by T. Mack
Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians, is what you might get if the Harry Potter series got high on cocaine, made out with The Once and Future King, then mated with a drunken version of The Chronicles of Narnia. The book feels very much like a blended perversion of those other three series. It seems clear that HP and Narnia especially offered lots of inspiration for this book, but The Magicians is darker, more twisted and sexier than either of the others ever were. If books were rated like movies, the Narnia series would be rated PG and the HP series would be PG or PG-13 (depending on the book). The Magicians, however, would be rated R for language, mild sexual content, references to drug use, and violence. I’ve read the book and taken a look at Syfy’s new TV series based on it. Check out both reviews conveniently located below.
The Magicians tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a brainy and lonely overachiever who is recruited to give up his Ivy League college aspirations to attend a very secret and highly exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. Quentin, who has spent most of his life obsessed with a fantasy book series called ‘Fillory & Further,’ had always assumed that magic wasn’t real. Suddenly, though, he finds himself working harder than he ever has to become a master of the craft. In between his studies, he discovers the joys of friendship, love, sex and booze. Following graduation, Quentin struggles to find purpose and direction and ends up embracing a lifestyle of debauchery. That is, until an incredible discovery sets him on an adventure he’s been waiting for his entire life.
The story of Quentin is engaging at first. It feels at once new and strangely familiar. From the beginning, the reader roots for Quentin to escape his mundane life and find the magic he’d always dreamed of but never thought was possible. However, the ride soon becomes bumpy. The first half of the book follows Quentin’s time in college, a span of four years. This portion of the book feels jarring, with entire chapters describing a single day then jumping six months between that chapter and the next. It’s incredibly hard not to compare Quentin’s stint at Brakebills University with Harry’s time at Hogwarts School. Unfortunately, Quentin’s school years fall short in the comparison. Where Harry’s time at school was rich and filled with wonder, Quentin’s feels rushed and filled with strange incidents and occurrences that never seem to connect to each other.
Following his time at school, the main character basically turns into a douche bag and the reader finds themselves no longer liking or rooting for him. He’s a strung-out mess who’s pulling his girlfriend down with him (I found myself desperately wanting her to break up with him and move on with her life). Then the grand adventure begins. It’s what Quentin and (I guess?) the reader have been waiting for, but things don’t get particularly better. If anything, they get slightly worse. By this time, Quentin has become a whiny douche bag and the story has shifted gears so that instead of constantly comparing everything to Harry Potter, the reader is invited to hold everything up to The Chronicles of Narnia. As you can imagine, this comparison goes about as well as the first.
While The Magicians is written well enough, the characters, including the protagonist, are mostly unlikable. For most of the book, there is no clear antagonist other than the protagonist himself, who refuses to be happy in any situation, even when he gets what he wants. By the last third of the book, I just wanted it to be over. Had I been reading a hard copy instead of listening to audio, I would not have pushed through to the end. As it was, I finally got through the entire thing and kind of wished I hadn’t bothered.
The back cover of The Magicians claims that the author “pays homage” to the work of C.S. Lewis, T.H. White and J.K. Rowling. I’m here to tell you that’s not correct. What Grossman actually does is rip off all of them and then bastardizes their work. He does it so blatantly that the reader is never able to forget it’s happening. At no point in this book was I able to stop thinking about the stories this one robs from. It never felt particularly original in any way and it failed miserably to stand up to the tales from which it is clearly born. While there was a small portion of story between Quentin’s days at feaux-Hogwarts and his adventure concerning feaux-Narnia, it’s during this time that all the characters are at their most unlikable.
The Magicians is the first in a trilogy that I have no plans to finish. While I love all the works this book draws inspiration from–or possibly because I love them–I did not enjoy reading this pale imitation of them. I recommend The Magicians only for those who are not particular fans of either the Harry Potter or Narnia series. This is a book for those who aren’t into the “childish wonder” variety of magic but instead enjoy a slightly more adult, rougher and sexier side of the craft. (Though that’s not to say there are juicy sex scenes, because there aren’t. But sex plays a huge role in character relationships and motivations. It’s at once too mature for younger audiences and a bit boring for adults who like details of hot and steamy action in the pages of their books.)
The Magicians prides itself on bringing a more realistic look at magic and those who would practice it in our world. But really, it’s just a depressing version of more exciting, more fun, and yes, more idealistic, magical tales. Read at your own risk.
Rating: 1 SHIELD (Up from .5 shield only because the writing isn’t terrible)
If you do, make sure to come back here and take to the comments to let me know what you thought.
The TV series starts in basically the same place the book does–with Quentin trying to interview for entrance into Yale. However, on the show he is a college student attempting to enter graduate school instead of a high school senior trying to begin his undergrad studies.
The story progresses quickly and Quentin begins his studies at Brakebills. However, the show opts to tell stories besides Quentin’s. The viewer is allowed to follow Julia, Quentin’s friend who failed the entrance exam into Brakebills. In the the first book of the series, she is barely featured. But the show promises to tell her story in parallel to Quentin’s. At the same time, the new show allows us a glimpse into the world and knowledge of some key staff at Brakebills. All this is promising since it creates focus on more characters than just Quentin. With this, the show is already doing a better job than the book of connecting events and people.
Quentin seems like he will be nearly as insufferable in the TV show as he is in the book, what with his Woody Allen-esque nervousness and stuttering. Hopefully, the show will feature a maturing of the character that the book didn’t bother to. Even if it doesn’t, Quentin might be slightly tolerable after all since he doesn’t feel like the sole protagonist any more.
The Magicians on Syfy has promise. I am not yet committed to seeing it all the way through. But surprisingly, I’m also not yet ready to give up on it. I’m interested to see how far the show will wander from its source material. Normally, I want an adaptation to stay as true as possible to its origins. In this case, however, I’m looking forward to having the story laid out in a different way that will not make me as angry, bored, or disgusted as the book did. I’m not sure yet that the show is worth recommending. I am certain, however, that giving it a try is a much better option than picking up the book… at least for now.
Rating: 2.5 SHIELDS
Did you check out the double episode premiere of The Magicians on Syfy? Have you read any or all of Lev Grossman’s books in The Magicians series? What do you think of the story, the characters and the new show? Take to the comments and let me know.