Lev Grossman’s The Magicians has been described as Harry Potter plus The Chronicles of Narnia for adults, and in a way, that’s a fair assessment. But The Magicians is also something entirely its own. It has a vastly different feel than the Harry Potter books: grittier, more sordid. It seems to be at once more and less magical than Harry Potter or Narnia—more technical, but less wondrous.
Our protagonist is Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant young man who also happens to be a pretty self-absorbed downer. I did not hate Quentin, but nor did I care very much about his well-being. Having a semi-unlikeable character at the center of the story is, I believe, intentional on Grossman’s part: the whole “point” of the book seems to be that magic would actually impact real life and real, flawed people in a much less exciting and more dangerous way than we would like to believe.
In fact, Quentin himself has been led to believe that magic, if it exists, would make life much more, well, magical. He, like millions of real-life Harry Potter and Narnia fans, reads and re-reads a children’s fantasy series about a magical world named Fillory, which is reminiscent of Narnia in that a group of siblings accesses this magical land via one particular grandfather clock.
Obsessed with magic tricks and the Fillory books, Quentin one day stumbles upon (really, he’s “invited” to) a boarding school for magicians, the prestigious Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. He passes the entrance exam and is enrolled at the five-year school. It seems that his wildest, most improbable dreams have come true: magic is real, and he can perform it! Unfortunately, magic also turns out to be extremely challenging. (There is no foolish wand waving at Brakebills; rather, magic is performed with the hands and is much, much more difficult to learn than it is at Hogwarts.) So Quentin experiences life as a student of magic in much the same way as college students do today, complete with lots of studying, sex and copious amounts of alcohol.
Unfortunately, Quentin finds that simply being a magician does not make him Happy or Fulfilled; nor do his friends or his (totally awesome and brilliant) girlfriend. And when Quentin and his friends find out that Fillory actually exists—and manage to find their way there in search of a quest, like the ones they’ve read about—they realize that even that magical world is a disappointment; it’s nothing like Quentin’s favorite books have led him to believe. In Fillory, there is real danger around every corner.
I found the pacing of The Magicians to be annoyingly varied. The novel is divided into books, and some of them were much more exciting than others. The first (very long) book details Quentin’s years at Brakebills, during which nothing much happens. Sure, we get to know the characters better, and a big plot point or two makes an appearance, but for the most part these plot points are there are and gone in a flash, barely understood and not to be returned to until much later on in the book. I was interested in the magical world that was being set up, but I kept wondering,Where’s the plot? When is something going to happen?
The last third of The Magicians is where the real action takes place, and in my opinion, it made up for the lack of action in the first two thirds. Questions were answered; everything fit perfectly into place like a puzzle, which I appreciated. There are real, scary moments in this book—moments where magic goes awry, where terrifying creatures appear—which I absolutely loved. I understand what The Magicians is trying to say: that magic is not all fun and games and childish fantasy, but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with Fillory.
For the most part, this book was well done. There were a few rough spots; for example, at one point it seemed as though Grossman was attempting to ask serious existential/religious questions, but he never really followed through on that. But despite its slow beginning and whiny protagonist, this book is definitely worth a read. I liked that even though The Magicians was in many ways similar to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, the magic was so different. I think it’s a world (or worlds) worth exploring.