Lev Grossman – The Magicians (Book Review)

“Magic, Quentin discovered, wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off and became very good at it.”

The Magicians cover

Lev Grossman - The Magicians

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a deconstructionist, more realistic take on the tropes of Harry Potter and Narnia. Magic is dangerous and mysterious, and the faux-Latin wand-waving is replaced by borderline autistic kids in a boring, demanding school. However, The Magicians isn’t just designed to make Harry Potter seem ridiculous. It’s a complex, exciting story in its own right, and while it’s aimed at an audience tired of fantasy clichés, what it offers in the end is still a fantasy tale.

What Grossman does right, he does very right. The world of magic feels consistent and thought-through in a way that Harry Potter, with its arbitrary spells and inconsistencies, never approaches. Magic is a dangerous, unknown force, and if the school’s body count is low, that’s only because the students are studying for tests instead of fighting dark lords. The fundamentals of magic are still undefined, though; The Magicians wins the reader’s acceptance partly by being more glib than other stories. Where Harry Potter spent hundreds of pages on each school year, The Magicians covers Quentin’s entire young adulthood in the stretch of one book. Many elements do feel like they would fall apart on closer examination (such as the workings of the wider magical community), and a few items (like the Quidditch equivalent) are unnecessary additions just to draw parallels to Harry Potter.

I’d hate to think that the only way to make good adult fantasy seem consistent is with Grossman’s fast pace and lack of details. In this case, at least, it works because we want to see the passage of time. The Magicians is a strong character-based book, and Quentin and his friends evolve considerably over the years. The writing doesn’t dwell on this, but the characters do change slowly but noticeably, and believably, as they age. Once the world and plot are established, Grossman often uses a single scene to stand in for an entire stretch of months or even a year. That one scene will have the detail needed both to paint a picture of the characters’ current lives and to give some assurance that the magical system is rich and consistent, even if the reader can’t stop to learn everything.

The Magicians is an exploration of aimless young adulthood. Magic is tempting, but it doesn’t automatically give meaning to life, and the power it offers can be a dangerous distraction from the concerns that keep mundane people grounded. Just as in real life, these people need to find their own way, and the latter part of the book actually becomes laugh-out-loud funny when the more stubborn believers in fairy tales try to live to those expectations. The most common criticism of this book is that the characters are whiny and unlikeable, though I always found them to be so believable that that wasn’t a concern. The conclusion offers some resolution to this, but is also a little frustrating: There are at least three scenes that feel like the set-up to a final status quo, and every one is suddenly reversed by the next. The actual ending feels a little arbitrary, as it’s the least satisfying and the best for a sequel, but at least it promises that the sequel will be a very different story. Quentin grows up more over the course of this book than Harry Potter does in seven, and that’s a great argument for why his story should be allowed to continue.

Grade: B+

  1. This sounds interesting, I might have to give it a go! Great review!

  1. February 12th, 2013

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