The Magicians


Much has been said about Lev Grossman's The Magicians, making it one of the more visible speculative fiction releases of 2009. As a senior writer and book critic for Time magazine, Grossman garnered rave reviews from a panoply of authors, among them George R. R. Martin and Junot Diaz. To all ends and purposes, this was supposed to be a complex coming-of-age fantasy tale, something akin to Harry Potter with balls.

Well, it is Potteresque, no doubt about it. A bit more on the edgy side, what with the drugs and the sex, if you listen to some people. But for all the positive blurbs and glowing reviews, The Magicians was a failure to launch almost from start to finish. It is entertaining, at least early on, but the book never strays from its comfort zone. Overall, I would say that it's a genre fiction novel for non-genre fiction readers. The author borrows heavily from J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis, creating an unoriginal yet comfortable and familiar setting in which non-genre readers will immediately feel at ease.

And for about two-thirds of the book, Grossman manages to pull it off relatively well. The Magicians is nothing brilliant, but it's interesting enough to keep you wanting to discover what happens next. It's the kind of book you want to bring with you on the morning commute or your next vacation. Something not thought-provoking, something that doesn't demand too much attention. A straightforward story with a linear plot, a small cast of characters whose traits you've seen before. As I mentioned, nothing remotely original. And yet, Grossman utilizes an amalgam of familiar fantasy elements to create a more or less compelling tale.

Here's the blurb:

Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant but unhappy young man growing up in Brooklyn, NY. At 17, he remains obsessed with the fantasy novels he read as a child, set in the magical land of Fillory. One day, returning home from a college interview gone awry, he finds himself whisked to Brakebills, an exclusive college for wizards hidden in upstate New York. And so begins THE MAGICIANS, the thrilling and original novel of fantasy and disenchantment by Lev Grossman, author of the international bestseller Codex and book critic for TIME magazine.

At Brakebills, Quentin learns to cast spells. He makes friends and falls in love. He transforms into animals and gains powers of which he never dreamed. Still, magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he thought it would, and four years later, he finds himself back in Manhattan, living an aimless, hedonistic existence born of apathy, boredom and the ability to conjure endless sums of money out of thin air.

One afternoon, hung over and ruing some particularly foolish behavior, Quentin is surprised by the sudden arrival of his Brakebills friend and rival Penny, who announces that Fillory is real. This news promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning, but their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

At once psychologically piercing and magnificently absorbing, THE MAGICIANS pays intentional homage to the beloved fantasy novels of C. S. Lewis, T.H. White and J.K. Rowling, but does much more than enlarge the boundaries of conventional fantasy writing. By imagining magic as practiced by real people, with their capricious desires and volatile emotions, Grossman creates an utterly original world in which good and evil aren’t black and white, love and sex aren’t simple or innocent, and power comes at a terrible price.

The worldbuilding is pretty basic, comprised of themes and aspects found in various fantasy novels/series throughout the last four decades or so. Magic-users hiding in plain sight among ordinary folks around the world. A secret magic school concealed by spells. Young students forced to turn their backs on their lives and friends and families in order to study there. Magical worlds existing alongside our own. Lev Grossman created an unassuming and familiar universe, perfect for non-genre readers.

The characterization leaves a lot to be desired. For starters, making a narcissic douchebag your principal protagonist can be a bit tricky. Still, even though he's not a likeable fellow, Quetin is nevertheless a well-drawn character. The problem is that you never actually care about him at any point in the story. Alice seemed to be the most fascinating character of the bunch, yet Grossman appeared more interested in mentioning her bra size over and over again instead of focusing on character growth. By the same token, the supporting cast would have benefited from a bit more depth. As it were, for the most part they are totally forgettable except for Penny and Mayakovsky.

For all its faults, The Magicians remained a fun, if simple, read for a while. But everything takes a tragic turn for the worse when the characters, as you knew they would, cross over to the mystical world of Fillory, a lackluster Narnia ripoff. Quality goes downhill at the speed of light from that point on, and the rest of the book is almost laughable. Clumsy storytelling and a decidedly lame ending don't help matters in the least, and the Fillory portion of this novel killed this one for me.

Overall, Lev Grossman's The Magicians is some sort of unoriginal Harry Potter for grown-ups unfamiliar with the fantasy genre. And as such, it's a very disappointing book.

The final verdict: 6.75/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

37 commentaires:

RobB said...

