The Magicians, by Lev Grossman


Quentin is a genius, and he’s pretty depressed. Life lacks color for him, and he immerses himself in a children’s book series about Fillory, a land filled with magic, as a form of escape. Imagine Quentin’s delight when he finds out that magic is real, there are colleges that teach it, and he’s been accepted into one … but disillusionment isn’t far behind no matter how many dreams come true for Quentin. The Magicians has been described as a mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books, but for adult audiences, and the author does not hide the fact that he’s borrowing heavily from those two series.

I first read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a couple of years after it came out, and I came away from it feeling pretty grumpy. I wasn’t sure why it had that impact on me. At first, I thought it was the general ickiness of most of the cast, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of books without likeable characters. I had lunch with a friend who also disliked the book, and we talked about it for a bit, but I never reached a satisfying resolution to my lack of appreciation for a story recommended by people whose book opinions I value (including my sister).

A couple of months ago, a group of friends and I decided to start a book club, and as I tried to come up with a good first book that would have some appeal to a wide range of people, I suggested The Magicians—in part because I thought that I should give it a second chance. My first reading of it was at an unsettled time in my life, and I’ve had more than a few instances where I’ve enjoyed a book more after a second reading.

The verdict after this reading? Yes, I enjoyed it more this time, in part because I was able to adjust my expectations away from a universe as magical as the ones found in the Harry Potter and Narnia series. This second go also gave me the opportunity to zero in on what was so off-putting the first time around, and the problem is largely with me. One of the reasons I read books from the fantasy genre is to be entranced by a whole new world—or an interesting new riff on the world in which we’re living. Because it borrows so blatantly and unapologetically from previously established worlds, The Magicians didn’t offer me the level of escape and diversion that other fantasy novels do. Every storyline is a distorted view of worlds I already know thoroughly and love, and it was jarring the first time I read it. (For the record, I also didn’t enjoy the Bizarro World storylines that DC put out, so at least I’m consistent.)

What did I like this time? Well, I appreciated Lev Grossman’s willingness to do a deeper character study than is often found in this genre. Although some members of Quentin’s crew are teen movie stereotypes (and icky), Quentin is more than just the typical brooding, brilliant teen/young adult. And I liked the shy-but-strong Alice quite a bit. It’s also a positive that Lev Grossman can write well, of course, though I was often bored during the action scenes.

The Magicians ends where I’m sure book 2 begins, and it left me intrigued enough to be tempted to continue the series. However, this may end up being an instance where I watch the tv show instead.

2 thoughts on “The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

  1. My view: The reader here shouldn’t approach this as if it were a fantasy novel. It isn’t. It’s a bildungsroman that happens to be set in a world where magic exists. It doesn’t “steal” from the worlds of C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling; it’s quite deliberately using that type of setting, and all of our memories of/feelings about it, to upend expectations. I think it was a very clever premise, commenting (among other things) on the fantasy craze–i.e., what if Harry Potter, and all of his friends and teachers, had been massive a–holes? How would things have worked out then? It starts us down the familiar path, then takes the black-and-white world that we are accustomed to (and attracted to) in the fantasy genre and adds shades of gray (not to mention puke green). But a clever premise does not necessarily make for a comfortable read, and the characters are so icky that I wanted to shower after reading. I didn’t really want to go on in the series, mainly because although I appreciated the idea and kind of enjoyed exploring it for the length of one book, I didn’t really want to spend any more time with those characters. I suspect that those who did read on were either willing to put up with a lot more than I was, or were reading the books more along the surface. And I find it quite amusing that the series was made into a television show that apparently takes the books at face value rather than as the author would have intended–but then, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.


  2. Bildungsroman is a very fancy word. I had to look it up, so thank you for continuing my education!

    I understand what the author was trying to do (now), I just don’t like it. It makes me grumpy. Also, I think we’re providing an important service here; people who are sold this book as an adult version of Harry Potter and/or Narnia series should be warned. To your credit, when you gave it to me to read the first time, you didn’t say that, it’s just what I had heard about it from others.


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