The Magicians by Lev Grossman reads like 250 pages of backstory in order to get to the real story. We follow Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant kid from Brooklyn who gets accepted to a magical college in upstate New York. Unlike Harry Potter, Quentin is never satisfied or in awe of his new world and abilities. Grossman takes aim at Harry Potter by reimagining it. Magic is hard. Magic is tedious. There are no cutesy objects. In the background of the story is the fantasyland, Fillory, which is loosely based on Narnia. At times, Grossman’s take on these narratives feels forced. How does one make the stories edgy? How about a good dose of sex, drugs, self-loathing and death! While that is definitely one way to go, and maybe even the right way to go, Grossman piles it on thick.
One issue I had with the novel was how action happened off the page. There is one scene where Quentin does something at a critical moment during a game of Welter’s (of course, like Harry Potter, there needs to be a magical game) and the reader doesn’t see the outcome. Quentin performs an action and all we are left with is that it must have been brilliant and unexpected.
As for Quentin, he’s not so much an anti-hero as he is a sulky, passive follower of his own story. Does he take ownership? Or, does he let events happen to him? Quentin is much more reactive than proactive and usually his reactions are fueled by hurt, fear, pride, and again, self-loathing.
What sets The Magicians apart from other fantasy novels is that Grossman’s writing is engaging. It’s not plot-driven, flat prose. Grossman pays attention to details and creates vivid images without stumbling into the fantasy trap of describing armor or castles for two pages (ahem, Robert Jordan).
So, having finished the first book of the series, also titled The Magicians, the question arises: will I read the other two books?
At this moment, I’m unsure. It feels like we’re finally at the heart of the story now, but I’m not sure I care about the characters enough. Not only did I read The Magician King, I loved it.