The Magicians, Lev Grossman: Book Review

A darker take on magic.

the magicians lev grossman book reviewViking/Butler Newsroom
The Magicians Book Cover The Magicians
The Magicians
Lev Grossman
August 11, 2009

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he’s still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin’s fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

The Magicians has a very special place in my heart. Shortly after discovering Patrick Rothfussblog, I would regularly check for updates, especially when I was searching for new fantasy and science fiction books to read, as Rothfuss’ often provided readers with recommendations. Back in 2009, Rothfuss’ wrote a blog praising Lev Grossman and recommending The Magicians for a few different reasons that appealed to me as someone who reads books that are primarily in the fantasy genre.

The Magicians is, first and foremost, a very different sort of fantasy novel. It’s witty and full of dark humor, not to mention incredibly depressing. It’s the sort of novel that you love, but you aren’t quite sure why, because Quentin isn’t the most lovable character. The style is also different – early on, the book was compared to Harry Potter, but for adults, which may work as a description, but there’s so much more to it. The pacing is lightning fast, the world-building is sometimes lacking, and the characters go through an incredible amount of hardship. Magic isn’t whimsical. It’s not something out of a fairy tale. It’s dark and full of pain. Characters gain magic, but are broken because of it. So while it may appeal to Harry Potter fans, it will most likely be enjoyed by the person who understands and experiences anxiety and depression, or the person who has grown up devouring fantasy. In that regard, it is unlike anything else I have ever read, and it’s beautiful.

As we are now in the third season of the television adaptation of The Magicians, I decided to re-read the series. It’s been at least seven years since I last read the first novel in the series, and I realized that while I remembered quite a bit, there was so much that I forgot about. In all honestly, it broke my heart all over again, and for that reason, it is still one of the most memorable fantasy series that I have ever read.

This review contains quotes and spoilers from the book.

If you are looking for a light-hearted, whimsical fantasy story, The Magicians is not for you. You will not like the main character, Quentin Coldwater, for a very long time. He is not your typical fantasy hero. He is not an aspiring wizard that is filled with instant happiness as soon as he realizes that he can perform magic. Instead, he is a depressed high school student that is living a life without meaning. The girl he loves has no interest in him. He has no aspirations for college. His life is made just a bit brighter by the Fillory books, which can most easily be compared to the Narnia books, except they are not as whimsical and happy as they appear to be on the outside. He also has an affinity for trick magic, in part due to an overwhelming sense of boredom, because he is one of the smartest students in school.

Quentin’s brooding, dark thoughts may be welcome to those who have experienced anxiety or depression. As readers, we are often introduced to characters that have experienced a fleeting sadness or moment of anxiousness, but it is not common to be given the inner thoughts and workings of a character that is truly depressed. At times, Quentin’s total disregard for his surroundings and his lack of empathy will make you hate him. Toward the end of the novel in particular, his behavior becomes downright depressing, unbelievable, and heart-breaking, especially when you take his life into consideration – he has anything he could ever want and in a single moment, he throws it all away.

Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all of the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.

– excerpt from Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

Lev Grossman really adds to Quentin’s character through his literary style. While I wouldn’t say the writing itself is poor, it’s very juvenile, which in reality, makes it really well done. It fits the thought process of a young adult quite well. It’s distracted, and at times, immature, but so are high school students entering college and leaving their parents for the first time. Grossman does a great job pulling you into Quentin’s mind, which manages to be dreary, observant, unhappy and distracted all at the same time.

One day, while on his way to a college interview, Quentin is met with a strange twist of fate and sent to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Here is is met with the realization that magic actually exists. But there is no wand waving. Instead, it’s difficult hand magic, requiring the use of archaic languages, practiced hand movements, and an incredible discipline. Magic does not come easy by any means, and it is only for the incredibly gifted, despite being a by-product of mental and physical pain.

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. … A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.

– excerpt from Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

Time at Brakebills goes surprisingly fast and only spans about half of the novel. Five years of schooling packed into 200 or so pages sounds surprising, and it is. In fact, Grossman builds up the school tremendously, introducing some of its secrets – the library, Welters, the Physical Kids’ cottage, disciplines and more, only to leave you in the dark. While he provides specific scenes, the section dedicated to Brakebills feels clipped, as though it was cut short. As a reader, there was so much more I wanted to see – the worldwide Welters tournament, Quentin’s final project, Brakebills South – all events that go by in a blur. Although I understand that these situations also occur rather quickly for Quentin, as a reader introduced to a magical school, you can’t help but want to see more come of it, especially when Quentin and Alice skip a year entirely.

While you might hate Quentin for a good portion of the novel, many of the supporting characters are enjoyable, although for different reasons. Eliot has an unaffected air about him; Janet is a know-it-all who isn’t afraid to take control; Josh is a magical anomaly that is always making jokes; Alice is intelligent and quiet. Although the pacing can be incredibly fast at times, Grossman makes sure to spend time developing his characters through lazy afternoons, adventures, and games. The Physical Kids’ (the name given to students who have an affinity for physical magic, who just so happen to be Quentin, Alice, Eliot, Janet and Josh), become a very important part of Quentin’s life and move onward with him even after he leaves Brakebills.

Speaking of life beyond Brakebills, if you thought Quentin was bad at the beginning of the novel, it gets so much worse. Graduating from Brakebills manages to make his mindset worse, as he has no drive or direction in life. He destroys his relationships, disregards emotion and becomes spiteful for no reason other than his own desire to attain happiness – that is, until he learns that the world he has always dreamed of is real. Other worlds exist and Fillory is one of them.

At first, Fillory is a saving grace – a new adventure that will repair relationships and restore happiness to the broken Physical Kids. Although unknown and frightening, it’s the world they always dreamed of – a world that brings them all together – even Penny, who for the vast majority of the novel is absent.

While Fillory is initially a breath of fresh air, things go wrong very quickly as the group of young adults meet unexpected foes, bloodbath and pain. Although the new land initially repairs broken friendships, it is full of unexpected consequences that leave Quentin beaten, broken, and physically altered.

Although dark and brooding, The Magicians is a wonderful addition to the fantasy genre that sparks interest in adult magic while touching on mental illness. Despite the dark and difficult scenarios within, humor, wit and a bit of romance help to bring light, along with an incredible cast of characters that steal the show. If you are looking for a new fantasy read that explores the darker side of magic, give The Magicians a try, as the quality and content improve drastically as the series progresses.

Have you read any of the books in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy?

Share your thoughts on the series in the comments below!

Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.