I'm not surprised we disagreed on this one Pat. It will be a top 5 book for me this year.

Aidan Moher said...

I think you missed the point of what Grossman was going for, Pat.

Anonymous said...

"creating an unoriginal yet comfortable and familiar setting in which non-genre readers will immediately feel at ease."

"Lev Grossman created an unassuming and familiar universe, perfect for non-genre readers."

"Overall, Lev Grossman's The Magicians is some sort of unoriginal Harry Potter for grown-ups unfamiliar with the fantasy genre."

Don't care at all about The Magicians, but the overall tone of the review felt, at least to me, a bit condescending towards non-genre readers. As if unoriginal fantasy fiction is all they are capable of enjoying.

Salt-Man Z said...

Anon, I didn't take it that way at all. I read it as less a judgement on non-genre readers, and more an indication that genre readers will likely be bored with the been-there-done-that-ness of it all.

Alex said...

Not sure what it says, but you wrote down pretty much exactly what my thoughts were after reading the book a few months ago.

It had great moments, and a few great quotes I wrote down, but overall, it just didn't feel that great to me.

Anonymous said...

Aidan Moher, can you explain what Grossman WAS going for?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, from reading the review I got the impression this would receive much less than 6.75 points.

Anonymous said...

You sum up my thoughts in regards to this book perfectly. It's almost as if I'd written the review myself!

Ann

atsiko said...

Wow. I'm incredibly impressed with Grossman. Getting under a 7.5? The man's a genius! At something...


I have not had the fortune(or misfortune depending on who you ask) of reading this book. I've never heard a particularly compelling recommendation, so I've picked up things I *have* had good recs for. Maybe this will be worth sitting in Borders for the three or four hours it'll take to read. I'm not confident it is worth buying.

@Aidan I'd also like to know what Grossman's so-called "point" was. I've seen some suggestion of parody or satire, perhaps, or some literary psychological themes, but no one has ever explained this to me satisfactorily.

Juhan said...

Whoah! O_o

Just when I thought you were incapable of being harsh...

And yet you disliked Jack Vance as well. Strange. Really...

Nobody said...

i didn't care for this book in the slightest either. i thought it was a poorly done rip off of Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. i wrote a more detailed explanation of my feelings about it here- http://babbleofnobodysnothings.blogspot.com/2009/08/book-review.html

The Amazing Buttcrack said...

If Grossman wasn't who he is, Magicians would have been trashed like the piss-poor book it is.

Aidan Moher said...

Anonymou, atsiko –

I wouldn't call The Magicians satire, exactly, but it is certainly playful with the tropes of the genre and plays with the ideas originally popularized by Lewis and Rowling (and Tolkien, to a smaller degree, I suppose). As a standard parallel to Narnia and Harry Potter, as many of the detractors of the novel seem to consider it (Pat included), the novel doesn't hold up very well. The characters can often be unlikable and caustic, it doesn't have the sense of wonder that make those other works stand out and The Magicians is often a hard book to read. Pat, on the Westeros forums, mentioned that The Magicians is a 'A book that you take with you on vacation, that's good all around and entertaining enough.', which I feel is absolutely incorrect and evidence that Pat approached the novel from a superficial angle, and missed the point that Grossman was trying to make.

Rather than a simple ripoff of The Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter, The Magicians is a reflection on the genre and its readers. Grossman picks apart the fascination with escapist literature and a reader's reliance on it to escape from the real world, to rely on those novels to solve the problems in their lives. In my review, I liken The Magicians to Trainspotting and its protagonists' spiral into despair. Fillory is Quentin's heroin, and like the drug, it hardly holds all the answers it seems to promise on first glance.

If you want to read my full thoughts on the novel, you can find my review HERE, where I go into much further depth.

~Aidan
A Dribble of Ink

Dave said...

Yeah I was expecting big things from this one but didnt really like it at all.

Tyson said...

Very disappointed with this one as well. Glad you felt the same way.

PeterWilliam said...

Glad I waited to buy this until I saw enough reviews to feel confident about a purchase decision. I am now and its a 'no.' Thanks again, Pat.

Cory said...

I guess this one was just a little too deep for you guys. Not all books are about foreshadowing and character development, some books allude to real life

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Aidan here. I enjoyed the Magicians and Pat's review in this instance just didnt at all seem to be about the same book I read.

Roland said...

It's completely perplexing to me how people could completely ignore an obviously well-thought post like Aidan's. Most of the replies after his act like it doesn't even exist.

