One Sentence Summary: Magic is real, as college student Quentin Coldwater is about to find out, but being a magician isn’t going to be the fun and games he expected it would be.
One Sentence Review:The Magicians is an older and somewhat wiser look at magic and what we believe about fantasy that works most of the time, but stumbles a bit when it gets to think-y.
Long Review: The Magicians is a pretty hefty book that I only had out from the library for two weeks, so the minute I got it home I was reading it all the time. When Boyfriend was over, he asked me what book I kept sneaking off the table to read pages of while he was cooking popcorn or playing with Hannah. “Well, it’s about wizards… but not like Harry Potter,” I tried to explain, without sounding like a total dork. I continued, quoting from the book jacket, “These wizards live an ‘aimless and hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers,'” at which his eyes seemed to register some sort of approval for my reading choice.
From that moment on, The Magicians came to be affectionately known around these parts as “Hedonistic Harry Potter.”
I say that a little in jest, but I don’t think it’s far off. The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, an overly smart high school senior who gets the unexpected opportunity to test into a magicians college, Brakebrills College for Magical Pedagogy. Quentin is the sort of kid who read fantasy novels when he was younger and always hoped that learning magic would take him out of his boring real-life and somehow make him happy. Turns out that magic is a lot harder than Quentin imagined, although life at Brakebrills does have the requisite college fun and games.
But graduation comes and Quentin and friends are forced out of the safety of a wizarding school to find their way in the real world. The wizarding community has set up a fund to provide wizards with money, and with their magical skills a real life wizards doesn’t really have to do anything. And that, for me, was really where the story shifts, although I won’t give more details for fear of spoilers.
What makes this book different, and in my opinion more adult, than many of the wizard fantasy books that I love to read is that this book doesn’t rest on the premise that magic can automatically make you happy. In most fantasy I can think of magic is challenging and sometimes frustrating, but the idea is that if you can master it, you’ll be content. From the first pages of this book, Grossman turns that idea on it’s head and instead tries to show that happiness is something you yourself make — and not through sorcery. It’s about the people you love, the way you treat them, and the decisions you make about what you want your life to look like.
The characters don’t exactly accomplish that, but I think in the end that’s the point.
That’s not to say that the book is entirely serious, because it’s not. The Magicians also includes many of the same elements of more famous magician books — a prestigious, British-y private school; wizard sporting events; and potential romances — but Grossman often pokes holes or makes fun of these elements within the book.
But it’s exactly because of these commonalities that the book seems to wrestle with it’s tone — is it going to be fantasy, or is it going to be meta-fantasy or fantasy that makes fun of the genre? It tends to mishmash these ideas, sometimes working and sometimes not.
It’s almost as if the tone of the book matches the desires of the characters, wanting fantasy and fantasy worlds to be real while at the same time trying to be cool enough to see how the premises of those books don’t work.
I have a bunch of favorite quotes from the book, but I can’t figure out a way to weave them artfully into this review. Instead, I’m just going to share them all in a row so you can get a sense of the style and tone of the piece:
He wasn’t in a safe little story where wrongs were automatically righted; he was still in the real world, where bad, bitter things happened for no reasons, and people paid for things that weren’t there fault.
At one point, Quentin gets punched by another student. His friend responds,
“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking f**king time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog. To tell you the truth I’m king of glad he hit you.”
And this is one of the final lessons from one of Quentin’s teachers about the power of magic and what it means to be a magician:
“Once you reach a certain fluency as a spellcaster, you will begin to manipulate reality freely… For some of you spells will one cay come very easily, almost automatically, with very little in the way of conscious effort.
“When the chance comes, I ask only that you know it for what it is, and be aware. For the true magician there is no very clear line between what lies inside the mind and what lies outside it. If you desire something, it will become substances. If you despite it, you will see it destroyed. A master magician is not much different from a child or a madman in that respect. It takes a very clear head and a very strong will to operate once you are in that place. And you will find very quickly whether or not you have that clarity and strength.”
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!