Author: Lev Grossman

2009, Viking Adult

Filed under: Fantasy

Quentin is a gifted student and a sullen teen. Though he’s nearly an adult, he chooses somewhat childish methods of escapism: sleight of hand tricks and Narnia-esque novels set in a land called Fillory. When he is unexpectedly summoned to a secretive college for magicians, Brakebills, he quickly learns magic and other worlds are quite real.

This book was billed as as Harry Potter for adults, and at first, that’s exactly what I got. Turns out, I didn’t much care for that. For the first few chapters, The Magicians is a somewhat fun romp in the mode of Harry Potter: there’s plenty of making friends and learning magic at an enchanted institution. There’s some sexuality and drug use mixed in, but it’s more or less a Potter knockoff. It’s entertaining, but it got stale fast and is somewhat forgettable.

The novel really begins to take off once Quentin and his classmates graduate. Unlike most fantasy stories of this ilk (the Harry Potter series, The Neverending Story, etc), the empowered Brakebills students don’t exit their insular community into a world in desperate need of saving. Instead they are unleashed on a world that is probably better off without them.

Quentin and his friends realize every teenager’s dream. They have almost limitless superhuman powers, unending wealth, and the freedom to do whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want, with zero consequence. The friends soon sink into a depressing hedonism. Power slowly cripples and consumes them much like alcoholism (to which, consequently, they also succumb). Eventually, Quentin makes a series of wrong decisions, putting in jeopardy the things that should most matter to him.  His stubborn avoidance of responsibility and commitment to immature justifications exacerbate the issues. This is when he becomes irreparably unlikeable. This is also when he becomes immensely interesting.

The group of young magicians, on the verge of their own self-destruction, desperately search for some meaning to their lives. When an opportunity comes to adventure, they go, with little regard for the consequences of their actions. They think playing hero can define them, and allow them to fulfill some part of themselves they can’t grasp, yet feel entitled to. Needless to say, they mess things up pretty bad.

All those scenes where Rowling’s hero wants to cave, give up: what if he did? What if he didn’t have that superhuman drive for greatness? How would the story differ? What would happen next? The Magicians turns the wish fulfillment of most fantasy books like this on its head. It is dark, brooding, and, at times, depressing. And because of that, of how very differently it ends than it begins, it is a pretty good book too.

Similar reads: The Book of Lost Things (Connolly), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling), The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (Lewis)