Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
Viking, 2009 (August 11)

The Magicians is an extraordinarily difficult book to review; especially as a fan of speculative fiction. The difficulty arises I think, while this is perhaps obvious and pertinent to all fiction, because The Magicians is a book that operates on quite a few different levels. It is a book that examines the ennui and existentialism of the young and the privileged, it is a book that examines the confluence of the mundane and the magical, it is a book about growing up, and it is a book about vanquishing the rote and the boring elements of life and recapturing the exuberance and wonder of our childhood fantasies. I’m sure there’s more but I will suffice to say that The Magicians is a multi-layered nuanced piece of fiction whose interpretation and reception is intimately tied to what the reader brings with them. I know that last sentence is a bit of a cop out (what fiction isn’t like that?) but for me at least The Magicians is a book that struck a deep personal chord, evoking a reaction that I find difficult to articulate. I’ll do my best, but I don’t make any promises, so read on at your own peril.

Quentin Coldwater, a genius brooklynite teen and secret fan of the C. S. Lewis-like Christopher Plover’s Fillory, suddenly finds himself thrust into the world of magical college Brakebills. While the combination of magic and real society his elicited comparisons to Harry Potter, in truth the Brakebills and post-Brakebills parts of the novel have more in common with Donna Tartt’s Secret History. The air of arrogance and privilege that infuses the middle third of the novel is abrasive and oppressive and it was with that same air, combined with the aforementioned existential angst, that the revelation of Fillory’s actual existence is approached and examined.

As a result the novel carries with it a certain bleak oppressiveness that taints the landscape of Fillory (and perhaps childhood fantasy in general) in bright technicolor transforming it into a garish almost absurd caricature of itself. Fillory is, as magical realms often are, plagued by a great danger that isn’t properly revealed until the novel’s climax. While the climax is the culmination of the themes and atmosphere espoused earlier in the novel, a storm born when the fronts of youthful arrogance and magical reality collide, the resolution is really left to the novel’s denouement; a fact that softened the punch of the novel’s final pages and left me uncertain as to the final message Grossman was trying to deliver.

The lackluster delivery towards the end and failure of the novel to really cohere into some kind of whole, amongst several other details, are why on many levels The Magicians didn’t work for me.  Those “other details” mainly include the fact that I couldn’t really like or relate (sorry Dr. Shannon!) to any of the characters found in the novel.  Grossman manages to craft a few compelling characters and, with the exception of Alice, we never really delve to deeply into their stories.  Quentin, despite being the novel’s narrator, remains a remarkably blank slate.  Other than his infatuation with the Plover books Quentin’s motivations and desires remain unkn0wn; both to himself and the reader.

Quentin’s lack of presence  in the novel is indicative of the other “little detail” in that I felt that the novel really lacked direction.  Absent of the magic the plot for The Magicians would be as follows: Quentin  goes to college falls in with a popular elitist crowd, becomes extraordinarily self-important, graduates,  inherits his trust fund, spends his time throwing dinner parties, and fails to really become much of anything.  Which, even with the magical elements of the book, is remarkably close to about 2/3 of the novel.  There isn’t any real overarching plot to tie the novel together.  Sure towards the end we get the “quest” in Fillory and the hijinks that ensue there but it has a tacked on, conventional feel.  A fact which I suspect is completely intentional and leads me to my other, final, problem with the book: I felt like Grossman was making fun of fantasy.  It is subtle, wavering between satire and meta-commentary but I kept feeling like the book was looking down on the genre it purports to pay homage to.  Maybe it is just the basic incompatibility between the mundanity of reality as we know it and the fantastic that lends that faint edge of mockery but it was something I felt quite distinctly, particularly during the Fillory sections of the novel.  In hindsight though I think that the satire and gentle prodding of typical fantasy conventions outweighs outright mockery.

Looking back at what I’ve written above you would think I really disliked the The Magicians but in truth my feelings are much more mixed than that.  Grossman’s magical elements are truly entertaining and frequently wildly inventive.  Sometimes the elements of the mundane and strictly realistic he injects into the more magical elements of novel produces so humorous moments: the talking bear that Quentin chats up in Fillory comes to mind or the centaurs towards the novel’s end.  Sometimes the humor fell a little flat, such as the adventurers who act as guides to Ember’s tomb and whose presence was a bit perplexing.  In the end I think that The Magicians is a novel the desperately wants to be about shirking the mundanity of our adult existence and embracing the wonder and magic of our childhood fantasies (or at least molding those fantasies to fit more accurately to our adult selves) but I’m not quite sure it succeeds in that regard.   The Magicians did get me thinking of my own relationship to the fantasies of my childhood, what I read today, and how I approach my own life which, I suppose, is a credit to any novel.  I do think that The Magicians is worth a read, especially for those of who enjoy the fantasy genre or for those who have fond memories of their childhood excursions to Narnia or Middle-Earth.  It is a book that will leave many readers, like myself, a bit perplexed but ultimately (I think) will instigate readers to examine both their own lives and how they interact with the fiction they choose to read.

If you’re interested in the Magicians remember to check out the various sites created to support the novel:

You can explore Fillory here: www.emberstomb.com

· Read excerpts from author Christopher Plover’s Fillory series here: www.christopherplover.com.

· Explore Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy’s secret website here: www.brakebills.com

· And make sure to visit www.themagiciansbook.com

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

  1. Andrew

    I never got the sense that he was making fun of fantasy, or looking down upon it, but taking a number of held conventions and changing them to take the genre in a new direction. The book is certainly a product of past fantasy novels, which makes it hard to really stand out or come up with something really diffferent – that’s what I see Grossman as doing – he’s taken a new look at fantasy novels. One of the big things that was really missing was the big, overarching villian, which, after explained to me, made a bit of sense. It’s certainly a change from the normal happenings, which is one reason why I really liked this book.

  2. thomas

    Perhaps it’s the perspective of a middle-aged reader, but I found this book profoundly sad. It seems to me that Grossman seeks to explore questions with (instead of for) the reader: How is it that just the idea of magic is powerful enough to make us ache in its absence? What do we have that might be thought of as magic, and how should we use it? You get the idea. I loved the book but found myself hating Grossman for cutting so deeply.

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