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Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman post image

Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2009
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★★☆

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.”

Other Reviews: Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog | A Novel Menagerie | books i done read | Fyrefly’s Book Blog | Reading the Leaves | She Is Too Fond of Books | The Literary Omnivore |

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • diane March 16, 2010, 7:58 am

    Glad u enjoyed this book. I did too even though it was not a genre I typically read.

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:44 am

      diane: I think I liked it because it seems to mix genres and explore different themes. When it works in the book I liked it a lot.

  • Fyrefly March 16, 2010, 9:40 am

    I think I’d call it “Existential Angsty Harry Potter” over “Hedonistic Harry Potter”, but both are more accurate than “Harry Potter goes to Narnia”, which was how I heard it billed originally.

    The problems you identify with the tone of the book are exactly what bugged me about it most. It sort of felt like Grossman was trying to have it both ways – writing a fantasy novel about the ways in which fantasy novels are inadequate – and while I get his point, it just didn’t work for me. Glad you had a better time with it, though!

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:46 am

      Fyrefly: Yeah, Grossman does seem to try and do two things at once — like fantasy and critique it at the same time. I like the parts where it worked enough to let some of the other parts go, but I can see why it would be frustrating.

      I like the phrase “Existential Angsty Harry Potter” almost as much 🙂

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 16, 2010, 11:26 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one so much – it just didn’t work for me.

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:46 am

      bermudaonion: I’ve gotten that sense from people — it either works or doesn’t depending on what you’re expecting and what you like. Sorry it didn’t work for you!

  • Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books March 16, 2010, 12:29 pm

    I did like the ‘moral of the story’ (that you have to make your own happiness), but I was really unsure about how Grossman delivered it. I finally chalked it up to me not being a student of fantasy, and thus not fully catching his references (veiled or not) to other fantasy classics.

    Nice assessment, Kim. Hedonistic Harry Potter 🙂

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:47 am

      Dawn: I think Grossman does miss the message just a little bit, especially with the ending and what happens there. I was feeling the theme until that, but then it got sort of thrown off. I probably missed a lot of the fantasy references too.

  • Jenny March 16, 2010, 1:18 pm

    I wanted this book to work so much, because I loved parts of it, but you’re quite right in saying that Grossman doesn’t manage to reach a coherent tone throughout the book. I think I read somewhere that he’s working on a sequel, so maybe he will get it sorted out in the second book. I will definitely be seeking out the sequel, if he does write it!

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:48 am

      Jenny: Interesting news about the sequel. I’m not sure where he would go with it exactly, but I’d certainly read it to find out.

  • The Literary Omnivore March 16, 2010, 6:41 pm

    I think the variance in tone is easily solved by considering The Magicians a deconstruction, although it doesn’t excuse it. I actually sort of enjoyed the fact that the people who actually achieved some form of growth via magic weren’t Quentin. I’m not happy about the sequel- I really enjoy ambiguous endings for some reason, and that just ruins how I read the end.

    My review is here and I’ll be sure to add yours soon. 🙂

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:50 am

      The Literary Omnivore: The idea of a sequel does drastically change the reading of the ending, which is sort of sad. But I’m curious where it will go.

  • Gwen March 16, 2010, 7:13 pm

    “Hedonistic Harry Potter” that right there made me crack up and want to read it. Don’t you just love having to ‘justify’ what you are reading to the boyfriend? I am sure that mine just gets tired of hearing all of my book loving diatribes:)

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:51 am

      Gwen: Boyfriend doesn’t read much, so he never quite understands why I do. When I was reading this book constantly, I felt like I had to give him some justification 🙂

  • Jeanne March 17, 2010, 9:25 am

    Like everyone else here, I love the phrase “hedonistic Harry Potter,” although existential angsty Harry Potter doesn’t sound as much fun. (Could it be Emo Harry Potter?) At any rate, you got me interested.

    And how is Hannah? We might need to see more photos of her sometime!

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:53 am

      Jeanne: Hannah is great! I’ll put up some more pictures of her soon 🙂

  • Jodie March 18, 2010, 1:01 pm

    You’ve tipped the scales for me on this one. Everyone has been calling it grown up Harry Potter, which I was feeling a bit meh about, but there are creepy bitter lessons to be learned and silly humour so hurrah I think I will read it after all. Does it have a touch of the Jonathan Stranges about it?

    • Kim March 19, 2010, 7:54 am

      Jodie: I don’t really think it’s grown up Harry Potter — it’s much darker than the Potter series. I’m not sure about Jonathan Stranges, unfortunately, but I do think it was a fun book to read.

  • k March 20, 2010, 6:20 pm

    Great review! Most reviews of this book I read weren’t really good, and I have been really hesitant to pick it up. After reading your review though, I am more tempted to give it a chance!

    • Kim March 23, 2010, 2:37 pm

      kay: I think it’s worth a try if the premise sounds interesting. I enjoyed the book, but then again a lot of the things I liked were things that annoyed other people. It’s hard to tell!

  • Jennifer March 25, 2010, 12:53 pm

    I really like the idea of this book. A kind of grown up magicians tale. I loved Harry Potter and always find myself enjoying books about sorcery. It makes me feel young – like I can still believe in magic. It nice to think of a book that challenges the ideas that we all take for granted when we pick up a book that offers us a magical get away. I have read a couple other reviews on this book and I think that you touched on some really interesting things that not all the other reviews did. Great review.