BOOK: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009)

My husband recommended this book to me, and when I saw it was written by the same guy who wrote Codex, a novel I read many years ago and loved (as one might assume, given the fact I’m a librarian and it’s a mystery involving BOOKS), I was absolutely game.

Happily, I can report that the first 2/3rds of this novel are a real kick. (Unhappily, there’s that pesky final third — but more on that in a minute.) The Magicians is being called  “Harry Potter for grown-ups,” and the first 2/3rds make the reason why absolutely clear.  It’s got the same appealing-to-the-kid-in-you magical elements, but it’s also got the added complexities that go with becoming an adult — drinking, sleeping around, screwing up your future, and all that crappy, hard stuff those of us over the age of 18 can more or less relate to.

The characters are a bunch of college-age students who have been recruited to attend a hidden magic university called Brakebills.  How they each got there varies, but our hero, Quentin Coldwater, was summoned by a letter he received after mastering a few gimmicky card tricks — card tricks he didn’t even realize he was working ACTUAL magic on.

Once at the school, Quentin knows he’s found his true calling.  School is grueling — ten times the academic challenges of Hogwarts — and it takes Quentin some time to fit in with the others as well.  But it’s not long before he’s got the hang of studying and made a tight group of pals as well, and that’s despite the fact he’s openly a huge fan of the famous “Fillory” novels, a group of children’s books similar to The Chronicles of Narnia that most other young adults his age have long since given up interest in.

The first 2/3rds of this novel are set at Brakebills and are all about what it’s like to be a student there.  It’s everything you’d expect from a novel about college life, with the added twist that these students are learning how to do things like turn themselves into birds and fly.  There’s also an interesting theme about the ways in which learning about magic sort of takes the magic right out of magic, too — a clear metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood, which is loaded with realities that can suck all the life right out of living.

Unfortunately, the last third of the book is where the novel loses its way — it starts when (and this doesn’t feel like a spoiler to me) Quentin and his friends discover Fillory is a real realm and find a way in, only to discover it’s in trouble — threatened by a Big Bad of some magical kind.  Oddly enough, it’s when Grossman tries to tell us an actual STORY that he kind of loses his touch.  The opening bulk of the novel is mostly description — of magic stuff, of the school, of the characters, of the professors (some of whom are just as much fun as their Hogwartian counterparts) — and because it’s so amazing a world, it’s very entertaining and engaging (though also about 100 pages too long, easily).  As soon as everybody drops into the good vs. evil in Fillory plot, though, the book takes a massive nosedive down into the boring and predictable.

Is this Harry Potter for adults?  I’m going to say not quite.  Harry Potter is not as deep as this novel tries to be, though it certainly has its moments of realism — but it’s got ten times the storytelling, that’s for sure.  And while I did get a kick out of Grossman’s hat tips, scattered throughout the book and noting its own similarities not only to Harry Potter, but to Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and more (plus, the very name “Quentin” is a hat tip to Faulkner, and anybody familiar with Faulkner’s Quentin Compson will see the similarities here), the cleverness of the writing didn’t QUITE make up for the totally lackluster final pages.

There’s a sequel to The Magicians out right now in hardback — The Magician King.  My husband will probably read it at some point.  I might just go back to good ol’ Harry.  We’ll see.  If you’ve read the sequel and loved it, tell me so and why, yes?  Yes.  Merci buckets.

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3 Responses to “BOOK: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009)”

  1. briantoohey Says:

    Ah, I have this one on my bookshelf and have been excited to read it for awhile. I’ll still read it, and likely the sequel as well, but I guess it’s good to have my expectations lowered. Though I am disappointed to read that it’s not as good as I’d hoped and that it wasn’t a Meg Wood winner!

  2. Kristel Says:

    I actually had no plans of reading this book until I saw your review. 🙂 I thought it was going to be worse than what you described. I’ll still give this book a try. Great review, btw.:)

  3. Wayne Says:

    Meg! Agreed. However, the second book is better… sort of. If you liked the first 2/3 of ‘The Magicians’ you should at least give the first 1/2 of the 2nd book a 50/50 shot…. 🙂 Anywho, saw Grossman at Powell’s a few months back. He was witty/charming and had a groovy smile… I think that helped me power through the doldrums of the last third…thanks for the review!

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