“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is the July selection for the Twin Cities’ Books and Bars group. I’d read only good reviews of it, but after I mentioned I was reading it, some of my literary pen pals–Tulip, Amy and Steph–said they weren’t fans, and were interested to see what I thought of the book. That made me hyper-aware as I finished the book. Would I like it?

In spite of peer pressure, I did, but I can guess why others haven’t.

Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.

They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia, and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That’s how things were now. The sidewalk wasn’t quite wide enough, so Quentin trailed after them, like a sulky child. He would rather have been alone with Julia, or just alone period, but you couldn’t have everything. Or at least the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to that conclusion.

Quentin is a prestidigitator and high school senior in NYC, and is part of the hyper-competitive race to get into a top university. When his Princeton interview doesn’t go as planned, he ends up sitting for an entrance exam to Brakebills, a private university for magic. Quentin has been obsessed with a Narnia-like fantasy series set in a land called Fillory since he was young, and is thrilled to discover magic is real and that he has an aptitude for it.

If this sounds familiar, it’s meant to. The Magicians is not coy about the debt it owes to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Unlike those, however, it’s not sweet, romantic, or centered on Christianity (Lewis) or love (Harry Potter). When Quentin finds out magic is real, the result is like Harry Potter filtered through Bret Easton Ellis. There’s drinking, drugs, sex, raging immaturity and bitterness. Grossman speculates on how magic might impact real, spoiled teens. Brakebills is less like a university than a vocational school with no career waiting at the end. The result isn’t pretty.

Along with the discomfort of reading about a debauched magic population, there’s Quentin, who is hardly a sympathetic main character. He’s a shallow, competitive guy who’s always grasping to be the best, whining about unhappiness, and pining for some life-changing circumstance that will bring him finally to the bliss he feels he deserves. He casts away old circumstances with hardly a thought, including friends and parents. This leads, unsurprisingly, to disastrous results.

For me, though, the disastrous results were of a piece with the whole book. The groundwork was laid carefully throughout, and things progressed to what I felt were fitting ends. Is Quentin reformed and nice by the end? No way. But is he wiser, less credible and (possibly) less selfish? I think so. I did find a self-awareness at the end that wasn’t there previously.

I had the opportunity to see Lev Grossman read earlier this week, and asked him about some of his influences. I had guessed, correctly, that Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was one of them. So rather than describing it as “Harry Potter for adults,” I might say “The Secret History, with magic.”

This is a frequently dark, bitter book with scenes of profound ugliness. Yet I liked how it made me re-examine my own feelings about reading Narnia, Harry Potter, and others. Prior to reading this book, I re-read a fantasy favorite of mine when I was a teen, Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey. I found it a less pleasant read than I remembered, and I think that’s exactly the thing Grossman was going for: how magic would affect real teens if there were no kindly advisor figure like Dumbledore, and no obvious “big bad” like Sauron. This book contains deep ambivalence about how cool magic would be if it were real, and examines why longing for a fantasy world is not endearing, but a significant a character flaw.

4 Responses to ““The Magicians” by Lev Grossman”

  1. Steph Says:

    You already know that I wasn’t a fan of this one (I hated Quentin so much, and I felt the story dragged a lot, among other things), but I didn’t think it was without merit. That said, I won’t be reading the sequel when it’s released!

    But I am really curious about The Secret History now. I’ve read a lot of good things about it (most frequently I see it compared to Tana French, of whom I am a big fan), though you’re the first to have compared it to The Magicians. I won’t hold that against it though… ;)

  2. girldetective Says:

    Steph, I read Secret History a long time ago and remember it was overlong, but had one of the best reveals I’d read. The similarity that runs through it, French’s The Likeness, and The Magicians, is the academic clique living together, and the benefits and significant psychological drawbacks of such.

    I didn’t like Quentin either–not sure it’s possible to–but I did recognize and guiltily identify with his childish longings for a magic world and lasting happiness. I spent the book hoping for his comeuppance, and come it did, which felt satisfying to me.

  3. carolyn Says:

    This sounds really interesting, although I’m going to refuse to think of my longing for a fantasy world as a character flaw. I think I’ve got enough of those already! :)

    But in resopnse to Steph’s comment: Really? People are comparing Donna Tartt to Tana French? Woah. In my opinion, Tana French is a MUCH, MUCH better writer than Tartt. Not even in the same league.

  4. girldetective Says:

    Carolyn, I don’t think people are comparing French to Tartt, but saying that the premise of the Likeness is similar to the premise of the Secret History–they’re both psycho-social mysteries set within a group of clique-y academics. Magicians has that same set of clique-y academics, that’s why I was reminded of both the others.