Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Fantasy / Magic / Teenagers / New York City)
Publisher/Publication Date: Plume (8/11/2009)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Happiness eludes a young magician when he discovers the fantasy life he always wanted is darker, scarier, and less satisfying than he wished.

Do I like the cover?: Yes, it's quite pretty, but totally unrelated to the novel, I think.

First line: Quentin did a magic trick.

Was... I frequently frustrated by Quentin, our 'hero'?: YES. (Don't read my comments on GoodReads if you don't want to be possibly spoiled.) 

Did... I like the novel some?: YES.  At times, at moments, I really enjoyed myself, mostly because Grossman is a good writer.  If only I liked his characters more...

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.

Why did I get this book?: It'd been on my TBR for a while, and when I was offered a chance to review the sequel, I figured now was as good a time as any to read it!

Review: To be fair, this book didn't have a chance to be a favorite of mine. From the start, I'd read too many rapturous, swooning reviews about how radical and genre-rocking this novel was -- and so I read it with a more critical eye.

Like many, I found this novel smacked of Harry Potter fanfic with a heavy swirl of Narnia: disaffected genius teenagers discover magic is real, attend magic college, have sex and drink and are disaffected and do magic, discover secret fantasy kingdom is real. That was all pretty yawn-inducing for me: I've limited patience for entitled young adults behaving selfishly and our hero, Quentin, is particularly off-putting.

I'm not someone wedded to the magic/fantasy genre; I've never read much of the Narnia novels (one, maybe two) and I liked Harry Potter enough. Perhaps if I was like Quentin, someone who desperately wished Narnia were real, this novel would have captivated me more. Perhaps if I were still 21 and feeling excessively grown up and super cynical about the world, Quentin and his friends would have resonated rather than repulsed me.

Given the length of this novel, I anticipated some real character development to occur with Quentin, our boy-man hero. Clearly, Grossman was giving a nod to the hero's journey on both a micro and macro level of the story, and a novel like this led me to expect a transformative journey. Characters -- especially the hero -- learn. Our hero grows. But Quentin doesn't learn: he swims in his selfish maudlin puddle throughout the entire novel. It takes his girlfriend immolating herself to save him before he puts aside his selfish jealous rage -- and even then, Grossman lets Quentin off the hook when it comes to reflecting on his bad behavior.

If, say, Quentin were our antihero, then maybe his lack of ethical/moral development would be okay, but in this book, it's clear Grossman wants us to see something deep and real in Quentin. Something authentic and honest (however broken). Instead, I got 429 pages of wallow, wank, angst, stew, and whine.

There were a few moments when I thought Grossman did do something inventive with the genre, a few twists related to faux-Narnia (called Fillory in this novel). The writing was good (making my dislike all the more frustrating!) and the story chugged along at a pretty brisk pace, even if the span of the novel is huge and rather clunky (pre-magic college, magic college, post-magic college, Fillory, post-Fillory). Most of the characters in this novel are pretty unlikable, although that felt real to me: Grossman sets up early on that most magicians are brilliant outcasts, and the misfit club that Quentin finds himself in range true. That didn't make it fun to spend time with them, but they certainly reminded me of people I've met.

Reading this book actually put me in to a bad mood; I was just so damn disappointed in it.  My fault, of course, for letting all the hoopla and raptures to lead me to expect more.  I've got the sequel in my queue for review; if I wasn't obligated to read it, I'm not sure I'd pick it up.


  1. I too find that my expectations are really high when I pick up a book that's had tons of glowing reviews. So far I haven't been too disappointed though. I appreciate your honest review, and after reading it, I think I'll pass on this book.

  2. @Anna -- I'd love to know what you think of the sequel if you end up reading it. I liked it a little more than this one, helped in part that Quentin's character was a tiny bit more mature (although he still lazes about excessively).

  3. I know just what you mean about reading a book that puts you into a bad mood. It happens often with me. This book both does and doesn't appeal to me, so I am curious to see if I end up picking it up at some point.

  4. You're not alone in thinking this book was just okay. I just read it too and was hesitant on whether to continue on w/the Magician King. I think I'll be putting off reading that one til next month.

  5. Even though I liked this novel in the end, I definitely had issues with it. Thanks for the review.