The Magicians, Lev Grossman

Viking, 2009, 402 pages (hardcover)

On Friday I introduced you to a quote from The Magicians. It’s not the type of book I’d usually choose for myself, but this random book came to me in a not-that-random way. Hands down the best “pep talk” I got to read during my NaNoWriMo adventure was written by Lev Grossman. It struck a chord with me, and it was also pretty funny. I promptly read up on his novels and discerned that they seemed at least sort of interesting. Within minutes I was reading an e-version of The Magicians. This was very exciting. It was all moving so fast! I was sure I’d found a new favourite author, and for at least those first three pages I was riding a wave of unfettered laughter and glee.

Then the plot took a turn for Weirdsville, and it never got back. Yes, I knew it would be original and fantastical and all these things. Even George R. R. Martin (of all people) warned me that “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.” Well, it turns out I quite enjoy tea.

Okay, to be fair, this is objectively a good book. The characters are cool and alternately lovable and hateable, in true human fashion. Their worlds are real and clearly described. Despite the author’s propensity to use impressive big words and turn an intricate phrase, there was still an overall casual, subversive tone about the novel that I really enjoyed. It didn’t take itself too seriously. In a lot of ways, this is not your typical fantasy. Reading it, I got the sense that Grossman didn’t strain overmuch in the writing of this novel, that he’s got natural-born talent. I know from his pep talk that can’t be the case, which is why I like it all the more. It’s inconceivable to me that he ever could have doubted this project.

All that aside, my biggest complaint is really just the weirdness. The plot is straight-forward enough. Quentin Coldwater is a regular boy, plucked from a non-magical existence into the halls of Brakebills, a sort of college for magicians. His world opens up for a while, but he’s soon dismayed to find the same sense of boredom with life always lurking in the shadows. Deep down, what Quentin really wants is an escape, preferably to the Narnia-like land of Fillory he read about as a kid. Imagine his surprise when, after graduation, he finds out it’s real! A quest ensues, but not before all the students are turned into geese, Quentin finds out one of his teachers is a pixie, and a man with a branch floating in front of his face terrorizes the school.


Really, absolutely nothing was off-base or unheard of in this book. Most of the time I laughed out loud at the hilarity of it, but sometimes I had to scratch my head. A personal favourite passage, when Quentin and his friends are flying south:

Quentin couldn’t imagine stopping. He couldn’t believe how strong he was, how many wing beats he had stored up in his iron chest muscles. He just couldn’t contain himself. He had to talk about it.

“Honk!” he yelled. “Honk honk honk honk honk honk honk!”

His classmates agreed.

That’s not to say the book offers nothing of merit, though. Even though our hero is consistently mopey and self-centered he has occasional good insight: “In a way fighting was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life worse.”

If anyone understands the power of words and how to wield them, it’s Lev Grossman. I can’t be sure I’ll read the rest of this seriesbut I will most definitely keep an eye on this author’s work in future.


4 responses

  1. The first time I read this book I hated it, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Now it’s one of my favorite books of all time. The fact that Quentin’s wildest dreams come true and yet he still manages to not to change really strikes a chord with me regarding human nature and true happiness. Good post!

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