The Magicians by Lev Grossman
At the beginning of The Magicians, teenager Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant high-achiever, was en route to an alumni interview for Princeton. But, even as he approached this milestone of accomplishment, he felt dissatisfied. He expected more out of life, and always had. As a child, he’d read a series of children’s books about a magical, fictional land called Fillory, and the books had haunted him into adulthood. The real world seemed pale by comparison.
In Fillory things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world. In Fillory you felt the appropriate emotions when things happened. Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility. It came when you called. Or no, it ever left you in the first place….
If this were a Fillory novel—Quentin thought, just for the record—the house would contain a secret gateway to another world. The old man who live there would be kindly and eccentric and drop cryptic remarks, and then when his back was turned Quentin would stumble upon a mysterious cabinet or an enchanted dumbwaiter or whatever, through which he would gaze with wild surmise on the clean breast of another world.
But this wasn’t a Fillory novel.
Quentin didn’t stumble across a mysterious cabinet, but he did stumble into a different kind of school, Brakebills, where magic was real. Here, at last, he felt at home. But he still wasn’t happy, so he dug deeper and deeper into magic, and all of its dangers.
The Magicians is about what it means to fall so deeply in love with a fictional world that you don’t know how to be happy in real life. If you’ve ever fallen in love with a fictional world yourself, and especially if it was Narnia, then this book will probably resonate with you. It did with me.
I liked The Magicians, and I recommend it, but with caveats. There were some things that I, and some other reviewers, did not like about it. I’m going to list them here, as a heads-up for potential readers.
1. Sexism. This is something that I noticed, and it bugged me. Female characters were always described in terms of their physical desirability. Most women were “pretty,” some were also “curvy” and “hot,” and at least one had body parts that were “gropable.” One of the only women not described that way, was the mystical fighter, Fen.
Fen was shorter and denser and more muscular, with close-cropped blond hair. With a whistle around her neck she could have been a gym teacher at a private school for girls. Her clothes were loose-fitting and practical, evidently designed for ease of movement in unpredictable situations. She projected both toughness and kindness, and she wore high boots with fascinatingly complex laces. She was, to the best of Quentin’s ability to gauge these things, a lesbian.
Ugh. So all women must be objects of Quentin’s lust, or they’re lesbians. Great. But, it’s a trivial amount of text, all things considered, and many readers will be able to find it in their hearts to look past it. I sincerely hope that the author has been made aware of this issue and will do better in future.
2. Many reviewers complained that the book was like Harry Potter, but with jerks for characters. I agree that the characters weren’t very likable, but they were human. We would all love the world to be populated with wonderful characters like Harry, Hermione, Ron, etc., but let’s face it—most people just aren’t that nice, brave, or selfless. So, let’s call the book “dark” and “gritty.” If neither of those adjectives sounds appealing, then this book is probably not for you.
3. The pace of the plot. Some reviewers complain that nothing happens. That’s not true, but all the big action occurs near the end. Most of the rest of the book is spent on world building. If you’re an action junkie, you might get bored. But if, on the other hand, you like reading about magical worlds, and if you’re interested in a whole new set of magical rules, then The Magicians will probably not let you down.