The Magicians, by Lev Grossman


If you’ve heard of The Magicians, there’s a decent chance that what you’ve heard of is the SyFy TV show based on this series of books. Having read the books first and then given the TV show a whirl, I have a stark warning for you:

If you are watching or considering watching this show, whichever device you’re watching it on, press the off switch. Close your browser, turn off your TV. Back away – that’s right, keep going – that’s it. Back away all the way to your front door, then get in your car or hop on a bus and get yourself to the nearest book shop to buy the books instead.

The Magicians trilogy has widely been described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups”. While I can see where this statement is coming from, it honestly does these books a disservice. The comparison comes about easily when you’re faced with a book about a normal guy who finds himself suddenly in a world where magic is real, and he’s getting taught to use it, but for me the comparison needs to end there (and I say this as someone who loves Harry Potter). The Magicians is… *looks around furtively* …better.

Quentin Coldwater is on his way to an interview for a place at Princeton when, instead, he finds himself at the entrance exam for Brakebills University – a kind of undergraduate-level Hogwarts, but like, in America. Obviously he succeeds in getting a place, and the adventure unfolds from there.

One of my favourite aspects of these books is the tone. It has a rich, anglophile vibe that reminds me of the Raven Cycle and The Secret History and Atonement; that perfect English summer with an ever-present undertone of melancholy. Quentin has been criticised as a character for being something of a whiny emo man-baby, but I actually liked that about him; it’s like having Draco Malfoy for a protagonist (though that being said I think we’re all aware that even the sainted Potter himself was something of an Angst-King). Another criticism levelled at him is his treatment of love-interest Alice; that he places her on a pedestal and doesn’t see her for who she actually is. Alice is a well-developed and multi-faceted character, but Quentin idealises her in the extreme. I personally actually enjoyed this; Quentin is for all intents and purposes a realistic character. We all know men like this. He has a pretty good development arc over the course of the series, but being a bit of an emo angst-monster is just part of who he is, and I appreciate that about him.

The ‘supporting cast’ are also very enjoyable. Erstwhile best-friend Elliott is universally beloved as far as I can tell, and with good reason – he’s sharp, witty and sophisticated, but has his weaknesses and is an all-round extremely fun character to be reading. Margo could happily be compared to The Secret History’s Camilla, both in personality, style and her role within a male friendship group, but with more bucket-loads more gumption. I’d try and summarise Penny, but really, read it and you’ll agree – how does one even begin to explain Penny?

Although the entire series is strong through to the finish – there’s the usual slight tail off in my enjoyment as the loose ends are tied up and I always ended questioning some of the author’s choices – the first book stands apart in its appeal for me. There’s a decent period set at Brakebills where the characters are going to classes and spending their free time at a cottage set aside for those few studying their speciality. The comparisons with the vibe of The Secret History are particularly strong here: a small group of exclusive students drinking and fucking each other in a seemingly endless summer, a la the scenes at Francis’ house. It’s a strong vibe that I really enjoyed, and I’d argue that Grossman does it far better than Tartt. (Can you tell I recently read The Secret History? Sorry, sorry. Moving on!) That period is so well developed that I grew extremely attached to the characters, so that by the time the action sequences took off I was deeply invested, which always makes for an excellent reading experience.

In terms of ‘action-plot’, we know from the outset that Quentin is obsessed with a children’s book series called Fillory and Further – essentially the Chronicles of Narnia. In terms of the role of this aspect, this is essentially a young adult still being obsessed with Harry Potter, and when he goes through a period of depression in his late teens he grows even more attached to this comforting staple of his childhood (something I experienced with Harry Potter at a similar age, as I’m sure many many people have). Rather than the admission to Brakebills, it is this obsession that drives the plot,  as well as adding a highly entertaining meta-layer to these books. Grossman knows what he’s doing, and does it well. To delve too deeply into the role that Fillory and Further plays in these books would be spoiler-y, so I’ll refrain. In summary, if you enjoy books that are mostly played straight but, on occasion, there is a reference that acts as a sly wink from the author to the reader, you’ll enjoy this aspect. I know I did; it’s like being in some weird exclusive nerd club.

These books narrowly missed out on being in my Top 5 Reads of 2018. They have it all; excellent, flawed, realistic characters; a richly aesthetic, incredibly well developed and highly believable world; outstanding writing. Grossman has created a world in which magic is truly believable, and these books are indeed magic. They’re dark, they’re atmospheric, they’re snarky, they’re meta, they’re intense, they’re funny, they’re awesome.

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