The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Like so many, a big part of my becoming a devoted reader at a young age was the magical books of fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  I jumped from these “classics” to many others (magical worlds like the humorous  Xanth and the adventurous Pern).  And I still read fantasy; even young adult fantasy like Harry Potter and the explosion of works that followed in the wake of that phenomenon.

So when The Magicians by Lev Grossman was released it seemed a must read.  Here is the publishers blurb:

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he’s still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he 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 craft of modern sorcery.

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin’s fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

I read the book in August but haven’t had a chance to put my thoughts down.  What follows is an attempt to rectify that.

What Lev Grossman attempts to do in The Magicians is both bring this shared love of childhood fantasy adventures into a more adult-like world but also ask the question: “What if something like Narnia really existed?”  These two concepts make up the bulk of the book but they do not always work together.

The first section is – as many critics have noted – basically Harry Potter goes to college.  But despite its derivative nature – or perhaps because Grossman embraces it – this storyline is imaginative and entertaining for the most part.  This is where the basic hook works.  It is interesting to see a “magic is real” type storyline in a different setting and with a different tone and style.

And when things begin to slow down Grossman introduces a creative and well done challenge; a sort of senior project for magicians that involves a trip to the South Pole as geese and using magic to return home.  I also like the meeting in the cellar where each graduate was given a sort of built in emergency defense system as matriculation gift

This first part, however, really does feel like just an introduction.  It very much has the feel of the first book in a series.  Characters are introduced and the settings explored but a lot seems left to discover in further adventures.

The second half of the book is more involved but I am not sure it quite comes together either.  Quentin and his fellow magical graduates come to find out that Filory – the magical world explored in a popular series  from their childhood called Fillory and Further – is not a fictional world but a real place.  And as it turns out, a very dangerous place.

The group faces the challenge together and the result is mostly tragic.  There follows two interludes of sorts.  One where Quentin recovers injuries sustained in the events in Fillory and then his attempt to put his magical life behind him.

All these different pieces and parts – some interesting and entertaining others less so – give the book a sort of stop-start feeling.  It takes a while to get going; gains speed; rushes to a conclusion and then sort of peters out.

As this rundown has probably made clear, I have mixed feelings about The Magicians.  I enjoyed reading it.  It is a creative take, and interesting twist, on a popular genre and, IMO, an aspect of how so many come to be voracious readers as young people through adulthood.

But on the other hand, there is a sense that an opportunity was missed; that possibilities were left on the table; an experiment that didn’t quite work.  In his review in the NYT, Michael Agger notes that maybe this is the nature of the beast:

The Narnia books and the Harry Potter series captivate the young by putting young people in a world where adults are a distant, unsteady presence. “The Magicians” is a jarring attempt to go where those novels do not: into drugs, disappointment, anomie, the place and time when magic leaks out of your life. Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?

There is some merit to this I think.  Perhaps the result is interesting and entertaining but doesn’t quite come together in a neat package like we want it to.

The Complete Review, however, made a different argument which I found compelling.  The book should have been more definitively the start of a multi-book series:

The fact that The Magicians fits so openly in this line of fantasy tales turns out to be one of its more appealing elements. Grossman acknowledges his debts openly, and has some fun with them, and so that works out quite well. What works less well are his other ambitions: surprisingly, he doesn’t take a page from Rowling and Lewis and opt for the multi-volume epic (though a sequel is apparently in the works …), and instead stuffs all his material into far too little space. The resulting odd pacing, and the consequences of it, undermine the whole terribly: spread patiently over four or five volumes, this could have been a lot of fun. Crammed into one — think all of Harry Potter and Narnia packed together into four hundred pages — it has its moments but adds up to a surprisingly thin tale.

The more I thought about this the more I came to be persuaded.  The introduction and the hook of the story really are the strongest part.  Building on this to create a better paced, more coherent, first book in a series would have made for a stronger work.  There was even a natural cliffhanger with Quentin’s convalescence and meeting Jane Chatwin.  That was the perfect spot for a “To be continued …”

But alas, it was not to be.  It will be interesting, however, to see how the Grossman takes the story forward in the sequel.

Criticisms aside, I would think anyone who read fantasy when they were younger – or who reads it today – would get a kick of out The Magicians.  Even if it is in some ways a failed experiment it is still an interesting one.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. The tape version of MAGICIANS was recently pressed on me by a bookstore owner, aware that I had a six hour drive ahead of me.

    I basically concur. I wasn't aware of your weakness for the genre, but in light of that, in light of the fact that I may be returning to it soon with a dragon story (speaking of PERNE, which I've never read), and in light of your kind words this past summer, I'm going to go ahead and put a bee in your bonnet:

    keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks for the tip! I was able to pick up a copy of Chess Garden at the library and started reading it last night. I can’t believe they got the horse into the attic. Looking forward to rest of the adventure.

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