Review: The Magicians (The Magicians #1) by Lev Grossman

Review: The Magicians (The Magicians #1) by Lev GrossmanThe Magicians by Lev Grossman
Series: The Magicians #1
Published by Penguin on August 11, 2009
Pages: 416
Goodreads |

The New York Times bestselling novel about a young man practicing magic in the real world. Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college—friendship, love, sex, and booze—and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world—where good and evil aren’t black and white and power comes at a terrible price.

I hate that this book is marketed as “Harry Potter for adults.” Hate. It. This is so misleading. The Magicians is littered with anti-heroes, jerks, and cowards. But that’s what makes it so good. It’s less about magic and more about what happens when extraordinary people don’t fit in with the societal expectations of the real world.

To be honest, I’ve struggled writing this review. I think it’s because I liked it. I didn’t think it was fantastic. I didn’t think it was bad. I just liked it, and those are often the reviews that are the hardest for me to write. So instead of me struggling to write a review that you’ll only slog through, let me do something different. I’ll give you the likes and dislikes of The Magicians.

Likes about The Magicians

  • I like the jerks, the cowards, and the anti-heroes. I’m always a fan of bold writing that makes me re-think the “good guy.” Quentin isn’t a bad guy by any means. But he isn’t good either. He’s a fully realized, fully flawed, human character.
  • Brakebills. I thought the setting was pretty fantastic. I could fully imagine Brakebills. I loved the little details of the setting.
  • The general sense of aimlessness after graduating Brakebills. Grossman did a fantastic job showing us that, in the real world, having magic and leisure and whatever you want isn’t necessarily a good thing. How can you move into the adult world without a sense of what it means to be a productive adult? Why bother doing anything when the magical world has you covered for money?
  • Fillory. I didn’t have good or bad feelings about Fillory, but what I did like was the idea that sometimes our childhood fantasies are radically different from how we imagine. Quentin spends his time romanticizing and fantasizing about Fillory in the way that we do about Narnia, Middle Earth, and Harry’s wizarding world. What would happen if we could actually go to Middle Earth? It’s not all hobbits and second breakfasts. I’m pretty sure that I’d be miserable.
  • Janet. Go girl!

Dislikes about The Magicians

  • Pacing. It felt a little slow sometimes. The major hurdle here is how to describe aimlessness without actually being aimless. Grossman succeeded most of the time. Other times the time just dragged.
  • Fillory. How is this possible? I’m not sure. I just know that what I liked about Fillory isn’t a part of what I dislike about Fillory. I didn’t particularly enjoy the traipsing-through-the-woods-on-the-way-to-the-quest, but I did enjoy the boss fight, so to speak. The idea that Fillory can corrupt a mind gave me a lot to think about. What if Narnia corrupted Peter? I don’t even know if it’s a like or a dislike anymore.
  • Janet. 🙁

What I’m learning here is that I think The Magicians is polarizing. Some of the same elements of the book that I do like show up on my dislike list too. But in the end, maybe Grossman wanted it that way. He creates such a raw emotional environment for his characters that I think he’s trying to show us that all the grit and the drama of life puts a veil over the way we perceive ourselves. If you look at the moment that Quentin is faced with real danger, he chokes and can’t perform. He’s a magician and struggles to use it in the moments that really mean something. Even his adoration of Fillory and his desire to be a hero can’t overcome his inner fear. It’s an interesting, gritty concept to explore in a book.


© 2015 – 2016, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.

  • Cassi

    I really like this series. Mostly because I too like “the jerks, the cowards, the antiheroes.” I did find the pacing in this first book a little slow however. It had the rather mundane magical education followed by the aimlessness that you mentioned. I do like the Fillory stuff though.

    But I think my favorite part of the series is that it’s aalmost like this tongue and cheek Fantasy parody. I like that in this series magic doesn’t make everything better, in fact it makes a whole lot things even worse. Magic is the cause of and solution to all these characters problems. Oh and I gotta say, the way you feel about Janet is how I feel about Alice (and Julia later in the series).

    It is definitely a polarizing story. It sounds like you liked it though and I hope you continue with the series. I really enjoyed it and thought the characters and the plot had some really great development.

    Great review.
    Cassi @ My Thoughts Literally

    • Yes! I can’t decide if he’s poking fun at his favorite fantasy books or trying to turn the whole idea of fantasy on its head. I have The Magician King waiting for me to read. I just need to go ahead and take the plunge.