So I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman, which has been billed as “Harry Potter for Assholes”, and…
I am not totally on board with that assessment.
Ways this book is similar to Harry Potter:
- It’s about a regular kid who finds out he can do magic and gets sent to a magical school.
- The protagonist is male.
Ways this book is different from Harry Potter:
- All the other ways
However, the “asshole” assessment of the book is accurate, as nearly every single character is, in fact, an asshole. Particularly the protagonist.
Should you read this book, if you haven’t already? Read my review and then decide.
First, the summary, from Goodreads:
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.
So obviously the premise drew me in. A teenager disillusioned with the world as it is, with its lack of magic–what book lover can’t relate to that? So I started reading.
1. The Prose Grossman can turn a phrase. That much is not debatable, and I’m a sucker for good writing.
“I have a little theory that I’d like to air here, if I may. What is it that you think makes you magicians?” More silence. Fogg was well into rhetorical-question territory now anyway. He spoke more softly. “Is it because you are intelligent? Is it because you are brave and good? Is is because you’re special?
“Maybe. Who knows. But I’ll tell you something: I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.
“Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.”
2. The setting Brakebills (their Hogwarts) is a cool old mansion in upstate New York. I wanted to go there. (Up until I met everyone who actually goes there.)
3. The character dynamics If you follow me on Litsy (and you SHOULD) you’ll see how many times I compared this book to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. That’s because once Quentin gets to Brakebills, he falls in with this group of students (“The Physical Kids”) who have this incredibly close, fucked-up dynamic. There is love, both requited and un-, ill-advised sexual encounters, a tremendous amount of alcohol, jealousy, sabotage, death, tears … in short, everything goes horribly wrong because of how awful these characters are. It makes for an interesting read.
4. The humor The events of this novel were awful, but it wasn’t short on the lols.
“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.”
5. The twist I don’t want to get spoilery, but I did enjoy the last quarter or so of the novel far more than the rest, because things took an unexpected, Narnia-like turn. I enjoyed that very much.
6. The theme This was really the thing that left it hovering around 5 stars (out of 10) for me. The theme was so good, and made so much sense:
“[F]or just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”
The Less Good:
1. The telling As this book covers the span of four (five?) years, there’s a tremendous amount of narrative as opposed to scenes. We’re told this happened, then this happened, then this happened, as opposed to being set in the middle of a scene and getting to see it all unfold. I do not like books that are written in this style. Give me scene, give me dialogue. I understand some narrative is necessary, but when it makes up the bulk of the story, it turns me off.
2. The aforementioned characters They were interesting, but not likable. I need one person to root for, at least. I suppose Alice is the one who comes closest to being a sympathetic character, but I didn’t get to know her well enough to care all that much about what happened to her.
3. Too long science-y descriptions of the magic Maybe people who are into physics or chemistry would be into this, but I was not.
4. The randomness So much random-ass stuff just kept happening (geese? fox sex? drunk trees?), some of which didn’t even appear to be relevant by the end of the book. I know there are more books, so hopefully it will all make sense at the end of the series, but right now it does not.
The Magicians, in one sentence:
“Wake up!” Alice said. “This isn’t a story! It’s just one fucking thing after another!”
Am I glad I read this book? Yes, in the same way I am glad I read The Secret History. The dynamic between the characters was fascinating, the prose was incredible, and it left me thinking.
Did I enjoy reading this book? Not particularly. My mind wandered a lot, and I was desperately looking forward to its being over (whereas when I love the book I’m reading, I’m dreading its ending). Much like Quentin, I kept waiting for things to get better, and it wasn’t until the end when they never did that I realized that this was all there was.
Will I read the sequels? I don’t know. It did end on an interesting cliffhanger. But not anytime soon. I am mildly curious as to what happens next, but not sure I can struggle through another book like this when there are more enjoyable books out there to read.
Have you read this book? Have you read its sequels? Let’s discuss!
Currently reading: I’m about halfway through Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen. I needed an antidote to The Magicians, and this is doing the trick. Fast, engaging, filled with scenes and not a ton of narrative. Is it epic? No. Am I enjoying it? Yes. Mission accomplished.
Have a lovely weekend, and don’t forget to read!
Image found here, apparently from the show, which I may just watch, the rest of the books be damned. Maybe.