By Lev Grossman
Published in 2009 by Viking Press (which is owned by Penguin Random House), The Magicians is a fantasy novel by Lev Grossman. Let me talk about him for a minute. Mr. Grossman comes from a talented family, his twin brother (Austin Grossman) is a video game designer and novelist, his sister Bathsheba is a noted sculptor and his father is a poet while his mother is a novelist herself. Mr. Grossman himself started out in journalism (as a number of the writers who show up on this series seem to do) where he's written for the New York Times, Salon, Village Voice, Wired, and the Wall Street Journal. He also wrote one of the first reviews of the Twilight series; yes the one with the sparkling vampires. So he was well versed in writing when he turned his hand to novels. His first novel Warp was published in 1997 about an aimless 20 something in Brooklyn. His second novel Codex was published in 2004. The Magicians and its follow up books are the most well received of his creations.
The Magicians is set in the modern day with the main character being Quentin Coldwater. Quentin is a genius, one of those kids whose gifts in certain subjects seem to have no limits but he's miserable. His parents have basically adopted an attitude of benign neglect towards him and his two best friends have paired up. This really sucks for him because one of them, the girl named Julia? He has a crush on her but she doesn't feel that way for him. At the beginning of the book they're all lining up for an interview into Princeton but things get off track. The interviewer dies and due to a couple events, Quentin instead finds himself testing for an entirely different school; a school where he's not gonna learn chemistry or Hindi or Western History. Nope, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy as you might have guessed from the title, teaches fucking magic. It's one of the greatest schools of magic in the world and the only magic school in North America. In fact Quentin is one of only 20 kids who get in. Everyone else who fails the exam? They’re supposed to get their memories wiped out and sent off to live in blissful ignorance of the opportunity they screwed up.
Brakebills is more like a real school than Hogwarts, the school work is difficult and boring, the teachers run the gamut from interesting and helpful to so unhelpful you think they're malevolent, but never unprofessional. It's a very realistic way school in it's own way, with the students given a lot of time to themselves since they're all high school graduates. Which makes a certain amount of sense. Magic in The Magicians is hard, finicky and requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail. The consequences for making a mistake can be pretty bad. In fact there are some magical works where making a mistake means lethal consequences... If you're lucky. If you're unlucky you'll attract the wrong kind of attention and learn real fast that humans are not on the top of this totem pole. If you're really unlucky you'll find yourself being moved up that totem pole and I don't mean as a promotion. Mr. Grossman doesn't spend a lot of time detailing how his magical system works beyond communicating that is incredibly complicated, complex, and somewhat tedious. On the flip side if memorizing 900 pages of grammar and moon cycles is all it takes to create a tardis in my backpack then so be it.
While at Brakebills Quentin falls in with the Physical kids (Magicians are broken down into specializations called disciplines, which in turn are lumped into groups which turn into student cliques) and... man these kids need some mentors! We got Eliot who is from a rural Christian family, bullied as a child for being gay and a semi-functioning alcoholic due to familial rejection. We have Janet, who is in love with Eliot and angry at the entire planet. We’ve got Josh, whose magical power and ability wax and wane randomly and he can barely pass Brakebills. We have Alice, who is smarter than Quentin and more responsible due to growing up in a dysfunctional magical family and losing her brother to a magic spell gone wrong, despite this she is, frankly, dumb enough to jump into bed with Quentin... no one's perfect I guess. We also have the in-and-out again character of Penny; a wannabe punk who is pretty anti-social and serves as kind of competitor for Quentin. Honestly he's the most like Quentin out of all the characters and I frankly dislike him for that. All these kids are carrying weights that any reasonable and interested adult could have helped them come to terms with. Which, you know might be a priority since we are handing them the keys to reshape reality to their whim? Maybe? Anyone? Frankly, if this is the kind of attention given to growing magicians, it's a wonder they haven't shattered the planet yet. That said, Brakebills has a higher survival rate than Hogwarts so maybe I'm judging them too harshly (send your kid to Brakebills! 30% more likely to survive here then other magical schools!). I also really wish we spent more time on these characters, as they’re all more interesting then our main character. There was a point when I was 2/3rds of the way into the story asking myself: why is Quentin the main character and not Alice or Eliot or even Josh? All of them are fighting much harder battles against greater burdens.
I suppose this does tie into the main theme of the Magicians book. Which is power by itself doesn’t really solve anything. None of these people are made happier by their access to power and easy wealth. It doesn’t make them better, smarter or wiser people. If anything it just seems to increase the avenues for self destruction and delusion. It’s an interesting choice of theme for the book and runs counter to a number of other such books where learning magic and gaining the power it grants does solve your problems. Although in their defense I will point out that usually means tripping into new, bigger problems. Here, while there is a monster or 10 lurking out in the darkness waiting to do bad things to our protagonists, their biggest problem and greatest danger is their own flaws and weakness… And the shit they do to each other because of those flaws of course. The biggest problem preventing me from fully appreciating this theme and others however, is the main character himself.
