Lev Grossman’s The Magicians has flown mostly under my radar since its August 2009 release date. When I finally got around to actually checking it out I thought to myself…have I been living under a rock? Almost a thousand reviews on Amazon and over sixty thousand ratings on Goodreads. I must have been, because the book is advertised as, to quote George RR Martin, “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.” Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?
Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, is top-of-the-class smart and in his senior year of high school. Q is still addicted to a series of fantasy books he read when he was younger where five children find a real-world portal to a magical world called Fillory. Narnia, anyone? Quentin is an incredibly depressed kid. He sees everything as lame and boring compared to the adventures of the Chatwin children in Fillory. While he’s deciding what Ivy League college to attend, a series of events lead him to attend a school for magic in upstate New York, where he has many adventures and misadventures and upon graduating, finds that Fillory isn’t as made-up as he thought it was.
After reading up on the plot of the story I decided to check out a few reviews to see where the very mediocre 3.44 rating came from. Turns out most of the poor ratings came from people that were either chafed because of how unoriginal the plot was, what with it essentially being a Harry Potter and Narnia mashup, or peeved that Quentin is such an unlikable bastard of a character more often than not.
To the first people: duh, although Grossman said in an interview that his model for writing the magic school aspect of The Magicians was Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea rather than Rowling’s HP. Rowling’s series has a lot of the same ‘rip-offs’ that people say Grossman’s has, but none of the adoring HP fans seem to know that. Regardless, Grossman utilizes the other series in several ways, many of them humorous. Like when Q asks Eliot how the magicians cast spells and Eliot responds:
“You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin”
The Magicians has a lot of these not-so-subtle references, and they add a lightheartedness that the otherwise depressing and dark book lacks. The students at Brakebills also have a game similar to quidditch, called welters. Grossman uses welters in the same way:
“Hang on,” he said. “Gotta get my quidditch costume. I mean uniform. I mean welters.”
The book really needed these light spots, because the sun doesn’t seem to find its way into The Magicians often.
To the latter critics, I want to talk a bit about something Mark Lawrence, author of the Broken Empire trilogy, said. Fairly recently there was a flare-up of people criticizing Mark’s series, primarily the protagonist Jorg, for being an absolute asshole throughout the series. In a conversation, Mark asked the ultimate question:
Can genre readers stop looking for heroes in every story?
There are plenty of stories with affable, happy heroes that you love to root for. Jorg is supposed to be a bastard. He does absolutely terrible things, things that we flinch at even while reading. In The Magicians, Quentin is severely depressed and makes some very bad decisions, causing the inevitable reader’s facepalm and urge to smack the kid in the back of the head. Not every story has to have exceptionally talented, lovable and loving characters. Does it make most stories better having them? Absolutely. But some, like The Broken Empire or The Magicians, have fantastic stories the simply would not work with a character who is not Jorg or Quentin and with their exact personalities.
Grossman admitted in an interview on some site called Tor.com that he was severely depressed while writing The Magicians, and it shows. It is a dark, dreary and depressing book for the most part, but the story is incredibly compelling. Grossman depicted the initial college experience perfectly, with encounters with booze, sex, love, and many other emotional affairs – even the question that nearly every single college student asks themselves at some point in their college careers – what the hell am I going to do with my life after this?
Grossman created a unique tale in many ways despite tapping into the creativity that, at its roots, came from A Wizard of Earthsea rather than Harry Potter. He doesn’t try to hide it or deny it, he rolls with it and it really works. This was the perfect book to break me out of my reading funk, although it was very bleak and depressing at times. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend everyone who has lived under a rock the past several years or just hasn’t read it yet. Don’t let the ratings sway you.
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