by Lev Grossman
Life sucks. At least, that's how Quentin Coldwater feels about it. He's in love with his best friend's girl, and his academic brilliance can't save him from the boredom of daily life. Secretly, he is obsessed with Fillory - a magical world from a childrens' book series – but only an idiot would still be interested in magic at his age, right?
Wrong. Instead of heading off to an Ivy League school as he'd originally planned, Quentin is admitted to Brakebills, a secret and exclusive magic college in upstate New York. Here he begins to unlock the secrets of the magic world, learning to cast spells, mix potions, and the like while enjoying the pleasures of college life: sex, alcohol, and friendship. Especially alcohol. But even in Brakebills, Quentin longs for Fillory, and happiness continues to elude him. Even after graduation, when Quentin moves to New York City and pursues a hedonistic life with several of his old classmates, he feels empty and lost. When a forgotten classmate appears with the shocking news that Fillory is real and proposes a quest, Quentin and his friends set off on the magic adventure he's been waiting for all his life.
I think that everyone who has read this book has made the comparison, so I might as well, too: The Magicians is what you would get if you took Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, aged the kids up a few years and throw in sex, swearing and booze. Throw these freshly-minted wizards into the real world, remove their need to work for a living, and see what you get.
This is the book's creative strength – who didn't wonder what Harry Potter and his friends would do after they graduated from Hogwarts? - but also its greatest weakness. Since the young adults don't have to work, they do NOTHING. A decent portion of this book is about young people drinking, partying and loathing themselves for it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Quentin Coldwater, our main character whose discontent drips from every page. Nothing seems to make the guy happy for very long, because he's always looking for satisfaction from external sources, and when the novelty wears off he's back to feeling unhappy once again. From a psychological perspective, it's pretty realistic. (How many people win the lottery only to find that they're no happier than before?) But you know how when you're unhappy, time just slows down to a crawl? Well, when the main character of a story is unhappy the narrative, too, drags out and for long stretches of story, nothing significant happens.
There are a couple really good scenes here. The entrance exam for Brakebills, which Quentin takes at the beginning of the book, is pretty interesting and does a great job setting the tone for the first half of the story. There's a heart-wrenching scene in which one of Quentin's friends from Brooklyn tested and failed to get into Brakebills, and the memory of the magic world has eaten away at her ever since. A couple of scenes are genuinely scary, such as when Quentin accidentally opens a portal to another world during a class or the students undergo a horrible graduation ritual.
Much of the book is either a parody or an homage to other popular books in the fantasy genre; I'm not sure which the author intended. It is largely a pastiche: the 'welters' game that Brakebills students play is a halfhearted adaptation of Quidditch, while Fillory is very similar to Narnia sans Christianity. But The Magicians definitely has its own, distinctive voice and tackles fantasy norms and flips them around. It's well worth reading if you ever read childrens' fantasy growing up, and especially if you're still a fan of the genre today.
3.5 out of 5 stars