My thoughts on The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Posted July 27, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 13 Comments

My thoughts on The Magicians by Lev GrossmanThe Magicians by Lev Grossman
Published by Plume on 2009
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
Format: eBook
Pages: 428
Source: my shelves

Goodreads | Amazon

Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn't real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in the joys of college--friendship, love, sex, and booze--and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn't bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin's yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they'd imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world--where good and evil aren't black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.

(from the publisher)

I’m not even sure where to start, so I guess I’ll start by saying this:

Overall, I am not impressed by this book. It’s a bad mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia. It is neither “psychologically piercing” nor “dazzlingly inventive,” and I didn’t find it “enthralling.”

I read this book for #1book140, and at the beginning of our foray into The Magicians the author stated that he wrote this book because he loves young-adult fantasy and wanted to write a young-adult fantasy novel for adults, “with all the sex and drinking and other complicated adult realities that young adult authors have to leave out.” Now, I’m no judgmental prude; I’m not anti-booze, or anti-sex, and I’m definitely not anti-cussing. Have at it. However, if the only thing that separates YA novels from adult novels are booze, meaningless sex, and cussing, then we have a serious problem.

The storyline itself just isn’t that good, and it’s dragged out over 400 pages. It starts out…okay…then it gets really lame (Fillory is a very disappointing version of Narnia)…then it picks up for a bit about three-quarters of the way through…and then it gets lame again at the end. One of the participants of #1book140 suggested that the book was more focused on character development than plot, which would have been fine with me if I had seen anything in the way of character development. Sure, the characters changed as the story went on, but I don’t feel that the reasons for those changes were very well explained. With the exception of Alice (and maybe Penny and Josh, for different reasons), all of the characters are pretty shmucky and selfish, and they aren’t the least bit likeable. Unfortunately, I didn’t find myself invested in any of them–not even Alice (the one character whose unhappiness is actually warranted).

BUT…

I gave The Magicians three stars (liked it) instead of two stars (didn’t like it) on Goodreads because there are elements of the story that are pretty cool, and Lev Grossman definitely has good writing skills. I liked the ideas behind the history of magic and how magic works, and there are a few scenes in the story that I really enjoyed. I think the book could have been really good, and that’s why I ended up being so disappointed: watching the book’s potential slip away as I read made me pretty sad.

I can’t really recommend reading this, but lots of people have read it and loved it, so the decision is yours. I’m debating reading the sequel–The Magician King–to see if it’s any better; if you’ve read it, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

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  • jenn aka the picky girl

    I know this is so so awful of me, but I really love it when people don’t like this book. I feel justified in my absolute hatred of it. It’s odd because people either really like it or not. It’s unusual to see. But seriously, did not like this book. The sequel was better…but yeah, I really don’t like these characters. Or their motivations.

    • Like I said, there were only a few things I liked about it–the characters got under my skin so much. I’m going to give the sequel a shot, just to say I did, but I’m worried I’ll dislike that, too. Haha!

  • I actually liked the first one well enough. Maybe because I liked the idea of it so much. I’ve just bought the sequel and I’m looking forward to reading it. I think it’s an interesting idea to sort of make a mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia and I think there were some really great ideas in The Magicians – although i seem to remember the ending as being a bit weak?

    • I definitely liked the ideas behind the story, but I just felt it was pretty poorly executed. It’s also really hard to like a story with so few likeable characters. And yes, the ending was a bit weak. I’m going to read the sequel, though. I hope I like it better than this one.

  • Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    Sorry to hear this one didn’t work out too well. From the blurb it sounds like a good read – a more adult version of Harry Potter – something YA readers would appreciate I’m sure. Disappointing that it didn’t pan out too well.

    • Oddly enough, I found the Harry Potter books to have more adult themes and ideas than this one.

  • blogginglily

    Okay. . . so, first of all, I REALLY enjoyed the books. I read them both. And in my opinion, if you didn’t like the first one you won’t like the second.

    I think I read it more as a . . . what. . . Narnia roast? I wasn’t particularly impressed with the first three narnia books and didn’t bother reading the rest, but I enjoyed the idea of a young “real” genius with his quirky fanboy love of a campy fantasy series getting thrown into it, and I relished the humor when he’d get himself into situations where a talking bear might crop up and how he just couldn’t get past (how could he) the concept of a big talking bear. It made me giggle a little throughout.

    And I loved the incredulous way the characters would reference Harry Potter and toss out other pop references. . . it was like an inside joke inside an inside joke. I don’t know. . . I really enjoyed it.

    That said, it was hard to get behind Quentin. He was almost an anti-hero. . .I rooted for him despite not particularly liking him. He just kept not doing the right things. He wasn’t even a proper anti hero, because he occasionally DID do the right things. . . just not often enough. And ironically, my inability to get completely behind the main character made the book seem more realistic to me. . . grittier. *shrugs*

    Loved the writing and the wry wit. More of the same in the second book.

    • Hmmm…I’ll have to think about your interpretation a bit. Grossman sure didn’t make it sound like he was going for any kind of burn. He sounded real serious about what he wanted this book to be.

      I agree with the “good writing and wry wit” part, which is why I ended up so disappointed. It’s obvious the guy knows how to write. I just really, really thought he blew it with the story, and I just didn’t like the characters (with the few exceptions I mentioned). I don’t know. This one just didn’t float my boat.

      I’m reading the second one, either because a) I’m a glutton for punishment, b) I have faith that Grossman did a better job with it, or c) just to say I did. I won’t be getting to it for a while, though.

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  • I’ve been wanting to read this for ages! It does sound really good when you read the summary, but I’ve had a feeling that I might not enjoy it because it just sounds a bit too good to be true. I’m glad I’ve read your review – I think I’ll avoid it now, or at least but it to the bottom of the list!

    Reading the comments, it looks as though some people do like it, but referencing Harry Potter in the book? I suppose that could be funny, or I might just find it really irritating. Hmmm…

  • I enjoyed some of the more lovecraftian aspects but felt they could be handled better. You were right about the characters, they’re boring selfish boors and quite annoying as well. I felt the author was writing about himself at more than a few times in the book. The part about watching home made tapes of magicians reveling their tricks seemed autobiographical more than character exploration. For one youtube has been around for the past six years and nobody is watching video tapes, especially genius teenagers. I’m nitpicking sure but moments like that take me out of the story. The villain’s first appearance came of as lovecraftian and interesting, but he magically lost all of his mystique and powers when he needed to be killed. I could go on but I would be interested in what specific things turned you off.

  • I didn’t enjoy this book either. In fact i couldn’t even make it to the end. So many things annoyed me about it and so I abandoned it.

    • I have to reeeeally hate a book to abandon it before I’ve finished it. I *almost* put this one down, but since I was reading it with a group, I kept going.