Book Review–The Magicians

7 Sep

The Magicians

Lev Grossman

The Magicians is a deeply overrated book.

There’s no way to get around this. The world-building is derivative in many ways – drawing its principle inspiration from Harry Potter and Narnia – but that alone is not enough to dissuade me from finishing a book and moving on to the sequels. Indeed, the world-building has just enough original flair to keep my attention.

The problem lies with the main character, the ‘hero.’ I started to dislike him the moment I first met him and my feelings didn’t improve as the book went along. Quentin Coldwater isn’t much more likeable than Left Behind’s Rayford Steele (although he’s much less creepy) and while he does have a few moments of self-reflection (Steele has none), he never actually grows into adulthood. Indeed, in many ways, Quentin is the boy who never grew up. And while the book is aware of his weaknesses – Alice points them out to him at one point – he is never seen to overcome them.

Quentin – a brilliant student from a wealthy family – is obsessed with finding the adventure that will give his life meaning. Or he thinks will give his life meaning. He finds his way to Hogwarts – sorry, Brakebills Academy – where he studies magic, but he is still not satisfied; he finds his way to Narnia – sorry, Fillory – where his lust for adventure leads to tragedy and a return to the mundane world … that lasts around five or six pages. And yet, Quentin is simply unsatisfied by his life.

It is this complete lack of satisfaction that leaves me wanting to shake him. Quentin is basically a spoilt rich kid, the type of person – like Chelsea Clinton – who can comfortably say that he doesn’t care much about money. During the second part of the book, Quentin and his friends basically act like college students even though they’d not in college any longer – they spend their days in hedonism while the rest of us have to count pennies while desperately searching for a job. Quentin has the love of a good woman, yet he cheats on her purely for shits and giggles. And then he has the gall to be hurt when she refuses to take it in good part.

Quentin is simply never satisfied with his life.

I’ve said that several times because it is a recurring theme in the book. He lusts for adventure, for something that will give his life meaning, then largely ignores it when it is right in front of him. And then, when he does find a gateway to another world, he and his friends plunge in without thinking.

It would be fun, perhaps, to write a novel exploring what happened if the four Pensive children – the original children – stumbled into Narnia as adults. Children and young teens accept the magic of the world, adults would start asking questions. (And realistically, can you blame Susan for turning away from Narnia?) But this book doesn’t really answer any of those questions. Instead, they just blunder around like idiots.

The Magicians is also badly-paced. The first part of the book – life in magic-college – covers several years; the second part – life as a post-student – seems equally as long. The third part, where the adventure really starts, isn’t anything like long enough. I would have preferred, really, to have the entire first book set in college. There are a lot of ideas here, but Grossman doesn’t do any of them true justice. Indeed, quite a few aspects of Harry Potter or Narnia that should have been explored are not.

In the end, The Magicians is an interesting book badly let down by its main character.

Two stars out of five.


11 Responses to “Book Review–The Magicians”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 7, 2016 at 8:05 pm #

    I wonder how many “good reviews” it received because the reviewers didn’t like C. S. Lewis and/or Narnia?

    Of course, some people like the “anti-hero” and Quentin Coldwater can be seen as a variation of the “anti-hero”. 😦

  2. Ken Hagler September 7, 2016 at 10:09 pm #

    This actually got made into a TV series in the US. I watched the first few episodes, but because it was such a blatant ripoff of Harry Potter and Narnia that I assumed it was a typical Hollywood work and didn’t realize that it was based on a book. I gave up on it quickly because stories with completely unlikable protagonists just don’t interest me. Not knowing about the book, I thought that some Hollywood suit had said “let’s make a fantasy series about Pyjama Boy.” I do remember the main female character being more interesting (and a less unlikeable person), but she didn’t get nearly as much screen time as Pyjama Boy.

  3. Karen Myers September 8, 2016 at 12:09 am #

    Couldn’t agree more. I read it when it came out and couldn’t understand where the praise was coming from. Wanted to like it but… impossible.

  4. tern September 8, 2016 at 3:17 am #

    Yep. Seemed to me like a bad pastiche of Narnia and Hogwarts with all of the soul carefully suctioned out. Everyone is so disagreeable that it’s clear the writer is striving for literary merit and the praise of everyone with a master’s in creative writing. Even the picture of the writer looks smugly sour. Hated everything about the entire book. Won’t buy the rest. Well-written, though.

  5. shrekgrinch September 8, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

    I loved it! Because it made fun of adults who never grew out of their childhood wish fulfillment thing from Narnia and especially, Harry Potter. It was a much needed kick in their pants or at least a satirization of delivering that.

    There were some digs at Dungeons & Dragons too. Loved it when the magic missile spells they contrived weren’t simply as good as the Glocks they brought to Fillory. The NRA must have loved this book!