I refer to of course Quentin himself, who has the least issues out of all these kids but manages to be the biggest jackass of them all. Quentin's issue is that he can't stop feeling sorry for himself and just grow up. It's not until after he graduates Brakebills that he really gets stuck in my craw though. That when he decides despite being a genius, with the very stuff of the universe at his fingertips, being able to go anywhere and do anything he wants? He's gonna squat in New York City and get drunk and high every night with Eliot. I can understand Eliot's chemical dependency here, which frankly is a cry for help more then anything but Quentin? He is just being childish and letting himself rot. People like that frustrate me to no end. I'm not a genius, nor am I naturally gifted, most of us aren't and that's honestly likely a good thing. It teaches us to work and strive for what we want and to value our achievements, I think. Or perhaps I'm just clawing for silver linings, you decide my good reader! Quentin having gifts that most us can only dream of and options that are almost infinite, sees fit to whine and mope about his rather mundane and frankly solvable issues. If your life is in a rut you don't need magic to fix it, you need the willingness to break out of the rut. If your relationship is rocky, you need to sit down with your loved one and talk out your problems, maybe go to a professional for counseling. But Quentin of course can't do any of that because it's not self destructive enough. If you're like me, you'll want to smack him in the mouth by page 25 and by page 50 you want to grab him by the ear and force him to start growing up but at this point I think I hit old man screaming about those damn kids levels so I'll stop here.
Another major plot point is the not-so-imaginary land of Fillory, which Quentin is quietly obsessed about (in fact every magical kid seems to have read and been fan of this series... Huh). The Fillory series was written by a gent by the name of Christopher Plover who detailed the adventures of the Chatwick kids next door going to another world and coming back. The novel series was unfinished however due to the untimely death of the writer. So imagine everyone's shock when not only is this magical land real, but there's a way to get there. However, the land of Fillory has been through some rather harsh changes and isn't the same place as the books anymore. The guardian gods of the land are missing and the people are at odds and terrified of the various dark evils that now roam free without check. I have mixed feelings about Fillory because while it's a rather awesome set up, Mr. Grossman seems to also want to make it some type of sarcastic retort to Narnia and other child fantasy worlds. On the one hand, the image of a smoking birch tree in a bar with a bear who drinks peach schnapps is great and I love it. On the other hand taking swings at Narnia is rather silly. Yes, it was unreal and very black and white... Narnia is a Christian Children's Story! If you walk into a story like that expecting shades of gray, you're going to be disappointed. I'm also disappointed that Fillory was honestly a place where we spent very little time. I could have done with less New York City and less of Quentin going home. That said I'm willing to be forgiving as this book is covering over 5 years. Fillory however, does shine when you realize... this is a real place that's suffering a dark age, their gods have disappeared, they have no real rulers and their greatest hope is that 4 people from another planet will come along and pick up some crowns. That's pretty dark when your hope is that a band of aliens will take power and deliver you from elder beings who lurk in the darkness outside your window. Mr. Grossman doesn't shy away from this and is clearly working to make Fillory stand on it's own. So while I don't approve of his jabs, I feel them forgivable as we all have moments of weakness, but spending more time here and less in the mundane world would have real helpful in giving Fillory legs of it's own.
There's very little whimsy in The Magicians, although there are moments of wonder. Clearly drawing it's inspiration from a wide variety of fiction but putting his own stamp on it Mr. Grossman presents us his idea of what a hidden world would look like. This setting does however owe a heavy debt to the works that come before it and it shows in the writing. That's not a terrible thing but it is something to keep in mind. Still it is a world with wonders and delights to sate any desire but it can only be as great as the eyes that view it. This becomes a weak point for the story as the eyes we see it through are Quentin's and he is bound and determined to suck out all the joy. Honestly Quentin is my biggest complaint in this story. I cannot bring myself to like him and there are points where the story becomes somewhat bogged down with his constant childishness. That said there are hints of a much better person in Quentin, for example at the end of the book he accepts his mistakes and does his best to atone for them when it turns out he can't fix them. He overdoes it of course but at least he tried. The book is very well written, with great supporting characters who deserve more time and an interesting setting. As a result I am giving The Magicians a B. It's miles better than average yes, but between the main character and the heavy debt the setting owes and never quite gets away from, it still needs some work I think. That said if Quentin Coldwater doesn't make you want to chew someone's face off then it's easily a B+, bluntly this book comes down to how well you can tolerate the main character.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.