Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

If I see one more review complaining that The Magicians ripped off J.K. Rowling, I swear I’m going to ram this down somebody’s throat. Hogwarts was not the first fictional school of magic (Mildred Hubble, anyone?) and I seriously doubt it will be the last. Therefore, a book including such a school of magic is not automatically stealing from Harry Potter, especially when it contains no other similarities other than the afore-mentioned school of magic.

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 …

 I expected to like this; I wanted to love it. Actually, I did neither. The first thing I should point out is how horribly wrong that cover is – it’s all dark, mysterious and gloomy, where perhaps a more appropriate image would have a glittery fairy with an inane smile. Perhaps also a bunny rabbit. I didn’t really dislike the book but I do think it (and the blurb) are misleading. The story’s much more… twee than that. Hey, I’m not complaining – it’s a good plot and twee never hurt anybody.

To sum up in a better manner than the professional summer-upper did above, Quentin Clearwater is obsessed with a series of books that bear a striking (intential) resemblance to the Narnia books, despite his age of 17 years and his current attendance at Brakebills – a prestigious school for aspiring magicians. He studies hard, gets a girlfriend and is one day excited to discover that the magical land from his childhood books may not be so fictional after all.

Except it’s much slower than that. I don’t know how many people besides me always wished that certain stories could be more mundane – like, I wanted to know more about the everyday classes Harry Potter took, and what they did when they were bored. Stop fighting Dementors and read your Alchemy textbook! That kind of thing (and yes, I referenced Potter. But I’m not really comparing them as such… So sue me). The Magicians actually does that really well – the full four years of Quentin’s time at Brakebills is crammed into this book, in excruciating detail. Only it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ I think, because nothing else happens. Literally. Oh, you think something does quite near the start… but it doesn’t. No relation to anything. So that’s the first two thirds of the book with Quentin and Alice just… studying. 

It reads kind of like a NaNoWriMo novel actually. You know, where you have a month to write 50,000 words so you just frantically shove in random unrelated events and characters to get your word count up. The Magicians has odd parts that aren’t really relevant to anything else – like an international game tournament that lasts for two pages and is never mentioned again. The passage of time is strange as well. An afternoon can take four pages, but then a year whooshes past in a sentence.

I did like the romance, and that’s odd for me. It seemed kind of real. There was no InstaLove and it takes them a while after arguments to calm back down, just like real people. Alice was definitely my favourite character throughout – she’s nicely rounded and likeable, but with a few believable flaws too.

Thing is, I liked this book right up to the very end. The twist and the final battle is wonderful – I adored it and it could have been one of my favourite book endings of all time. But hey, then it went and ruined it. There’s an epilogue-type thing and I hate them. Except it’s not really an epilogue; it’s part of the story, but it really should have ended much earlier. It’s terrible. Certain Things happen with no explanation or reason and characters just accept this as being perfectly normal and every day. The only possible reaction that I can imagine for a reader is ‘What? But… why!?’ I suppose it’s just to make you buy the second book so you can get an explanation, but for me it made it less likely because I now know exactly where the story will go and I don’t like it, thank you. My partner tells me I looked so disgusted that I looked like a pissed-off, squinty cat.

I didn’t hate this book, although I realise I sound like I did. Hell, I didn’t even dislike it. The majority of it is a well-written, unique, fantasy story with likeable characters. But I loathed the ending, and for me, the book is the ending.

Comments

  1. Ricki says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with you about the cover. I love this cover and thinks it captures the book much better than the US one.

  2. Bex says:

    I started reading this earlier in the year, after reading that book I can't stop talking about, because Tastekid said they were similar and you know when you read something that's just so good you want to read other things which are just as good, or nothing at all? Yeah, I had a fairly similar reaction to you, except I never finished it which I still feel bad about… I got distracted by something else and then had to return it to the library cos somebody else wanted it so I never found out what happened, but to be honest by that point I wasn't horribly bothered..

  3. Oh, Mildred Hubble….I loved the Worst Witch books and for the last few years, have read them to my classes. They loved them too.

    The Magicians has been on my radar for a while. I think I will still give it a go.

  4. Thanks for your honest review! I've heard so many great things about this book, mainly that "it's Harry Potter, but for grad students" but the fact that it's adult fiction (I prefer YA) has left me feeling a little gun shy. I'm still undecided as to whether I'll read this one, but you've given me some interesting things to think about!

  5. (I could have sworn I commented on this earlier…pesky laptop!)

    First things first: I loved Mildred Hubble when I was younger. I would have to shamefully admit that it was the TV programme that got me into it but still, better that than not at all!

    I'm not 100% sure I'm sold on this – I'm not a mega fan of feeling as though I'm being word-vomited at. But then, who is?

    Oh, and I despise endings that are going all great and then ruin themselves. It makes me hate the book retrospectively so I'm with you on that!

    [And I know that we're not really supposed to be mentioning it but I totally get what you mean about the more mundane side of Hogwarts – I could have read about potion lessons for hours…]

  6. Hanna says:

    @Bex – HOW ON EARTH can this be similar to That Book? I know I haven't read it yet but I can't see how they'd even be vaguely similar?

    @Sam – I'd definitely give it a go! It wasn't as bad as I seem to have made out, just that the things that irritated me, REALLY irritated me, if that makes any sense?

    @Madigan – This is definitely not YA! There are some similar aspects, I suppose, but there's a lot of sex and the violence can be quite graphic.

    @LIB – There was a TV show? Really!? I had the books (still do, I can see them from here, in fact!) and the audio books but I never knew it was on TV!

    Hehe, 'word-vomited.' I approve. I just with authors would know when to END their books.

    Exactly!!! I would happily buy every single one of the textbooks they use at Hogwarts.

  7. jarienswords says:

    I think the parts in which "nothing happened" were necessary for character development and theme development. I think an important part of the story was that the reader was supposed to slowly realized that the protagonist was not a heroic, step-up-to-the-plate type like Harry Potter. He was a selfish coward, in the same way as many people in everyday life are selfish and cowardly in mundane situations, and the author wanted to show how real, everyday people would react in extreme situations that involved magic and life-or-death risk.

    I think Alice was definitely the most likeable character, and she was supposed to be. As you said she did have a few flaws, but she was the only character who was truly heroic; she was arguably less flawed than the other characters. I think this book aimed to deconstruct common tropes in fantasy, sci-fi, and coming of age stories, so the author intentionally wrote a story in which heroism was rare.

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