Published August 11, 2009
402 pages (Hardcover)
A few months ago, I saw Lev Grossman speak at the Decatur Book Festival. He was at the festival both in his capacity as TIME Magazine’s chief book critic and also as the author of The Magicians Trilogy (the last book in the series, The Magician’s Land, had just been released). Because I hadn’t read any of his books at the time, I skipped out on his reading, but I did see him participate in a panel entitled “What’s the Point of Book Reviews?” (You can read more about that panel here.)
Grossman struck me as funny, insightful, engaging, and really, really smart. Based on my very favorable impression of him, I decided I needed to read his trilogy as soon as possible. It took me a little longer than anticipated to read the first book in the trilogy, thanks to a ridiculously long wait list at the library for a five-year-old book (the wait speaks to the trilogy’s popularity and the success of/hype for the trilogy’s finale). But I finally knocked it out.
The Magicians is about Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant senior in high school who stumbles upon Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which is hidden (under a variety of protective spells) in upstate New York. Quentin realizes very quickly that this is no ordinary school. All of the students are brilliant (“Everyone here was the cleverest little monkey in his or her particular tree. Except now we’re all in one tree together. It can be a shock. Not enough coconuts to go round. You’ll be dealing with your equals for the first time in your life, or your betters. You won’t like it.”), and they all have varying degrees of natural magical ability. At Brakebills, they go through a rigorous program of study (including a surprising semester abroad) to develop and hone their magic skills.
After graduation, Quentin and his buddies end up in Manhattan, where they are getting reacclimated to life with normal (non-magical) people by drinking and partying and being generally unproductive. But, then, out of the blue, one of their former classmates shows up with a portal to a world (which, until that point, they all thought was fictional) called Fillory. Quentin and his friends must determine whether they should embark on the journey to Fillory, knowing that adventure and danger await.
The Magicians has been described as a Harry Potter series for adults. And there are definite similarities. There’s Brakebills, the magical school filled with magical students, which is a lot like Hogwarts. There’s welters, a dorky magical game that the Brakebills kids play in tournaments, which is such a nod to Quidditch that the kids make jokey references to brooms. And the Brakebills students even get separated into Disciplines based on their magical ability. Each Discipline takes classes together, plays welters together, and hangs out together. Quentin’s Discipline is Physical Magic, but it might as well be called Gryffindor. And, without giving anything away, I will say that the book’s climax feels very similar to the ending in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The similarities to Harry Potter are not the only nods to the genre. There are also distinct similarities to other popular young-adult series. The exam that Quentin must take to get into Brakebills (a multi-component exam that begins with a written test and whittles down the applicants after each different component) is very reminiscent of the tests taken by the gifted children in The Mysterious Benedict Society. And Fillory, the magical land to which Quentin and friends travel, is a lot like Narnia. It is accessed by a grandfather clock (among other magical portals) and inhabited by a variety of creatures, including fauns and centaurs.
So, if you’re a fan of any/all of these books, there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy The Magicians. But there’s also a good chance that you’ll find it a bit too formulaic. Grossman reads for a living, and he knows which books sell. It seems like he took great components of several books and mashed them all together in the hopes of landing on a best-selling concept. To his credit, it worked (The Magician’s Land was a recent #1 New York Times bestseller). But be forewarned: there’s nothing particularly new or creative about this book (the jacket blurb’s claim that the book is “magnificently inventive” is laughable). Yes, it’s fun, but it all feels like it’s been done before.
Overall, the book is decently well written. For me, it was a little too slow and not exciting enough. Not to mention, I expected a bit better from a guy who holds degrees from both Harvard and Yale. There were multiple instances in which the word “which” was used in a very colloquial (and, by “colloquial,” I mean idiotic) way. This got under my skin in a way that I cannot sufficiently describe. An early example: “And if you tell him you saw me smoking, I will banish you to the lowest circle of hell. Which I’ve never been there, but if even half of what I hear is true it’s almost as bad as Brooklyn.” Blech.
On the flip side, there are some very fun elements of the book. I don’t want to give away any fun plot points, so I will be intentionally vague. The mystery of the fourth-year students’ “semester abroad” and how they arrive there is surprising and delightful. And the cacodemons (a little gift bestowed on all of the magicians as they are graduating from Brakebills) are a fun concept (although they could have been developed a little better/more climactically). Also, I like that this book could stand alone (unlike individual books in some terrible trilogies . . . this one in particular comes to mind).
So, final assessment: are Grossman’s books as funny, insightful, engaging, and smart as he is? Sadly, no. Based on Grossman’s personality, I had hoped for something fast-paced, laugh-out-loud funny, creative, and a little nerdy (in the best possible way). What I got was something medium-paced, moderately clever, copycat, and a little nerdy (in a mediocre kind of way).
Now, to be fair, I’ve only read one of his books. Perhaps I’m being quick to judge. My hopes were high with this one, but I have heard (and other reviewers confirm) that the Magician books get progressively better. So, despite my somewhat harsh judgment of this one, and in light of the fact that the set-up for the second novel was sufficiently intriguing, I will definitely be reading the next book in the trilogy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Stay tuned.
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for August 2009
- Winner of the 2010 Alex Award
- Finalist for the 2009 Kitschies Red Tentacle Award
Who should read it: People for whom a grown-up Harry Potter (i.e., all the fun magic with a little bit of sex and a lot of drinking thrown in for good measure) sounds appealing.
REMINDER! Tomorrow is #GivingTuesday. Give the gift of reading!
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Yes Please by Amy Poehler (the pull quote that Poehler suggests editors will want to use for her book: “I have the Angelina Jolie of vaginas.”)
- The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion (the soon-to-be-released sequel to the best-selling The Rosie Project, which was an Amazon Best Book of the Month in October 2013)