The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman once wrote this novel called The Magicians. Or, wait, I think I meant JK Rowling once wrote this series about a boy named Harry Potter. No, that can’t be right. I must have meant CS Lewis wrote a series called The Chronicles of Narnia. Or did I mean none of those? Was it a TV show, run by the TV channel formerly known as SciFi (now the utterly disappointingly spelled Syfy)?

Well, all of those happened. So I guess I win. Four points for me! Fifteen if we’re counting each book from the series. Since I didn’t say The Magicians Trilogy, being only partway into the second, and since I completely don’t count anything Harry Potter that came after The Deathly Hallows, I think that count holds up.

My distaste for the ongoing Harry Potter obsession aside (really, I have reasons. Trust me! I liked—loved—the first seven books, especially as they were books which came out with me as I aged. But I’ve avoided the further entries, despite the definite awareness that I will, eventually, watch the new movies, at the very least. But let me keep my pride a bit longer, please), what I really want to talk about is The Magicians.

What CS Lewis got wrong: the whole religion thing. Like did the entire series, a fantastical journey slash escape from Blitz-era London, exclusive to kids, really have to be ultimately a thinly-veiled religious tract instead of an ongoing romp? Ugh. Loved Narnia. Still do. But, really, the religion is so heavy handed that I prefer to stick to the books like A Boy and His Horse or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where I feel religion isn’t such an important role.

What JK Rowling got wrong (aside from not stopping): the audience. Not really. Because obviously these were children’s books (and, at the beginning, her writing really was most appropriate for children, being not excellent but certainly improving as the series wore on) and should have been in many ways. The magic and the mysticism of Harry Potter discovering the wizarding world is so fundamentally tied to the youthfulness of the readers whose imaginations can replace the characters with themselves and their friends, the parody that is the Dursleys can be something which Harry Potter overcomes rather than something which, in reality, would lead to a very poorly adjusted boy.

But that’s the first book. The audience was supposed to age with the characters, yes, but how does that work now? And if the audience was supposed to age with the characters, then why do the final two books deal heavily with issues of death and sacrifice and loss but hardly at all with sex or drugs or teenage rebellion? Ultimately, Harry is a ramrod straight shooter, as are all of his friends, yet the quantity of kids that are that good in one place is insurmountably unbelievable. Sure, some of them suffer from being evil or not courageous enough. They doubt themselves or fall in line with authority—which includes Harry, really, Dumbledore’s man through-and-through—but they don’t ever do anything truly teenaged. They’re parodies of children who’ve suddenly become adults in a war, they’re not teenagers who’ve suddenly become adults in a war. And as someone who loves fantasy or sci-fi based stories of guerrilla warfare in a completely incongruous manner, I want more. I want those kids to sometimes just get wasted. (In case you weren’t aware, this post has rapidly developed into a Harry Potter post. Oops. Back on track.)

What Lev Grossman got wrong: pacing. The kids here definitely get wasted. Religion happens, and then it’s rejected and murdered. What they don’t do is develop. By which I mean: JK Rowling wrote seven books, one for each year of Harry’s schooling even when he wasn’t in school. I presume (not having read the next installments) that Harry probably went back for a final year, but the big bad was done, gone, so no need to read about it. Because JK Rowling isn’t an indie writer who writes snapshot of life-type things. She writes action books. As her focus, she took three main characters. Others came or went, primarily parodies but occasionally getting that deeper focus, a little bit more of a storyline. Regardless, a tangential character so rarely important to the plot—as say Fred or George, comic relief—is around enough throughout those seven books that they take on an actual personality—and so, when bad things happen, we (I) cry.

The Magicians takes the premise of a kid in Brooklyn who’s never quite fit in. He’s seventeen and intellectually gifted, gearing up to potentially go to college when he graduates. But then he discovers there’s real magic and that, hey, he has it, and he’s accepted to the ultra-exclusive school for magic that will basically be his college. It’s five years of schooling, starting right now.

Just so you know, I’ll spoil a bit. Not in terms of plot, mainly timeline.

So this kid, Quentin, is hugely ecstatic to go to this school. He starts, he attends, he finishes. His entire schooling career, taken care of in one book. The first year and its lead up take a bit, then he skips through a bit, slows down and relaxes, speeds back up, suddenly he’s done and living in New York with his crowd where they’re living the ultimate early-20s hedonistic lifestyle. Until adventure strikes, they go on a series of journey and a quest, stuff happens, there’s a fair bit of aftermath.


Except they’re really hugely sped up and much more aged. Quentin is seventeen when he starts and, while Grossman isn’t hugely explicit about sex, it does happen. As does a lot of drinking and a fair amount of drugs, plus some grotesquely horrifying scenes in the middle. And cursing.

Quentin’s an asshole.

No easy way to say it. I genuinely hate him.

And yet, and yet—I sometimes wish I didn’t. I mean—I didn’t hate him but I did; I hated him but I pitied him but I envied him or maybe just his friends? He was a trainwreck that I, sadistic as I apparently am, couldn’t look away from. He was a jerk and he was cold and aloof, but maybe it made sense, since he’s really had an awkward life. Quentin and Alice are really the only two characters that have time to truly develop in the novel, characters like Elliott are certainly easy to come to understand but don’t really go deeper than the surface. I actually forgot who Josh was after about every five pages. The group on the quest? I couldn’t even list them all if you told me the number.

That’s it’s real failing. It’s too much packed into one book; instead of needing to develop the characters and the backstory, Grossman seems to just rely on our understanding of things like Narnia and Harry Potter to inform us as to the moment and the world. So the pacing is uncomfortable, panning in and zooming out, and the characters are often undeveloped.

Did I enjoy it? Sure. Enough to read the next two, at least, though I notice it’s not exactly quick reading—other books have been catching my eye and slipping their way in front. And, who knows (I do), I’ll probably give the TV show a chance when I’m done with the books (I will), since the first episode of the show made it clear it’s chronologically progressing differently than the books (good choice).


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