    I thought the entire Antartica thing was cool. SyFy didn’t deliver that as well as in the book. And the first sequel (there are three books total) had a real good alternate take on Julia’s story — which SyFy seems to allocate more fidelity to in their series. SyFy seems to also allocate more character time in the series to others-than-Quinn that you don’t see in until the second book as well. They get plusses for that.

    So Chris, if I may be so bold: I don’t think that Quentin was your problem, per se. What is your problem is that you really, really haven’t experienced the full experiential reference of just how much of a total loser generation American Millennials are and Grossman forced you to, raw and uncut. Boy that had to be harsh, too. They are the ‘wasted generation’ and not because that’s a reference to drugs, let me tell you. Those kids were ‘screwed & tatooed’ by their idiot helicopter parents even before birth. Again, there are exceptions as there are with any generalization. But those exceptions are few, trust me.

    Quentin IS annoying…because he’s a archetypal American Millennial with ‘magic’ and was purposely made so by the author. The Brakebills ennui was over the top, I agree. But get this: The SyFy TV series Millennial actor who plays Quentin is at least 10 x as annoying as the books’ version. I’ve seen him ‘act’ in other roles and he basically doesn’t really act as much as project various versions of his own Millennial self. He was perfect for the Quentin role.

    The other two typical Millennials in the book and TV series is Elliot and Janet (book)/Margo (series). The actor who does Elliot is just spot on, too.

    Drives me nuts. BUT..they wouldn’t be ‘realistic’ had the author not made them otherwise, I believe. And criticizing that generation was his point. Well, one of them anyway.

    You think Quentin the Millennial is bad, Chris? Try working with these losers at your job or just deal with them at Starbucks. I’m serious. That’s life in America right now. As a general rule, they are all a bunch of Quentin Coldwaters. Why do you think Hollywood imports young actors from Australia-Kiwi, Canada and Britain? Never noticed that? Most of the young actors for The 100, Fear the Walking Dead and many other recent fantasy/sci fi shows and movies (the actress who played Ray and the actor who plays Finn in the last Star Wars film are both British) are non-Americans these days. There’s a serious reason for that. It’s the same one why my employer doesn’t like hiring Millennials after getting burned when they did try doing that with way-to-much-helicopter-parent enthusiasm earlier.

    This is probably why I liked the books. Because I can’t stand Millennials (disclosure: I am a GenXer so my withering criticisms of them is probably doubled because of that fact) and the books reinforce all the reasons why.

    • chrishanger September 10, 2016 at 4:08 pm #

      Good point. But it would have been much more satisfying to watch Q. struggle after leaving college. He’s basically a bratty rich kid .


  6. Mark Mealman September 8, 2016 at 10:31 pm #

    There’s been a lot of mediums where people have raved about a particular work and when I’ve looked at it I was pretty shocked at just how horrible the main characters are as actual human beings. It’s like a lot of viewers just don’t have this filter of “Yeah, but would you want to live with this asshole?” when it comes to their main heroes. I mean, in some instances the characters are supposed to be bad people. But in most cases these are characters I’m supposed to somehow empathise with and all I can do is shake my head and be all “Boo hoo, life has consequences for your stupid choices. Grow up”.

    Of course they really don’t need to grow up because it all usually works out okay for them in the end. Life is good when the all powerful writer is there to clean up your mess.

    • shrekgrinch September 8, 2016 at 10:35 pm #

      Yes, exactly.

      The characters are quintessential American Millennials.

  7. cmcamp7 September 10, 2016 at 1:07 am #

    I thought I was the only one who disliked Quentin. He is a not a very relatable character in the choices that he makes.. just such a downer!

    • peterrhodan September 11, 2016 at 11:54 pm #

      I disliked the books (never finished them) and the TV series was just well, lame, is the word I think.
      But then I have that reaction to a lot of ‘big name’ books – American Gods (why the hype) Ancillary Justice (never finished it) and so forth
      Jonathon strange and Mr Norville I disliked immensely – the whole thing was contrived – the historical background was poorly researched and the mores and manners badly portrayed besides not liking the story line all that much anyway

  8. solego September 19, 2016 at 11:11 pm #

    I will be honest that the only reason I stuck these books out was for the “High King Eliot schools the Lorians in a hilarious one-sided battle,” type scenes. I caught that particular segment as a short story in a completely separate book and it’s what drew me in the first place. Vile Father was awesome. Eliot fighting Vile Father was even more awesome. I felt that was easily the highest point of the book. I was badly disappointed in how few scenes like that one that there were. Any time Quentin walked into the scene, he seemed to suck the life out of the story itself. Which is sad. You should be able to like the main character of a book on some level. You’re spending the whole book, or even series, with him afterall.

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