MK’s Book Reviews: The Magicians

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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.

The Good:

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!

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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.

15 thoughts on “MK’s Book Reviews: The Magicians

  1. I literally spit out my drink at the “Harry Potter for Assholes” comment because okay, you’re not wrong. But after perusing a lot of reviews regarding this series, I think by and large that many people disliked it BECAUSE they were trying to compare it to Harry Potter and/or Chronicles of Narnia, and it obviously fell short of those two epic series, as most are wont to do. However, at the implication that you won’t read the further ones, I implored you to. The second book was a bit disjointed for the first, which was an issue for me, but maybe it would appeal to someone like you that did not thoroughly enjoy the first book. I think Grossman does an incredible job building his universe, although he definitely does abandon his character development, but I think its worth it to continue exploring. Let me know if you decide to continue 🙂

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  2. I pretty much agree with everything you said here. I hate when things get compared to Harry Potter, because I feel like there’s so much I loved about HP other than just the magic. I read The Magicians a few years back and was really unimpressed. That said, I’ve heard the series just gets better, so I’m thinking I’m ready to give it another try. (Especially since I’ve forgotten almost everything that happens.) Going into it with relatively low expectations, I might find I enjoy it more.

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  3. I like your review of this! I also read The Magicians, and ended up reading the whole trilogy. Hmm… I don’t know. I had a lot of the same reaction you did. I would much rather they extend the time spent at Brakebills instead of packing 5 years in a book. I was bored a lot. It’s a super interesting premise, and a lot of it intreguied me (drugs! sex! language!). Trying to decide if I’d recommend the other two books……….. I think only if you really liked Book 1. Books 2 and 3 didn’t make book 1 any better if you didn’t like it.

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  4. An interesting review. The premise of the story is intriguing, though your review of the execution leaves me wondering. I do not like a lot of college kids and the shenanigans they get up to. As you said, I need someone to root for.

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  5. okay am back…

    I agree with 99% of everything you said. I loved the writing. I feel like he writes so powerful and concise? To the point? No frilly malarky about feelings and droning on and on *cough Raven Boys cough*

    Although I agree that the author gets to scientific with the explanation for magic – I also thought that makes magic real for me. For example, in Harry Potter – the potions use things that that aren’t available IRL and I’ve said “Lumos” a 1000 times and I still have to get up to flick the light switch. (ha!) But in The Magicians – it’s science. Maybe science that I don’t know but perhaps can learn!

    The twists in the end; I love love love love love love love when I can’t predict the end of a book. I’m super full of myself in the reading department and I feel like I can pretty much predict 95% times – the ending. (I read anyway because for me its the journey not that destination that counts) When I’m surprised -I can vouch to love the book just on that purpose.

    The next book…. please read it. I liked it better than the 1st. Lots of traveling to new places, old characters reappearing, underground magicians cults, rapist goat Gods (did you pick up the author hates God theme? Or maybe that’s 2nd book)… its an adventure. But you’ll still have the same complaints in the 2nd book that you did with the 1st.

    This is one of those stories — that you have to let simmer and think about again after you’ve read something else. Till day – this is one my top 15 greatest books ever read. And I don’t like ONE SINGLE character either.

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