Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Note: There are a few minor spoilers in this review.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009) follows in the footsteps of J.K. Rowling’s universally adored series. There’s lots of familiar ground here. A wizarding school hidden away from the real world, a boy chosen to attend this school, hard trials of sorcery and supernatural studies. That’s where the similarities end. Comparisons between these books are inevitable, given the Zenn diagram of subject matter, but the Magicians is an anemic clone of Harry Potter.

What made Harry Potter great? One aspect is the emotional investment those books demand from the reader. I couldn’t help but sympathize with Harry Potter. I wanted him to be happy, to have a good life, but he kept running into obstacles. His friends were also sympathetic and I cared deeply about them as people. Ron and Hermoine are imminently likable, despite being flawed in their own ways.

The Magicians goes in a different direction. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, is utterly unlikable. He’s arrogant, cruel, uncaring, and just an all-around douchebag. I actually love stories with morally questionable main characters, but the Magicians missed the mark. There are no redeeming qualities for Quentin. He’s arrogant and intelligent like Ender, but he’s not the most intelligent. For a smart guy, Quentin makes a lot of really dumb mistakes. He’s a borderline sociopath. Full stop. There’s no emotional depth or truth here. Quentin’s a depressed, neurotic loser. With a character like Quentin, we hope to see him change and grow. Grossman hints that Quentin might evolve as a person but it never happens. He never grows. Quentin Coldwater is the same unlikable loser at the end of the book as he was in the beginning.

I’m all for subverting tropes but in this case, it was incredibly unsatisfying. There’s a meta element in the book where they visit a place like Narnia called Fillory, and Quentin loved the Fillory books growing up. How meta. With references to classic Fantasy novels like Narnia and Harry Potter, I can’t help but feel Grossman is trying to portray these optimistic fairytale stories as unrealistic. Unfortunately, the only thing he proves is why those books are so satisfying and why his book is so unsatisfying. When the character never grows, the entire narrative falls flat.

Regarding Fillory, the fantasy world itself seems out of place in this otherwise fairly realistic novel. Everything from talking bears to killer animals seems rather lackluster and fails to capture any of the majesty that an otherworldly setting ought to.

The magic system is rather boring and not all that exciting to read about. I’m comparing it to books like Harry Potter, the Stormlight Archives, Mistborn, and the Wheel of Time. There’s nothing special here in regards to magic.

The school itself is the best part of the novel. I enjoyed reading about the courses and Quentin’s friends. There are hints and promises that at some point Quentin will discover what type of magic he should specialize in, but like so many other aspects of the Magicians, this promise goes unfulfilled.

My harsh review may give you the impression I hated this book but that’s not the case. I enjoyed it, I even read it in a couple of days. The ending simply left me feeling incredibly unsatisfied like Grossman spent 402 pages cultivating an itch and then refused to scratch. I was given the Magicians series including The Magician King and the Magician’s Land for a Christmas present. I have no plans to read the next two books.

The New York Times said the Magicians “could crudely be labeled a Harry Potter for adults.” They expanded by saying the book injected “mature themes” into fantasy literature. I have a few problems with this review. Harry Potter was loved by many adults. Furthermore, saying this book injected “mature themes” into fantasy literature is an incredibly dumb statement. I can’t see how Quentin Coldwater’s immature, college-douche demeanor qualifies as mature in any sense of the word. I also object to the idea that fantasy literature is somehow lacking in mature themes. If you’re looking for a mature fantasy novel, the Magicians isn’t it. If you’re looking for an edgy novel about an emotionally stunted loser and his bohemian twenty-something wizard friends this is the book for you.