were in the novels. Good vs. evil comes down to a matter of perspective. Friends turn into enemies and enemies into friends.

Although Quentin is 17 when the novel starts, this is adult fiction, not YA. It’s not that it’s necessarily inappropriate for older teens, but I think the complexity puts it firmly into adult fiction. With references from Karate Kid to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, I think teens just wouldn’t find it very interesting. But if you’re an adult who never outgrew wanting to go to Narnia or Hogwarts—yet you can appreciate that maybe humans, with all their foibles and prejudices, shouldn’t really wield magic—this is for you. It’s both an homage to the fantasy genre and a commentary on our non-magical society.

Market: Adult fiction (fantasy/ urban fantasy)
Language: explicit
Sensuality: explicit
Violence: explicit
Mature themes: death, betrayal, sexuality, magical violence, drug and alcohol abuse

Book formats:


pie said...

This sounds intriguing! I've seen the title and author before but never investigated further. I'm definitely interested in reading it now.

The Art of Kim Kincaid said...

I really, really tried to get into this book, but after several chapters, I just didn't care for the characters enough to continue reading. Maybe I should try again??

Anonymous said...

Kim, I've heard other people say that they couldn't get into it. Granted, Quentin is not the most sympathetic protagonist--he's kind of a whiny jerk--but the world is fascinating. And I think the sequel, THE MAGICIAN KING, is even better.