THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman

First of all, let’s get a few things straight. (1) This is a literary fantasy novel. (2) This novel was much more influenced by The Chronicles of Narnia than by Harry Potter. (3) I read this trilogy because I adore the television show currently airing, so my review is going to be linked to that bias to a certain extent.

Literary Fantasy Versus Genre Fiction

The bildungsroman is a literary genre that focuses on the coming-of-age narrative, especially as it relates to moral and psychological growth. The first book in “The Magicians” trilogy does a very good job of exemplifying this narrative style as we follow Quentin Coldwater from late high school to early adulthood. Another review I read of this novel indicates that Quentin’s relationship with magic after college graduation is allegorical to the sense of loss and uncertainty that many young people feel after losing the structure of academia and being thrust into the real world, especially those with fuzzy liberal arts degrees and no idea what to do with them. (I was one of them, so I’m allowed to be snide!)

Though there are fantastical elements to the world in this book, I could easily see myself reading about Quentin’s journey through Columbia University and not knowing what to do with his Philosophy degree after graduation. This is, of course, the academic track he would have taken in order to find some reason for his constant feeling that the world is useless and that he is useless, etc., etc. (I don’t think he would have pursued Psychology, because otherwise he might have learned that he’s allowed to take responsibility for his mental health and pursue other therapy options beyond alcohol, sex, and ennui.) I firmly believe that this is a literary novel that uses fantasy elements as storytelling tropes rather than a genre novel that uses literary elements for depth. Because…

Tropes Do Not a Fantasy Book Make

I’ve seen a lot of marketing for this book as “The adult Harry Potter!” and “Harry Potter goes to college!” This is silly. I don’t blame the publisher’s marketing department for latching on to the current popular fantasy series (with a male protagonist) and framing their media blitz that way. However, the magical school narrative is only the first portion of the first novel in the trilogy, and even that is much less important than the elements of Quentin’s relationships with his teachers, fellow students, and own sense of hopelessness.

Older readers who grew up wishing to escape into a random wardrobe rather than getting their Hogwarts admission letter will identify much more with this series. The land of Fillory (an R-rated Narnia) is much more compelling than Brakebills College, which pales in comparison to Hogwarts. Unfortunately, I found both Fillory and Brakebills to be practically whole-sale ripoffs of their inspirations, only with added attempts to be “edgy” (see previously mentioned alcohol, sex, and ennui). I ultimately had a lot of issues with the use of magic and world-traveling in this novel. They did well as allegories, but reading the book as a proper fantasy novel gave me plenty of moments to sigh over cliches. When I read the entire trilogy on vacation, I was about halfway through the first season of the show on SyFy. But I did not lose all interest in the world and characters because…

The Television Show Fixes Most of the Book’s Problems (If You Really Want a Fantasy Series)

Novels and television are very different modes of storytelling, but the writers of this television adaptation are doing a lot of things right!

(Side note: One of the biggest issues I had with this novel was the lack of diversity in the characters. The television casting and subsequent character alterations solve many of these problems. The show also passes the Bechdel Test, whereas the novel’s limited point of view narrative makes this impossible.)

Quentin’s mental health issues are portrayed as exactly that: a character with a history of depression who has gotten treatment in the past and now has the opportunity to use it as a source of strength. The “magic as a drug” allegory is also strengthened to good effect for another major character, whose story is actually featured in this novel’s sequel.

Final thoughts: If I had not already been invested in the characters and story line through the television show, I’m not sure I would have finished the book. While I enjoyed it, the lack of diversity and Quentin’s “poor little rich white boy” attitude would have turned me off much sooner if I had not already been invested in different versions of the characters and wanted to see how exactly the show would differ from the source material.

People who should read this book: Those of you who already have an interest in fantasy with a more literary bent and/or who want to see a really whacked-out version of Narnia.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

Currently reading: Star Trek Enterprise: Last Full Measure by Michael A. Martin & Andy Mangels (25%)

3 thoughts on “Review: THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman

  1. I had several of the same thoughts, especially that the show seems to be a superior product thus far. I started to read it after seeing half of the first season, and it was difficult to separate my expectations because of that. I’m still debating reading the other books.

    1. Book 2 (Magician King) is worth reading, I think. For Quentin, there is a very Narnia-esque quest (think Voyage of the Dawn Treader) that even bounces back into our world. For Julia, you actually get the written version of everything that goes on with her story in the show, including life as a hedge-witch and the full story of the people she meets online and the goddess (which is actually a better coming-of-age story than Quentin’s and gets short shrift in the show for time constraints). So I would recommend book 2 if you’ve managed book 1, and then book 3 is really only whether you want to keep going. (My reviews will be Wednesday and Friday this week.)

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