Home > Book Reviews > Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I just finished The Magicians, a fantasy-type novel by Lev Grossman.  Prior to reading the book, I really didn’t know much about it except a comment made that there was some discussion whether to market it as genre or general fiction. It was ultimately sold as general fiction and in many ways I think that was a wise decision.

The novel opens as Quentin Coldwater, an uber-intelligent, but listless, high-schooler in New York, is whisked off to a strange place to take an entrance test for an exclusive college. Upon his abrupt arrival, he immediately wonders if he has entered the world of Fillory, a land in a much beloved series of children’s books he devoured as a child. These books describe adventures of the Chatwin children who are transported into Fillory much like the children in the Narnia books.

Accepted as a student, he pursues courses in magic a la Harry Potter, but much more monotonous and scientific than Hogwarts. As one student states,

The work is different, too. It’s not what you think. You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.

The problem is, however, it’s not Harry Potter. I love the fact that the book is a bit less silly and more gritty than the Harry Potter books, but the spark that’s missing is a sense of joy and purpose.

The beginning pulls you in: the mystery of the school and discovering how magic works.  But then, nothing.  There’s no great evil to overcome, there’s no purpose to magic in the greater world.

The Magicians seems to me to be a post modernist view of fantasy. There is no overarching morality or rules to follow. Instead, each person is just expected to follow his or her own code. Things just are — there is no meaning.

But, the fact of the matter is that the book is joyless.

  • The characters are joyless, looking for meaning in sex and drugs. They have few bonds of loyalty or comradeship between each other.
  • Magic is joyless: merely a memorization of endless charts and exceptions.
  • Any accomplishments are joyless, even the Harry Potter-esque geme of welters. Virtually all of the active magicians that are shown in the book are empty, purposeless shells.
  • And, when Quentin and his “friends” finally have the opportunity to visit Fillory, it too is a joyless occasion.
In some ways, the book is an homage to Harry Potter and Narnia. But, in many others, it attempts to extract and laugh at the innocence and the magic from those books.
I think I’ll read the sequel, The Magician King, but only after cleansing my palate first.

3  out of 5 stars (finished October 16, 2011)

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Currently reading:  The Myriad by R.M. Meluch and Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich.

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