Pros: Fresh, original, dark, and very surprising.
Cons: One maudlin part comes perilously close to extending too long
Rating: 5 out of 5
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Group.
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a gritty coming of age story for grown-ups and all-too-adult teens. It’s Harry Potter meets The Chronicles of Narnia, seen through a mirror darkly.
Brooklyn teen Quentin is wickedly smart, and terribly unhappy. He has an unrequited crush on his best friend’s girlfriend, and while he should be worried about getting into the college of his choice, instead all he wishes is that magic were real. In particular, that the Narnia-like world of Fillory, from a series of books he read in his childhood, was real, and he could slip away there and become a hero. Instead, an odd series of circumstances beginning with the death of his college interviewer leads him to Brakebills, a college for magicians hidden away in upstate New York. There he discovers that magic is real, he has a talent for it, and that magic takes a LOT of intense study and work.
When Quentin graduates, he moves in with his girlfriend and spends his time seeking pleasure with several other recent graduates—visiting clubs, taking drugs, drinking, and having sex. Until one day a nearly-forgotten member of his Brakebills class turns up with the key to entering the world of Fillory.
There’s something very satisfying about seeing so many of the tropes from Narnia and Harry Potter twisted and darkened for an older audience. Magic is dangerous, and people die when mistakes get made. The Brakebills students are like many dissatisfied young men and women: all too tempted to drown their lack of happiness in alcohol, drugs, and sex. They think the trip to the magical, fictional world of their youths will solve their ennui and self-loathing, but of course it can’t—particularly since Fillory has some surprises in store for the young magicians.
Quentin’s time at Brakebills is fascinating: watching him go through trials and tribulations, make odd friends, learn the inner workings of magic, and so on. Several surprising events, and the much grittier and realistic depiction of the characters, keep this portion of the book fresh. The style of writing is also highly visual, making it easy to get sucked in.
After Brakebills is perhaps the one portion of the book that wasn’t perfect for me—the ennui and self-destructive behavior the characters wallow in verges on too much and too mundane. That said, it was probably exactly the right amount to set up what follows, so that doesn’t much matter.
Once the group decides to head to Fillory for their wake-up adventure, the book truly soars and becomes a thing of beauty. I was having difficulty imagining an ending or twist or climax that could do the story-until-then justice, yet Lev Grossman piles on surprise after surprise, revelation after revelation, all of which make “oh my God!” sense when viewed in the context of the story so far. He ties things up in ways that made my jaw drop.
Then finally, when you’re sure the story is over, he pushes it just that much further and gives us exactly the perfect ending. I wish I could explain it better, but I’d hate to give something away, and I’m not sure I could adequately put it into words anyway.
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is for everyone who ever wanted to find out magic was real, and fantasy worlds were real, but is too cynical to truly believe.