Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined.
The Good Bits.
The Magicians combines high quality writing with a young adult concept. Often called the ‘adult Harry Potter’ this novel turns out to be much more complicated than that. Harry Potter is about the joy that comes from finding love, friendship and family through magic. It’s about finding the special qualities that make it worth being you. The Magicians is about the process of digging deep into the world to find yourself, stumbling more than once along the way, and at the end of all that, maybe realizing you’re not that special after all and having to live with that fact. Harry Potter brings fantasy into reality, and The Magicians pulls reality out of fantasy. The quality of writing that Lev Grossman brings to the table is beautiful, funny, and yes, a bit pretentious at times.
Quentin Coldwater is the protagonist of this book, and he is, in two words ‘a dick’. He’s an asshole. There were multiple times throughout the novel where I wanted to hurt him. I can’t say that I’ve ever encountered a character more frustrating, annoying, occasionally misogynistic, whiny, self-obsessed and downright insufferable. But he’s also tremendously realistic. We all know a Quentin and we’ve all had our Quentin moments. We’ve been that person crying out ‘woe is me’ and ‘life in unfair’ while living a life of privilege others would kill for. I don’t like Quentin, but I understand him, and I rooted for him as much as I would for a protagonist I love. I wanted so badly for him to figure out that magic might not be the cure for unhappiness and that sometimes when you screw up it’s your own damn fault, not the universe’s. Lev did a wonderful job of creating a character that’s relatable despite his many faults and shortcomings.
“Look, who’s the talking bear here?” Quentin snapped. “Is it you? Are you the talking fucking bear? All right. So shut the fuck up.”
Okay, let’s get to the good stuff, the magic. This isn’t Hogwarts wand waving, let’s do cute charms for shits and giggles and pretend an evil wizard isn’t trying to kill us, stuff. The Brakebills magic is difficult, archaic, and complicated while still being wonderful and fascinating just by virtue of being magic. I loved how in depth the book got about the theory behind magic and how it’s portrayed as a serious academic study vs. a practical application. There’s also a lot of emphasis on how necessary magic became to their lives once they’ve found it, and how it shapes the characters. Seeing how hard they had to work to be good at magic, or to do any magic at all, gave that much more value to it.
The romance! And there is romance in the novel. What I liked about it was how realistic and natural it was. They started off as friends and then slowly it developed into something more. And of course everyone around them knew they were going to be a couple before they did. There was no insta-love, and in fact Quentin wasn’t even interested in her when they first met. He didn’t find her particularly stunning and I’m sure she wasn’t bowled over by Quentin’s looks. I loved seeing that slow build up to something more. And it was great to see a relationship form not because they saved your life, or they’re the hottest person in the room, but just because they genuinely enjoy each other’s company and qualities.
The only thing that bothered me about the writing was that there was a lot of ‘telling’. That oft repeated advice to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’ in writing is one I’ve always appreciated and find it makes for a more interesting story. You never get to wonder about what a character was thinking, or feeling, or their motivations for their actions because you’re always told. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that yes, Quentin is unhappy, and that he isn’t going to find happiness in external things, but you don’t get to use your own brain to figure that out because it’s literally spelled out. This in combination with the sort of semi-pretentious language made me feel that Lev Grossman must think all us readers are colossal idiots who couldn’t put two and two together even if he held our hands the whole time. That being said, it doesn’t take away from the emotion of the book, which is also a testament to his skill as a writer.
Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.
My only other gripe is that I wished Quentin had more trouble with magic. Lots of characters later speak about how he isn’t particularly skilled or special at magic, and later you realize that he’s sort of an average magician at best. But for the first half of the book I thought he was of Chosen One level mastery. He gets into the special Physical Kids group, and no one can figure out his discipline, and he gets to skip a year. All seems pretty special. And he talks about the magic being hard, but doesn’t seem to have a hard time doing it. It would have been nice to see him struggle a bit more and then get better. Everybody loves an underdog.
The Last Bite.
If the 5-star rating and the length of this review didn’t give it away, I’ll say it, I love this book. I will probably be talking about this book for years and years to come. And I will say that I have never once re-read a Harry Potter book, but I would re-read this book. And I have a Harry Potter tattoo so that’s really saying something! Read this book, it is amazing. But be prepared for a dose of reality. If you read books to escape into a fantasy world, this might make for a rude awakening.
— Liselle (@lunchtimelib) January 19, 2016
Could you enjoy a book with an unlikable protagonist?
Have you read The Magicians? What did you think?
Annnnddd as a little bonus, here’s is the trailer for the TV series.
Which I have been live tweeting btw, or live as in whenever I watch them
Let’s do lunch again next week!