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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!