I have no opinion on the book, since I haven't read it and don't intend to, at least in the near future, but I am always intrigued when people see deeper stuff in a work of art than what I myself have seen there. Especially if they can defend their views.

I don't say you should all start loving the book, just cause someone found in it stuff that you didn't, but you could at least have the common courtesy of acknowledging the possibility that maybe you had the wrong approach.

I mean, some books DO actually need for you to know what they're going for prior to reading them. And that's quite alright with me.

Lord Snugglefist the Cat said...

Having had the opportunity to read 'The Magicians' recently, I thought I would add my $.02. Most of Pat's criticisms are on point. The worldbuilding is very basic, the novel goes downhill a bit once the characters get to Fillory, the ending left something to be desired, and the cast of supporting characters could have been a bit more extensive and more developed.

However, I would have to disagree with Pat's characterization of the main character as a narcissistic douchebag. I didn't get that impression at all and actually found him fairly likeable (although later events in the book make him less so). I'd also add that the book was fairly short as fantasy novels go so it's unsurprising that there wouldn't be the same depth of development of either the world or the cast of characters as you would find in a traditional fantasy series which probably spans several books.

With respect to the other comments questioning exactly what Grossman was going for, I would say that there wasn't any profound insight that he was trying to offer. Unless I'm missing something, the only thing Grossman was aiming at was writing a fantasy novel which borrowed fantasy cliches from other series and adding to those cliches characters which were a little more like regular people (As an aside, I think that since this was his apparent goal, his choice to fill the school with high strung supergeniuses might have been a little poorly thought out).

Despite what problems the book had, I found that it was a fairly engrossing read, and that none of them really took much away from my enjoyment of the story for what it was. The book was fairly accessible, and would probably be a good book to recommend for a non-genre reader as an entry point to some of the better works out there. If you're looking for something that's really ambitious and stretches the fantasy genre to its limits, then this probably isn't what you are looking for. I actually read 'The Magicians' halfway through Erikson's series so the contrast was pretty stark. At the end of the day, although it was a bit light as far as fantasy novels go, I thought 'The Magicians' was a pretty good novel, and one I certainly enjoyed and would recommend to others, especially as a change of pace after reading a longer, more involved series.

Liviu said...

I tried Magicians despite that the subject was a big "meh" for me, but based on some of the author's columns I expected at least good writing; and to me that was the puzzling fact that the book had a cadence that just annoyed me to no end - Quentin here, five lines next, Quentin this, five lines next, Quentin that...

Somehow that Quentin repetition was like water trickling and making that annoying noise you cannot get away from.

As for "real life", the whining angst of over-privileged genius IQ teens, well cannot say what has that to do with real life...

britmandelo said...

Oh my god, thank you so much.

I went into this book excited because of all the hype, and when he decided not to have a plot in the middle 200 pages, I was remarkably disappointed. The story arc is stunted and awkward. Also, he has the truly awful habit of having characters think about their own personality traits to just tell them to the reader. That is the worst damned kind of cheating that any beginner knows to cut out.

I agree about the characterization. Quentin begins likable but narcissistic, but ends up such a truly horrible person that I couldn't sympathize with him. It is possible to have cruel, self-centered people as great main characters (Felix in Monette's "Doctrine of Labyrinths" books comes to mind) and Grossman did not succeed.

Plus, the villain was such a stock, boring guy when he showed up I rolled my eyes.

britmandelo said...

@Aidan

I saw what he was going for and would have appreciated success--the problem was that the quality of construction was on the very low end. Full of telling instead of showing, dropped tension, awkward pacing and predictable character molds that, no matter how different they were intended to be, were still stock "gritty" characters.

It was just plain badly written. He had a great concept but overshot. (Which is just baffling considering the quality of his nonfiction. I was especially confused by the constant "explanations" of character personalities given to us by Quentin, including those about himself. I can blame that one on an editor, I suppose, but it's beginner stuff that makes me feel he was more concerned with Doing Something Cool than writing a good book.)

J Woodman said...

I shouldn't be surprised that you didn't like The Magicians, Pat, yet somehow I am. Here's a book with something to actually say about the fantasy genre and some of the major pillars of that genre - particularly of children's fantasy - instead of just retreading them, and it gets lambasted here for not being "original" enough. Maybe if it had more maps and made-up words it could be original enough and have more complex "worldbuilding" to get a good review on this site.

