The Magicians (reviewed by Peter V. Brett)

When I passed the word that I was looking for SFF writers who'd like to become guest reviewers on the Hotlist, Peter V. Brett was one of the first to step up to the plate.

Author of The Painted Man/The Warded Man (Canada, USA, Europe) and the NYT bestselling The Desert Spear (Canada, USA, Europe), Brett also has a new novella in the works with Subterranean Press titled Brayan's Gold (Subpress).

For all things Peter V. Brett, check out

Peter elected to review Lev Grossman's The Magicians (Canada, USA, Europe). Read on and discover how he shows me how it's supposed to be done! ;-)


When I first heard of The Magicians, I was immediately intrigued. Not by the marketing blurb, but by the fact that it was written by Lev Grossman, the brother of Austin Grossman, author of Soon I Will Be Invincible, a book I seriously loved. (Even now, I sometimes think about Dr. Impossible and chuckle to myself.)

Having grown up with a brother who couldn’t be more different from me, I was curious as to how the Grossman brothers’ work would compare. Would Lev’s writing be as witty and fun as Austin’s, or would he be heavier and more serious? Did I dare hope he might be even better?

I pretty much decided to read the book then, but I was busy and didn’t get around to buying it for a while. In that time, I heard both good and bad reviews from people whose opinions I respect, which was all the more intriguing. Reviews (including this one) are subjective. One person's refreshing is another's pretentious. Much of what we take from a reading experience comes from what we bring into it. Not just our likes and dislikes, but also our general mood at the time of reading.

So I rolled the dice and bought the eBook on my iPad. This is only the second book I’ve read this way, the first being Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie. A tough act to follow, but Grossman acquits himself well.

Quentin, the protagonist in The Magicians, is not very likeable. His self-loathing, coupled with an enormous sense of superiority and entitlement, bleeds from the page. You feel a little greasy just reading about him, and it’s easy to loathe him just as he loathes himself.

But this, in some ways, is what makes him so compelling a character, and one I found myself relating to in odd ways. At its core, The Magicians is the story of Quentin’s quest to find happiness. He keeps setting goals, telling himself “If I can do this, then I will be happy.” But then he does that, and it doesn’t. So he sets a new goal, “If I can do this, then I will be happy.”

Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s a familiar story, and one that lives in the very core of human nature. We thrive on misery. Every great advancement in technology or quality of life in human history has quickly generated its own set of complaints. The entire human race has a sense of entitlement, but it is that very sense that pushes us to strive for greater and greater things.

Grossman also takes a new spin on the Harry Potter or even Name of the Wind “wizard school” dynamic with Brakebills Academy. Sometimes these comparisions are less than subtle, as Grossman appears to be making a conscious effort to differentiate himself and reach a mainstream audience. Brakebills is more a university than a prep school, with all the more mature themes that setting generates. The overwhelming feeling of stress and pressure on the student body is palpable. There is no simple swish and flick of a wand at Brakebills. Magic in Grossman’s world is HARD, and not for the faint of heart or weak of will.

The first two sections of The Magicians are stellar. Really sharp, compelling reading, right up until graduation.

But at this 2/3 mark, the book seems to lose its way. It flounders for a few chapters, introducing several new and basically superfluous characters and generally losing momentum before finally picking up again as Quentin and his new unwieldy party journey to Fillory, a thinly veiled version of CS Lewis’ Narnia which depends much on the reader filling in the blanks with memories of that series. If you’ve never read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (or seen the movie, at least), you’ll miss a large component of the book.

This third act was not as integrated into the story as I would have liked. There were some small hints in the early sections about where the book was going, but they were never really developed.

There is some very good stuff in the Fillory section, but it comes off as somewhat rushed, and then begins a series of endings, each more depressing in its own way than the last. I was holding my breath, waiting for an epiphany at the end, but while Quentin did seem to have one that changed his outlook on life, I wasn't entirely clear on what it was.

Despite my feelings about the last act, there is a lot in The Magicians to recommend it. Grossman’s writing is efficient, his characters varied and complicated. His take on magic is masterful, and it is never allowed to become a deus ex machina for a weak plot. I would recommend The Magicians to others, and will likely buy Grossman's next book.

5 commentaires:

Luke said...

I'd like to see Lev review The Warded Man now.

Cecrow said...

"The Magicians" keeps tumbling on and off my list of books to read. It was off, now maybe back on. Maybe. This does make it sound better than I'd last thought, but still not entirely convincing.

Kenny Cross said...

Cool review Peter! Every time I see THE MAGICIANS I reach my hand out tentatively thinking I'm going to buy it but other books keep calling my name so by the time I leave the store it stays behind. At some point I will. First though I think I need to read THE WARDED MAN [no butt kissing here - higher up on my to buy list than The Magicians].

Anonymous said...

I really didn't enjoy The Magicians at all, to be honest.

David said...

So, the characters flounder around trying to figure out what to do after they graduate college? How realistic of the author :-)