Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Genre: Adult Fantasy, Twisted Narnia, American Hogwarts University, Whiny White Boy Hero Fic
Personal Score: 3/10
I truly thought I was going to like this book. A magical world-hopping fantasy with an adult spin? Sure, sign me up! It’s garnered an impressive level of praise, and even critics of the book (and series as a whole) suggest that its overall quality outweighs the more disappointing aspects. When I found out it was getting a TV series, I knew it was finally time to check the bank account and pay up. And then… I was gloriously and fantastically underwhelmed. By the end, I was reading out of a sense of necessity to finish a story and that twisted desire to see just how bad something can get.
The two most common descriptions of the plot I encountered were, unsurprisingly, “Hogwarts for adults” and “Hogwarts if it were populated by assholes.” While I don’t put much stock in such comparisons – their ubiquity as a promotional tool makes them worthless – the idea of a darker adult take on the magic school trope was fascinating. However, soon after the introduction of main protagonist Quentin Coldwater, it became clear that he was less asshole anti-hero and more of an often blatantly sexist, generally whiny nuisance with no sense of responsibility. As a recent college graduate myself, I understand his post-grad ennui and the existential crisis routine, the wondering what you’re supposed to do next and if you’re making the right decisions. That’s literally my life. But it gives no excuse for the supremely selfish egoism that defines the character.
The plot feels loose, jumping between places and ideas in a rush to cover as much ground as possible. As a result, development is reduced to throwaway lines in the narration that the reader is expected to accept without further proof. The prose and tone are lofty and poetic in the way that people expect literary fiction to be, but ultimately empty. The narration of the text isn’t supported by its action, and the internal consistency and logic does not always line up. Potentially significant questions are half-raised but ignored by the characters. They might be addressed in the sequels, but there is nothing to indicate this is the case.
I also struggled to see past what seemed to me anti-religious soapboxing. While Fillory is a bizarre counterpoint to Narnia, and therefore religious discussion could be thematically sound, The Magicians isn’t about Fillory in the same way that the Chronicles books were about Narnia, and the similarities between the worlds are primarily superficial. The railing against religion and God detract from the story that Grossman does tell, and for me reached its ludicrous apex when Janet starts yelling at Ember, the goat-god of Fillory, about the cruelty of suffering and how he never should have created them. Despite, you know, the suggestion that the goat himself didn’t create anything, and if he did, it only ever had to do with Fillory, and nothing with Earth or the main characters. Narnia is a clear religious allegory throughout. Fillory, and The Magicians, could have been its opposite, a satire of its structure and the belief systems behind it, but the religious discussions are tangential to the main plot, never moving beyond spontaneous outbursts and inconsequential philosophical “debates” between characters. They feel shoehorned in for the sake of the author being able to go, “Ha! Religion. You must be dumb to be religious.”
The story has its merits. Brakebills is a notably different conception of a magic school than the idea most prevalent in pop culture, and the magic itself a brutally difficult skill to develop. The visual descriptions of the magic performed are detailed and could make for an impressive display in the TV adaptation. Nonetheless, these perks simply were not enough to offer any lasting appreciation for the novel.