Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman


Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.

Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.

Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
Publisher: Plume
Publication: May 2010
Genre: Contemporary, Fantasy, NA
Personally purchased title
Locate: amazon | b&n | worldcat
Rated: ★★★★½

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians was a great book that definitely deserves the praise it’s been given. While fans of Harry Potter might be drawn to it thanks to the similar background base of having an “ordinary” boy who felt out of place in the world go off to a secret magical boarding school, this book is not Harry Potter. It is very different and very adult. It captures the painful growing pains we all must go through in those young adult stages. It shows the struggle of trying to find a balance between being young and wanting to look cool and older, then having those golden moments where everything is in perfect balance and you hope it will never end, to the very bitter end where you realise you are old and have to face the world without the relative safety youth provides. It is a fantastic read and one I wholeheartedly recommend to all twentysomethings who feel stuck and lost and apathetic about the world and their place in it.

Quentin, our protagonist, is a product of the times. He is what society expects of seventeen year olds: smart beyond belief, studious, an overachiever from a “good” family, quiet. He is also what society actually is: introspective, full of self-doubt, sullen, depressed, apathetic, and angry for no known reason. Quentin is a character that some people might consider far too melancholy and flawed to be relatable or likable, but I found that wasn’t the case. His flaws make him a true, well-rounded character that you could easily identify with, or at the very least recognise a friend in. At the start of the novel, Quentin is the third wheel in a trio of friends, one of whom he is in love with and the other is her boyfriend. He is depressed about the world and about the seeming pointlessness of everything, including his own existence. He feels he does not belong and instead of relating with his peers and friends, he finds he can only find comfort in a book series he read as a child called “Fillory and Further.” Certainly, this series is a strong nod and nudge towards the Chronicles of Narnia and Grossman does a great job in acknowledging how something as powerful as a book series from youth can still linger and affect readers long after they’ve grown up.  It is something readers can identify with, whether it is the Chronicles of Narnia series, or Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter.

It’s the world of Fillory Quentin is thinking about when he stumbles upon the dead body of a prospective college recruiter. He and his friend call emergency services and meet a suspiciously perky paramedic that offers them both a manilla envelope with their names written on them. Only Quentin accepts. This is the start of his magical journey, as the envelope contained a never released novel from the Fillory series. Excited, he turns the pages over when a piece of paper flies out. He runs after it, too excited to think his childhood novels may not have ended just yet. Following it blindly, it leads him to a secret world where it is no longer winter, but summer. Confused, but excited, he goes along with what he is experiencing, eventually taking an entrance exam for a school he had no idea existed. He is accepted and moves there immediately to being magic studies/training.

The novel now follows Quentin through the various years of studies at the school and through friendships gained and lost, and relationships formed and broken. It highlights the important experiences and focuses not on the magical studies (though it is ever present and things are explained), but on the interpersonal bonds being formed through the last formative stages we all go through. We see Quentin’s struggles and triumphs, his foolish mistakes and his painful regrets. We see him give up and we see him rebuild himself and his world again from the ashes. We see him achieve everything he’s wanted only to realise it wasn’t what he really wanted and we see him constantly searching for happiness only to realise it has to come from within, and not from any external stimuli.

The Magicians is a great book for anyone struggling to find themselves and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. I cannot wait to start the second book of the trilogy to see how Quentin’s adventure continues.

Quotes & Excerpts

The real problem with being around James was that he was always the hero. And what did that make you? Either the sidekick or the villain.
Book I: Brooklyn

He was obviously one of those people who felt at home in the world — he was naturally buoyant, where Quentin felt like he had to dog-paddle constantly, exhaustingly, humiliatingly, just to get one sip of air.
Book I: Brakebills

“The study of magic is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Magic is a craft. When we do magic, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change to the world. […] In any case, we do not and cannot understand what magic is, or where it comes from, any more than a carpenter understands why a tree grows. He doesn’t have to. He works with what he has.”
Book I: Magic

He supposed he must have been shedding his old identity and his old life all along, without noticing it.
Book I: Alice

“The problem with growing up,” Quentin said, “is that once you’re grown up, people who aren’t grown up aren’t fun anymore.”
Book I: Fifth Year

“Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic,” Fogg said expansively. “It doesn’t really make sense. It’s a little too perfect, don’t you think? If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart — reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.”
Book I: Graduation

“But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”
Book I: Graduation

“… But I’ll tell you something: I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.
“Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.”
Book I: Graduation

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About Lulu

Thirty-something year old educator based in New York, Lulu loves books, blogging, gaming, and her pom son Frodo Barkins with whom she shares her life. Book reviews specialize in all kinds of fantasy, some YA, some romance, and some contemporary, especially in the gothic genre.