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Book Review: ‘The Magicians’ Casts a Depressingly Compelling Spell


Guess who started reading a new book series on a whim yet again just because she heard it was being made into a TV show? Yep, that’d be me. I just finished the first in the series, The Magicians, and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Lev Grossman’s fantasy novel trilogy — consisting of The Magicians, The Magician King, and the final book, The Magician’s Land — follows the adventures of Quentin Coldwater and his friends as they graduate from a college of magic and discover that a mystical land they read about as children is actually a real, and terrifying, place. The series has been described as a “crudely labeled Harry Potter for adults,” and there are elements of Harry Potter in this (magical boarding school, anyone?) as well as bits and pieces from Chronicles of Narnia, but The Magicians is definitely its own beast.

As the lead protagonist, Quentin begins his journey as a self-centered, passive-aggressive asshole… and he pretty much stays that way through the majority of the novel, too. And yet, I still found him compelling if not particularly likable, even with all the whininess, privilege, and entitlement. He’s very clearly depressed from the start, wanting desperately to find meaning in his life, and confused when nothing – not finding out he can do magic, not falling in love and having that love returned, not even realizing his lifelong dream of going to Fillory – manages to make him truly, permanently, happy.

“I got my heart’s desire and there my troubles began.”

So I could definitely sympathize, and in many ways empathize with his troubles. Alas, as mentioned, Quentin is not a likable lead, which makes being trapped in his head for the duration of the book a struggle not to eye roll every time he casts blame at others for his own faults while painting himself a saint. Which happens to be a lot of the time. Still, he is a realistically written character, and, as far as I can tell, is supposed to be a total asshat. I’ve met people like Quentin before, befriended them, sometimes even been him. No one likes to admit to their mistakes.

The-Magicians_612x921Beyond Quentin, there’s a large cast of secondary characters, all of them with varying degrees of asshatishness and lovability. Eliot Waugh is the first Brakebills student Quentin meets, but being a few years older than Quentin, he doesn’t play a large role into later into the novel. When he reappears, he brings with him a whole lot of alcohol (Eliot may have a slight drinking problem) along with a clique consisting of an overweight magician with tons of power but no finesse named Josh, and a practical, competitive, femme fatale-esque magician named Janet. They’re called the Physical Kids due to their magical concentrations/majors, a major Quentin eventually joins along with Infallible Alice, the brightest student at Brakebills, and who eventually begins dating Quentin. There are a bunch of other characters thrown in throughout the book, but the focus mostly stays on these five.

Plot-wise, The Magicians feels unconventional. The story unravels slowly and strangely; there are chapters that linger on descriptions and places that it probably could’ve sped past, while the action-filled parts — what some would consider the most exciting bits — are mostly shoehorned into one surprisingly short section at the end. It made it hard to focus at times, but oddly enough once I reached the end, I found there wasn’t much that I would’ve wanted cut out. I’d rather Grossman just added more of his descriptions to the actual battle scenes.

I ended up loving The Magicians by the time I got to its final page, though, and I’m not gonna lie, a lot of that had to do with how strongly I connected with the book’s themes, with its representation of an all-consuming depression, and with Lev Grossman’s prose. It was a weird ride, but a fulfilling one, and knowing that the sequels are readily available and likely just as dark takes some of the sting off the perhaps too hopeful conclusion.

As previously mentioned, Syfy is developing a TV series based on The Magicians, directed by Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins), and written by John McNamara and Sera Gamble. Currently making up the cast are Hale Appleman (whose performance in Private Romeo as Mercutio/Josh was absolutely fantastic) as Eliot, Arjun Gupta (best known from the early seasons of Nurse Jackie, though he had a recent recurring role in How To Get Away With Murder) as Penny, Stella Maeve (who starred alongside Kirsten Stewart and Dakota Fanning in The Runaways) as Julia, and Summer Bishil (Towelhead, The Last Airbender) as Margo/Janet. The lead roles of Quentin and Alice will be portrayed by Jason Ralph and Sosie Bacon, respectively. Production on the series began last month.

Get your own copy of The Magicians here. If you’ve already read it, what did you think of the book? Let me know in the comments!

  • SaraLinn

    I read the first two books, didn’t realize the third was out. I definitely agree with your review–the novels are frustrating at times (and good lord Quentin is a difficult protagonist), but by the end I was completely swept up in the story. The descriptions of the world are exciting and vivid, especially Fillory. I think the scene where the villain invades the campus about halfway through the book is one of the creepiest scenes I’ve read in a long time. The Harry Potter novels always said that Hogwarts was dangerous, but for the most part if felt unshakably safe. Brakebills, OTOH, reads like a place that could actually get you killed.

    Looking at the cast, the main guy seems like he’s in his late 20s or early 30s…definitely not 18-22 college age. But maybe they’ll make him look younger in the show.

    • Yeahhh, Quentin is pretty awful, but I’ll randomly find myself incredibly fond at times. Like him zoning out of the big dramatic speech near the end so he can muse about mall Santas. Who even does that? I hear his character actually develops/grows throughout books 2 and 3, so fingers crossed – since you’ve read the second one, is it true? I really liked most if not all of the side characters though, especially Alice <3 and Eliot.

      Brakebills and Fillory were really interesting to me too! The magic in The Magicians has an edge to it that I think Harry Potter's kinda lacked – it seems way more difficult to master, you have to really struggle and work at it, and even then it's more likely the spell with get away from you than succeed. I wish we'd gotten to see more of Fillory, but I'm sure I'll get that in the rest of the trilogy.

      Haha yeah most of these actors don't look college-aged at ALL. I thought I read somewhere that the show wasn't going to be set in Brakebills much except in flashbacks, so their late-20s lookin' casting made sense at that time, but I recently found out that might not be the case? Idk, idk. Hopefully details about the show come out soon. I'm not familiar with most of the cast though save for Hale Appleman (who I love love love), Arjun Gupta, and sorta Sosie Bacon (but mostly because of her dad lol), are you?

      • SaraLinn

        From my memory of the first book, I think it’s only a year or two after college that they go to Fillory, right? I didn’t picture it as being much more than a year. They still gave off this vibe of being indolent, immature kids, like the 22-year-old rich kid who invented one amazing app and sold it for 3 billion.

        The second book is half in Fillory and half back on Earth, dealing with other characters–mostly Julia, Quinn’s ex-girlfriend. There’s plenty of story there, but it seems to me that the best use of the book for television would be to have the show set at the university. Why would you skip that? Those were some of the most memorable parts. Going straight to Fillory would be undercutting all the personal crap that explain their behavior once they get there.

        Quentin seemed much the same to me in book 2, although by the end of it he does sort of *realize* that he’s an asshole who will never be happy no matter how amazing his life is. He gets to a level of self-awareness that was long due, but I’d have to read book 3 to see if any useful progress comes of that realization.

      • SaraLinn

        One thing that I absolutely LOVED was the idea of the demon tattoo. That was brilliant to me–to give every single graduate a final, end-of-the-line, last call, bad ass demon summoning weapon. That was so cool, and its well used in the book.