Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

First of all, big thanks to my old in-person friend and new cyber-friend, BP, for recommending this book to me.  Second of all, a question for BP: did parts of this book tick you off as much as it did me?

I've been snapshotting The Magicians, Lev Grossman's second novel, as "Harry Potter for adults," which doesn't really work, I realize, because so many adults read that series (including me but I drifted away after the fifth book so don't spoil me, okay?).  But it also sort of works because it's about this kid from Brooklyn who is ennui-ridden with his regular life and who is surprised and thrilled when he is accepted into Brakebills, a college for magicians in upstate New York.  Quentin never knew this school existed and he didn't apply to get in, but the recruiters knew about him and once he passes the entrance exam, he embraces the world of magic and never looks back. 

At Brakebills, Quentin makes some friends, makes some enemies, undergoes some extremely rigorous course work and, after five years, he and his sorceror friends are loosed on the world, all powerful and jaded as anything.  Because here's the thing: if you can do anything at all and get anything you want whenever you want it with really no-one to answer to, what's your purpose in life?  Quentin, his girlfriend Alice, and their buddies Eliot, JuliaJanet and Josh, flit around Manhattan for a while, drinking too much, doing too many drugs, adrift.

When a kid who used to go to Brakebills with them shows up at their apartment, offering them a chance to enter legend, they find their purpose.  One thing all of them have in common is their love for a fantasy children's series a la The Chronicles of Narnia set in a land called Fillory.  It turns out that this land is real, not just in a bunch of books, and eventually they make their way there, meeting the inhabitants (talking animals and trees, magicians, fauns, etc.) and embarking upon a quest to liberate their beloved Fillory from its current oppressor.  It's an adventure all fantasy-nerds dream of.

Speaking as a fantasy nerd, here's the thing: the blurbs on the book jacket rave about how The Magicians "tips its hat to Oz and Narnia as well as to Harry" but I would take that a little further and say that it comes pretty close to ripping off its predecessors.  In the Fillory stories there are four human siblings who venture to Fillory, two brothers and their two sisters; the siblings serve as kings and queens for Fillory and fight for their new land; one of the brothers is not a very nice guy.  Sound familiar at all?  There is also a witch who is apparently trying to freeze Fillory, not in permanent winter but in permanent nighttime; she is called the Watcherwoman and you can hear her coming by the ticking of her clock.  That one rips off not only the Narnia books but also Peter Pan.  Perhaps Grossman really intends this as homage but, really, a little more imagination would be better.  (I noticed other glaring similarities but didn't make notes of them; I'll leave it to you to glean them out.)

All that is not to say that I didn't like The Magicians.  I did.  It's fast-paced, it has interesting and flawed characters (you are left wondering if Quentin really learned anything, because he sure should have), and it's expletive-laden and violent enough to remind you that no, this isn't actually a children's fantasy book.  The ending is left open enough that a sequel could happen, but I don't think it should - sometimes you don't need a series.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I enjoyed it, but the "homages" did begin to really get under my skin. It's too bad. He had a good thing going with the invasion of the school--I thought that part was well written and pretty creepy. If he could have continued with that imaginative writing and energy I would have liked it a lot more!

  2. Yes, exactly! I agree that the school invasion was very well done. I also rather wondered why he spent so much time on Q's non-magical friends, only to drop them and never return; even Julia's reappearance after her no-go mind wipe seemed hastily thrown in there.

    Okay, give me another one to read! I just finished Already Dead by Charlie Huston - awesome, review soon.