Something The Magicians goes for that most here seem to be missing is the deflating of the wish fulfilment aspect of fantasy. The main character here gets everything he thinks he wants: success, magic, even a trip to his fantasy world of choice - and none of it actually makes him happy. In the pursuit of external sources of happiness he wrecks and wastes all of his opportunities to actually be happy, something more than one regular reader of fantasy fiction could learn from.

Imagine that - a fantasy novel with a relevant theme. They're pretty thin on the ground.

Tristan said...

I read the first few pages of this book and I thought immediately of The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway and returned it to the library. I don't need a pretentious New Yorker telling me about the difference between real life and fantasy. The people who need the message won't get it, because it is wrapped in the drug of their choice. They will just go away unsatisfied and on to the next book filled with maps and made up words that you hate so much. The book goes after children's fantasy, not overly complicated role playing worlds that adults get lost in as a substitute for a real life. I don't see why the popularity of Potter or even the hated Twilight among kids causes every over educated douche bags to come out and over analyze everything and come up with something they think is witty to say so they can pat themselves on the back. I've read Tolstoy , Faulkner , Flannery O Connor, Richard Wright, Salman Rushdie, and many others, I don't need people like Harkaway and Grossman to teach me about not finding answers in fantasy while they set in coffee shops whining about Glen Beckman. I can't speak for anyone else on this board, but I got what Grossman was trying to sell, I just ain't buying. M. John Harrison has been saying the same thing for years, and he is a hell of a better writer than Grossman or Harkaway because he can tell a story and still maintain the focus on his message, he just doesn't write for some overpriced American magazine.

William said...

"The Magicians is a reflection on the genre and its readers. Grossman picks apart the fascination with escapist literature and a reader's reliance on it to escape from the real world, to rely on those novels to solve the problems in their lives."

Even if you approach the book from that angle, which I did because people told me about this beforehand, I think that Grossman failed utterly to make it work.

The Magicians is an overhyped book that doesn't go anywhere. Had it been written by an unknown writer, no one would even be talking about it.

Adi said...

You're right. I really hated it - pretensious and non-focused, it is BORING. Unbelieveably so. I couldn't care less about the protagonists and what happens to them. And what was Grossman trying to say by this failed attempt anyway? Is there a point to this "Harry Potter for grown-ups"? If so, I didn't get it, and I'm a very experienced reader in this genre and others.

polishgenius said...

@Tristan... where the hell does Harkaway come into it? I mean, I liked Magicians, I think people are taking the 'Harry Potter/Narnia ripoff' thing too seriously- the general reaction seems either to be that he was being dishonest about it, or that it was malicious towards the works, where I thought it was affectionate (he clearly likes the genre) if sometimes a bit over-the-top, but I can see where people's criticism is coming from.
But where does Harkaway come into your point? I don't see the connection at all. You seem to have taken the opportunity to include another writer you don't like in your rant, but nothing in what you say applies to Gone-Away-World.

Alex said...

As a response to several of the above comments, realize that people can get what Grossman was going for and still not think it's well done or well executed. Like myself.

Just because Grossman had an original idea doesn't mean he executed it well.

Adam Whitehead said...

I didn't think the book was by any description brilliant, nor did I think it was a pile of excrement. It was adequately-written and the opening section was better than the rather muddled ending.

This has nothing to do with getting Grossman's 'message', which is pointless in an adult novel (more usefully aimed as it would be at children, rather than adults who can make their own minds up about what to read thanks very much), but simply reading and enjoying the book on its own merits. And on its own merits this is a Narnia/Harry Potter rip-off that wouldn't have attracted half the attention it would have if the author - a decent critic and magazine writer - hadn't been who he is.

It reminds me a bit of last year's fuss over LITTLE BROTHER: a very average book riddled with fundamental flaws that everyone fell over to praise because it's author is some zeitgeist-defining tech blog writer.

THE MAGICIANS is very, very average. In a year in which we also got the splendid THE CITY AND THE CITY, a new (and sadly final) Holdstock book and the fascinating JUDGING EYE, I am at a loss why this work is generating so much more discussion and headlines. It just doesn't warrant it.

Dream Girlzzz said...

Aidan:

You said that Grossman picks apart the fascination with escapist literature and a reader's reliance on it to escape from the real world, to rely on those novels to solve the problems in their lives.

Who the hell thinks that way??? Children, maybe, but not adults. Wert is right that this message is totally pointless in a book whose target audience are adults. So even if you come at this novel from that particular angle, it's fails miserably.

In the end, Pat nailed it on the head. An average and not-very-original Harry Potter for grown-ups with a douche as the main character.

Different strokes for different folks and all that, and I can understand that some readers will enjoy it more than others. But The Magicians is nothing brilliant. And average adult fantasy book at best, one that can be best enjoyed by readers who are not fans of the genre I think.

People should be careful with the "You didn't get it" thing. It makes them sound like Mystar when the guy say that you don't like Goodkind because you can't look beyond the story and see the brilliance of the man's genius...

Aidan Moher said...

Whether Grossman succeeded at what he set out to do is certainly debateable (I think he did, but I can understand how others might not), and one I would love to host in the comments section of my review. But for a reviewer to ignore the central theme of a novel, and then lambast it for being a shallow Harry Potter ripoff, is not very constructive to the overall discussion.

People may not always flee to magical worlds like Fillory to escape, but there are certainly a huge number of people who try to escape by way of drugs, alcohol and sex. Ask them if in those vices they've found the answers to the problems they've faced. That's the issue Grossman is tackling, under the veneer of a Fantasy novel.

Dream Girlzzz, I explained why I felt that Pat approached the novel from the wrong angle. It's like saying Animal Farm is shallow because it's just about a bunch of pigs and cows. Unlike Mystar, I'd happily and honestly debate this point with Pat, but he seems to be busy.

Anonymous said...

Fairly accurate review I'd say. My wife and I both read it and were entertained (telling an entertaining story was what I think was what I heard Grossman state as his goal with the book in an interview on NPR).

My wife's comment after reading it was something along the lines of, "it's entertaining enough to keep you reading through the whole thing, even though I didn't like any of the characters."

I have to mostly mostly agree here; Alice was probably the only likeable character in the main cast.

Patrick said...

Aidan: Whether it's the central theme or not is open to interpretation. Personally, I thought it was so poorly executed that I elected to approach the book from that other angle.

That's all a matter of opinion, I know, yet I don't feel that I didn't get it...

THE MAGICIANS is not a piss-poor book, as some have said, but it was a decidedly meh read.

Stephen J. said...

"Grossman picks apart the fascination with escapist literature and a reader's reliance on it to escape from the real world, to rely on those novels to solve the problems in their lives."

In other words, he uses escapist literature to convey a message about the worthlessness and uselessness of escapist literature. This is either a fatal self-contradiction if it's unconscious, or fundamentally dishonest if it's deliberate, and either way it's offputtingly condescending, even contemptuous. (Just as an example, what possible point was there to make Christopher Plover, the fictional creator of Fillory, a pedophile except to take a cheap piss on Lewis and on Narnia fans?) The whole book reads like it was written to sucker in Harry Potter and Narnia fans by appearing to be more of what they love, then hit them with a sermon about how stupid and dangerous that very devotion is.

(Pullman does the same thing with the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, as Anne Rice did in The Queen of the Damned -- create a story dependent upon the acceptance of supernatural tropes to argue for the rejection of supernaturalism.)

More fatally, the single biggest problem of the story is that its protagonist is fundamentally passive and static; Quentin's emotional arc is simply the same riff over and over again -- a fantastic dream (magic, true love, freedom from care, childhood dreamworlds) turns out to be real, yet does not satisfy -- and he never does anything that makes any real difference to any given story outcome. A short story can get away with a character like this; for a novel, it's a fatal flaw -- it turns the whole thing into "sound and fury, signifying nothing". Dramatic novels should be about characters making significant and unusual choices that meaningfully change both them and their world -- not about characters who merely passively acquiesce to their own flaws and suffer for it.

CJohnson said...

I really didn't enjoy this book. I understand that he was trying to make a point, but I just didn't enjoy it at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the party (just finished the book 6 years after being released) but I just want to chime in. I had low expectations due to the TV show (still going to keep watching) but I absolutely loved the book. This is not about derivative world building or having heroic characters on an epic quest to save the world but more of a commentary on real life. We all have dreams and if we somehow attain them, that is what will make us happy. But will it though? It's an existentialist book. Finding real happiness instead of just escaping to fantasy worlds. It's also a warning to people who graduate from school and expecting their lives to be just as fun and exciting or better. Spoiler: it's not. And when they find out, they refuse to grow up and get stuck in the past or try to relive those magical days not knowing that it harms or may harm the people they're with.